Originally Published 2012-02-17 00:00:00 Published on Feb 17, 2012
Iran represents a complex policy challenge that needs to be carefully weighed. Any assessment will need to look not only at the benefits but also the costs of not changing course on Iran. But fence-sitting and procrastination might be an unsustainable and expensive choice.
Can India sustain Iran policy?
As the situation in the West Asia careens towards war between Israel, US and Iran, India finds itself in perilous policy waters again. New Delhi’s refusal to take cognizance of the fast changing situation in the region, its return to an increasingly ideological foreign policy template coupled with a tendency for strategic procrastination is leading it into a no-win strategic situation.

Iran’s nuclear advances are reaching a stage where something has to give. A prominent essay published recently in the New York Times by the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman suggested that Israeli leaders are coming close to a decision on attacking the Iranian nuclear programme. Indeed Bergman concluded after his interviews with Israeli decision-makers that Israel would strike Iran this year. Of course, as Bergman himself admitted in a subsequent interview, some of this might be strategic posturing by the Israeli leadership to put pressure on the US, but it is also true that Israel is increasingly feeling the pressure to act. Once Iran crosses the nuclear ’capability’ threshold, it does not matter whether it actually builds nuclear weapons. And the favourite parlour games in capitals from Washington to New Delhi about whether Iran has the international legal right to walk up to the edge of the cliff is going to matter little because Israel’s worry is an existential one, and much more important to Israel than abstract points of law.

As Western powers, in particular the US, ratchets up sanctions on Iran to convince Israel to avoid the military solution, India is increasingly becoming the focus of attention because of its continuing oil links with Iran and reports of some badly timed attempts to boost India’s trade with Teheran. It is unclear if the Uttar Pradesh elections played a role in India’s unnecessary and increasingly assertive position on Iran trade but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it indeed did. As India moves down this path, New Delhi needs to take a pragmatic measure of the strategic costs and benefits of its decision. Whatever the challenges ahead, a calculated policy is better than wandering into a storm because of either indecision or domestic political posturing or ideological blinkers.

What would a strategic balance sheet look like for India? First, any such assessment needs to junk irrelevant talk of historical and civilizational links between Iran and India. Such boilerplate rhetoric might look good on publicity materials handed out by foreign ministries but they provide little guide to framing policy. Civilizational links did not prevent us from supporting Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, or prevent various Iranian leaders from taking positions against India on Kashmir.

Second, the issue is not about the West versus Islam, however popular it might be to imagine it in those terms. The politics of the West Asia has moved well beyond such crudities. Indeed, though it might not have been convenient for New Delhi to recognize it, such binaries were superseded decades ago in the various disputes not only between Iran and the Arab states in the Gulf but also in disputes within the Arab world, between radical and conservative Arab regimes. India overlooked these disputes partly because Arab and Islamic unity was a convenient fiction which allowed New Delhi to not to have to take positions on such issues. But it is important to recognize also the permissive condition which allowed India to take such positions: there was no cost to fence-sitting on these disputes between Muslim Middles Eastern states. All sides understood the game; it was a convenient fiction not just to New Delhi but to the various parties in the West Asia itself. Of course, occasionally the strains showed, such as when India embraced Saddam Hussein after he gobbled up Kuwait, which made the Kuwaitis and the other gulf Arab states none too thrilled. That misstep was the closest India came to paying any real price for ignoring the complexities of the West Asia.

Today, the situation is far more complicated. The Iranian nuclear capability is a threat not just to Israel and Washington, but also to the Arab states in the region. The former Saudi Arabian intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal recently stated publicly that Saudi Arabia should get nuclear weapons if Iran went nuclear. For a senior and seasoned official to make such an uncharacteristically blunt warning is an indication of the kind of pressure that the Saudi’s are feeling and the intensity of the competition in the region. Indeed, traditional West Asiaern diplomatic niceties are fraying under the pressure of the great game between Iran and the rest of the Gulf. Again, uncharacteristically, the Saudi King Abdullah publicly rebuked Russia and China for their veto of the UN Security Council Resolution on Syria, an indication of the increasing intolerance of some Gulf states over outsiders playing geopolitical games at their expense. In short, unlike the past, when these states understood and accepted that outsiders like India were uncomfortable taking a position on their local conflicts, that tolerance might no longer be available. This is a much more serious and brutal fight and New Delhi might not be able to fence-sit for free.

Three, India’s relations with the West, the U.S. in particular, and Israel are also very different. In the 1970s, New Delhi could criticise Washington with little concern about the costs of doing so because there was so little direct linkages. Similarly, it could sign on to absurdities such as the ’zionism-equals-racism’ resolution in the UN because there were benefits to taking sides against Israel and little by way of cost.

This equation has also changed. India has built mutually beneficial relationship with both Israel and the US. These relationships are bearing India real benefits both in narrow terms such as defence technology transfers and intelligence cooperation but also in intangible but valuable ways including strong bipartisan support for India in Washington, bolstered also by strong support from traditional supporters of Israel. That support has been strained by a number of Indian policy choices - everything from the vote on Libya, to the Indian position of Syria (before the vote), the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) fighter jet deal, the nuclear liability bill and, of course, the Indian position on Iran. A misstep on Iran now might not be the last straw, but it could nevertheless do serious damage to India’s support in both Washington and Jerusalem.

No assessment will be complete if it only considers one side of the equation. The potential costs listed above will need to be weighed against the benefits of supporting the Iranian position. Two important benefits are generally cited: one, India is dependent on Iranian oil, and two, Iran is necessary for access to Afghanistan after a US withdrawal. How valid are these arguments and how do these benefits weigh against the costs?

India does need Iranian oil, and Indian refineries are apparently configured for Iranian crude. It will probably be more expensive to shift the sourcing of Indian oil imports to other suppliers, but this is hardly an unresolvable problem. Various European countries and China also face the same problem and they are doing what any pragmatist would: reduce dependence on Iranian oil and seek alternate oil sources. This is an inconvenience, at worst, but hardly the great strategic benefit that outweighs the kind of costs that India will have to incur for continuing to maintain its oil supplies from Iran.

Afghanistan is also a problem. India and Iran have cooperated in the past against the Pakistan-supported Taliban and they might need to do so again after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. But Iran is not the only neighbour that India can turn to; New Delhi has other central Asian friends that it can use to support a new anti-Taliban front. The most serious problem that India faces is that it has done little on the ground to re-establish such a front to protect its interests, or at least to prevent the Taliban/Pakistan from successfully retaking Afghanistan when the US leaves. If, as expected, the Taliban were to again take over Kabul, Iran can be expected to join any anti-Taliban front. Iran will cooperate with such an anti-Taliban front not out of love New Delhi but because it serves Teheran’s interests. What else can Iran do? Watch from the sidelines as the Taliban butchers the Hazara again?

An added complication for India’s Iran policy is the terrorist attack on the Israeli embassy vehicle that might have been carried out by Iranian agents or terrorist groups like Hezbollah working for Teheran. The attack might be a possible retaliation for the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, which is presumably the work of Israeli agents. How Israel and Iran play out their deadly spy versus spy game is their business, but neither side has any business playing it out on Delhi streets. India should be categorical and forthright about this principle even if it does not at this stage want to name those who it suspects are responsible for this terrorism. Coyness about even this principle undermines India’s fight against terrorism and the global support it receives. If Iran is ultimately found to have had a direct or indirect role, there should be diplomatic punishment for such an unacceptable transgression.

In essence then, while Iran represents a complex policy challenge that needs to be carefully weighed, any assessment will need to look not only at the benefits but also the costs of not changing course on Iran - and the costs are considerably greater. Fence-sitting and procrastination might be an escape from unpalatable policy choices but it will be unsustainable and expensive choice.

(Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan is a Professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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