The bigger picture: Pursuit of national interests should be governed by cold calculation
(There is a huge debate going on about India's decision to vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran's nuclear activities to the UN Security Council. I have written a couple of pieces supporting the move. These are posted below.)
In our intellectually lazy world, slogans and headlines substitute for analysis and, sometimes, even plain facts. Take the ones that have been prominent in the past week —India’s ‘ancient ties with Iran’ and the ‘commitment to non-alignment’ that ought to have been the decisive factor in India’s vote to refer Teheran’s nuclear cheating to the UN Security Council.
As for the ancient ties, they are a matter of record, but they have not been uniformly benign. We needn’t go back to Nadir Shah’s infamous qatl-e-aam (general massacre) in Delhi in 1738, but to more recent times. Gohar Ayub Khan has revealed, for example, that Iran and Turkey provided Iran with military material during its 1965 war with India. After the conflict, Iran purchased 90 F-86 sabres from Germany and transferred them to Pakistan. In the 1971 war, Teheran provided Pakistan with a squadron of F-5 fighters, which arrived too late to be used. Just for the record, when Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and the two countries fought a bloody and ruinous 8-year war, India terminated its long-standing military training programme in Iraq. On the other hand, there have been periods of cooperation such as when the two countries jointly backed forces opposed to the Taliban. That was neither a matter of non-aligned solidarity, nor ideological affinity, purely that converging national interests.
Secular democratic and socialist India and the Islamic Republic of Iran do have areas of divergence. Teheran is party to the Pakistan-backed anti-Indian resolutions of the Organisation of Islamic Conferences (OIC) relating to Jammu and Kashmir. In summit after summit, India has been condemned for “flagrant violations of human rights in Kashmir” and Teheran has gone along with it. At the Putrajaya summit in Malaysia in 2003, the Iran-supported resolution decried the 2002 elections in J&K and insisted on the application of UN resolutions, even while condemning “the massive human rights violations being committed by the Indian forces in the Indian-held Jammu & Kashmir”.
Iranian diplomats will insist that these are pro forma resolutions, but that does not lessen their anti-Indian import. And by the same measure India, too, can argue that the IAEA vote is also a token slap on the wrist since it merely calls for a referral of the case to the UN Security Council where China or Russia will wield their veto to prevent any further action.
Pursuit of national interests, and the Iranians know this well, is not meant to be governed by high-flying rhetoric, but cold calculation. This is the logic with which we continue to seek engagement and even entente with China, knowing fully well that Beijing provided Islamabad with not just a design for a nuclear weapon but also missiles which, by the latter’s own declarations, are aimed only at India. And that the commitment to aid Islamabad to match India militarily remains a bedrock of the Sino-Pak relationship.
A mix of three such calculations determined why India decided to vote against Iran in the recent meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. First, it is part of a long-term realignment of Indian foreign policy that was begun in 1980 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It began with the felt need to correct India’s excessive tilt to the Soviet Union and, given the Cold War’s logic, meant getting closer to the United States and the western camp. With the Soviet collapse, it morphed into a search for a place in the changed new world order. And that is where it is today, seeking to construct a new set of relationships in a world that has been fundamentally transformed by history and the economic change.
India’s second reason was more immediate. After intense negotiations, India had managed to persuade the US to lift the many-layered curbs that had been placed on its nuclear and space programmes. But that agreement, signed in July, was in that month, September, being debated in the US Congress. Any perception that India was waffling, not so much on Iran, but on the proliferation issue, would have meant curtains for the agreement.
The third, and perhaps most important, reason for the Indian stand was the substance of the issue. Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the treaty’s watchdog the IAEA has found serious shortcomings in Iran’s compliance with the treaty. Supporters of Iran’s case cite the letter of the NPT to show that Iran has not violated its obligations under the NPT. That is simply not true. Teheran was obliged to inform the IAEA of its efforts to enrich uranium and produce plutonium but it did not do so for 16 long years. When caught out, it provided some accounting, but according to the latest IAEA report, has not told the whole story. Those who, somewhat intemperately, dismiss the resolution and its supporters as ‘American stooges’ again ignore facts. France and Germany opposed the US on the non-existent WMD proliferation in Iraq. The IAEA, too, stubbornly refused to go along with the US. Remember Dr. Hans Blix?
Given Iran’s actions and most particularly its past pattern of deception, the eventual call must be made not so much on the letter of the treaty, but an assessment of Teheran’s behaviour. And that would suggest that Iran is pursuing the same course that India did in its nuclear programme — mastering the entire fuel cycle and creating conditions where nuclear weapons capability will be, to start with, a screw-driver away. This is despite the fact that Iran, unlike India, has signed a solemn agreement, the NPT, not to make nuclear weapons. Bluntly put, it is not in India’s interest that Teheran becomes a nuclear weapons state. India has no dispute with Iran and so it is not as though we are threatened by Iranian weapons. The real danger is the instability that Iranian nuclearisation will create in the Persian Gulf region from where we get 60 per cent of our oil and where more than 3 million of our citizens work.
Unfortunately Indian critics see the whole issue in just one dimension — that of a kowtow to the US. They have virtually accused the Prime Minister of cravenness on the score. The Left, as a supporter of the government, certainly has a right to its views about any subject, including Iran. Our only complaint is that it seems to have lost sight that it is Teheran that is on the dock for proliferation activities, not New Delhi. When India crossed the nuclear threshold in 1998, the Left decried the act. But now as a similar drama is unfolding in the region, the Left actually goes out of its way to give Iran an unqualified endorsement of its nuclear activities. The Left may believe it is right, but surely, we also have the obligation to point out that it is, perhaps, being blinded by its theological view of the US, as the Great Satan, rather than the substance of the issue.
There was a time in the Fifties and Sixties when lack of experience and internal problems allowed the ‘foreign hand’ to influence Indian policy. But today, when India and its institutions are immeasurably stronger, such charges are simply laughable. Both Iran and India are acting in their respective national interests and, on the subject of proliferation, they have nothing in common. That is the bald truth.In our view, the government in New Delhi is obliged to act to further Indian interests, not those of Iran.
Published in The Hindustan Times (Delhi) October 3, 2005