By Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Indian policymakers are in an unenviable position as global tensions over Iran rise. There is great international pressure on India to act. Domestically there are two sets of arguments. One set urges India to single-mindedly pursue its interests. This is interpreted as standing up to American pressure, retaining our traditional ties with Iran and taking full measure of our energy dependence on it. Another set of arguments urges India to work more proactively to restrain Iran and not pretend that we do not have any choices to make; and if a choice is to be made then siding with Iran makes the least sense.
Both these constructions oversimplify the thicket of considerations India has to navigate. We are dealing with a complex and volatile set of forces. In countries like Egypt and now Syria, there is a genuine popular mobilisation against existing power structures. We should not make any confident assumptions about how this politics will unfold. But India perhaps, unwittingly, gave the impression that it does not understand that there are fundamental transformations underway. Worrying about Western intervention was correct. However, siding with the status quo in Syria, as India seemed to, was going too far. Second, this popular upsurge has been overlaid with a most vicious geopolitics. Indian discussion has excessively focused on the geopolitics of traditional big powers, each of which is trying to turn this convulsion to their strategic advantage. However, the real geopolitics is within the region as well: Iran versus the Gulf states, Turkey versus Syria and Iran. In this context, viewing the conflict largely in terms of an America-Iran grid is seriously misleading. If anything, it is the Gulf states, more than even the United States that would like to see Iran constrained. In terms of raw interests, this poses a complex dilemma. We can focus on energy dependence on Iran. But much more vital, and less replaceable, is the presence of Indians in the Gulf — both in terms of numbers and remittances.
Third, the political convulsions are reordering the ideological geography of the region. How will groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, with serious links to Iran, get reconfigured? Will they insert themselves in the unfolding political processes in Syria and Egypt? What implication does that have for Israel? Israel’s domestic politics provides no reassurance that the Palestinian problem will be decently addressed any time soon. Fourth, even in terms of classic great power politics, many issues are still open. China has an ideological reason to formally oppose Western intervention. But it has been quietly doing the groundwork for reducing its dependence on Iran, so that it can cut bait if it needs to. There is no reason to assume that a Russia-China duo will stand in the way of America for ever. Fifth, there is the complex question of reading the Iranian regime itself. There is an oddly deductive quality to assessing Iran in Indian discourse. On this view, Iran, by definition, could not be behind an attack on Indian soil, because it is not in its interest to do so. We do not know the full facts. But this kind of a priori reasoning is a mistake. It is possible that the Iranian security establishment, like most such establishments, is messy and not fully in control of its assets. The Iranian regime also derives ideological legitimacy from polarisation. It helps overcome domestic polarisation; and it is the character of that regime that it is willing to risk the kind of polarisation others are not. So we must not deduce what Iranians think is in their interest.
Sixth, there is the question of American interests and motives in the region. American patterns of intervention have a lot to answer for in the region; they have been unconscionably disastrous in many respects. Isolating Iran was, from the start, a recipe for disaster: it is too big, too important, has too many assets for an isolation strategy to work. It needed to be incorporated into various security architectures rather than be isolated. The thought now seems to be that if India and China can be part of this isolation strategy, it might just work. In that sense India’s importance is being recognised. But there is reason to be sceptical of an isolation strategy.
Most importantly, we are at an odd junction in international politics. Arguably, even the strategic importance of Iran is changing. For the United States, Iran is important for the threat it undoubtedly poses to Israel. But beyond that, two long-term trends put America’s relationship with West Asia in a different context than was the case 10 years ago. For one, America’s dependence upon imported oil has been gradually decreasing. If anything, in the coming decade, it will be up to India and China to sort out the energy mess. Second, Iran will be vital for any sustainable working arrangement for Afghanistan. Finally, there is the nuclear issue. This is an issue on which there has historically been so much bad faith politics by all powers concerned: from China to the US, from Iran to Israel. But the question is: should the discussion be about scoring debating points, or is there a viable strategy to prevent the nuclear race from escalating?
Neither pro-Iran or pro-America polarities of Indian discourse capture this complexity. For instance, our obsession with the Iran-America framework has blinded us to the significant overtures Saudi Arabia has made to us (and China) in recent weeks — proposing everything from defence cooperation to more oil supply. But these opportunities can perform two functions. Intelligently used, they can be made to serve our interests. They also give us more instruments to achieve the larger good. It should be India’s aim to defuse conflict. We must not be complicit in creating the wreckage that big power geopolitics has wrought on the region. But that concern should not blind us to the complexities in the region. Our leverage can only increase if we are attentive to all the possibilities. Even with Iran, the terms of engagement will be vastly different if both sides know India has other options, than if we go in and simply say that, “By definition you are our friend, and we are always fated to depend upon you.” Yet a lot of Indian discourse treats Iran that way. The Cold War was a boxing match and our objective was to stay out. Now it is a complicated chess game, with many unpredictable moves. Our discourse needs to grow out of the binaries it is so used to.
(The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi)Courtesy- Indian Express