14 March 2006

The U.S. and the Iran pipeline: Did Bush really blink?

For the first time in ages, my old newspaper, the Times of India, has a thoughtful piece on foreign policy with Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph analysing the wider forces behind the landmark India-U.S. nuclear agreement.

The TOI piece is actually a shorter restatement -- and dare I say force-fit -- of the same argument made in greater detail by the Rudolphs ("The Making of US Foreign Policy for South Asia: Offshore Balancing in Historical Perspective") in the Economic and Political Weekly in February, just before the visit to India and Pakistan of President Bush.

In their TOI piece, the Rudolphs ask the right question -- why Bush blinked at the last minute on India's conditions for the nuclear deal to go through -- but I am not sure they have come up with the right answers.

Indeed, their conclusion on the "pipelines of power" replacing the "wells of power" (of Sir Olaf Caroe fame) in the geopolitics of South Asia -- and on this shift bringing an end to the U.S. role as an "off-shore balancer" -- stems from a fundamenal misreading of key events both before and after the July 18, 2005 India-U.S. agreement on the resumption of civilian nuclear cooperation.

A glaring example of just how fundamentally the Rudolphs have misread developments is provided by their claim that during President Bush's one-day stopover in Pakistan, he "made it known that the U.S. no longer objected to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project".

The President, they say, "blinked again" and "decided to subordinate his perception of Iran as a strategic threat to Pakistan's and India's effort to achieve energy security".

This is simply not true.

What Bush actually said in Islamabad was:
"Our beef with Iran is not the pipeline. Our beef with Iran is the fact that they want to develop nuclear weapons. I believe a nuclear weapon in the
hands of the Iranians would be very dangerous for all of us. It would
endanger world peace."
Though virtually everyone in the Indian media wilfully or foolishly misinterpreted this clever remark to mean the U.S. no longer had a problem with the pipeline, senior U.S. officials responsible for the day-to-day conduct of policy are clear that the Iran-Pakistan-India project is still verboten.

In the past few days alone, Richard Boucher, head of the State Department's South and Central Asia desk has emphasised this. As has Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman during his visit to Pakistan immediately after the Bush visit.

Finally, Condoleezza Rice, in a Washington Post op-ed on March 13, argued that "civilian nuclear energy will make it less reliant on unstable sources of oil and gas". Who's she talking about? Er... Iran perhaps?

Now, I believe the Rudolphs are right in suggesting that "sometimes India seems inclined to bandwagon with the US, sometimes to balance against it and sometimes to act on its own in a multipolar world". Even though bandwagoning seems, to me at least, to be the strategy that our policymakers are most attracted by, there are other, contradictory, impulses too. The Rudolphs cite India's participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as one example. Less relevant is India's willingness to participate in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline. This is the original Clinton-era Unocal pipeline. The Americans today would love for India to be a part of it, especially if it is seen as a substitute to the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline.

In any case, the reason Bush blinked on India's separation plan is not -- as the Rudolphs argue -- because "to return to the U.S. wthout a nuclear deal with India would accelerate the downward trend of his poll numbers".

Rather, it was because he and his advisers believe the nuclear deal will help curb India's impulses to do anything other than bandwagon. Of course, their belief might well prove wrong.

Coming back to the Rudolphs's fundamental thesis, I don't think the U.S. is interested in effecting a shift in geopolitics from "wells of power" to "pipelines of power" if it cannot determine the direction and route-map of these pipelines. Like Jeanne Kirkpatrick's good terrorists and bad terrorists, Washington believes there are good pipelines and bad.

The TAP and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines are "good", but in the main, the U.S. continues to remain opposed to pipelines in Asia, especially those which run west to east or from or through Iran. In the long-run, pipelines, especially if they are embedded in wider Asian energy, economic and strategic architectures, will undermine U.S. hegemonic power in Asia. And this is a major part of the backstory to both the July 18, 2005 agreement and the last-minute agreement on the separation plan clinched on March 2.

The Rudolphs are perhaps correct in suggesting the U.S. will no longer play the role of an off-shore balancer between India and Pakistan.

But surely this is because the aim now is to "balance" India and China.


Rajesh said...

Clearly, none of the lofty goals of the deal stand up to scrutiny. On fossil fuels and global warming, the US has refused to be part of the Kyoto Protocol, and India’s oil consumption will only increase dramatically as its entire transportation sector runs on petroleum products. Nuclear power can at best supplant thermal power from coal, the major fuel for India’s electricity generation, which is admittedly a global warming agent, but that is just window dressing. It is part of Bush’s public relations strategy in his second term to go down in his history as a `green’ President- in the face of his plummeting ratings and in the wake of all the damage he has done by helping his cronies in the fossil fuel industry in the US. Two nuclear powers talking of non-proliferation is rank hypocrisy. So, these lofty-sounding statements are only meant to convince the US Congress about the benefits of the deal- with a nod and a wink.

The essence of the deal is the strategic and military angle- of containing China and policing Asia. There has been a lot of close military-to-military co-operation between India and the US in recent years.

All the talk of `democracy’ and `shared values’ is meant to impress upon the Congress and Pentagon that India is `our kind of guy’, as Saddam Hussein once was when the US sold him chemical weapons to use against Iran. Everybody knows that there can never be a watertight separation between civilian and military nuclear programmes- there is no such separation in the US or France. This is what Bush claims to have achieved in India in return for supporting the technology and fuel needs of India’s civilian nuclear power programme. But in fact, is the US actually helping to arm India with more nuclear weapons to contain China through this deal?

The real significance of Bush’s visit to India is its indication of a growing nexus between the American and Indian ruling classes in terms of a strategic alliance. The so-called Left in India meanwhile continues to support the Congress-led Government and holds noisy demonstrations and press conferences about India having `surrendered’ its interests to the US, and the threat posed by US imperialism to Indian sovereignty. In reality, the Indian and American ruling classes have done what they say- negotiated a deal which will now be placed before the US Congress.


Anonymous said...

I know the Rudolph and Rudolph book "In pursuit of Laxmi" from my undergraduate course on South Asia and remember them to be specialists on the political economy of india. Perhaps foreign policy is not their real specialization.

Samas said...

You are right about the TOI article being shoddy - its a bad cut and paste job. The EPW article is really enlightning. Thanks for the tip.

theBhc said...

I would quite agree that the US-India nuclear deal was not done with much concern for poll numbers. If the Rudolphs think that Americans' approval or disapproval of Bush will be swayed by what is essentially an arms deal with India, they probably haven't been to the States in a very long while. This is hardly a pressing concern for them one way or the other. It might be viewed as generally positive rather than negatively, but it simply won't be viewed one way or the other much at all.

You may be right about Bush wanting to curb Indian bandwagoning, but there is a more immediate and less vague agenda: the US wants India's backing against Iran in the UN. And this is less likely if India maintains partnerships with Iran.

Indeed, you are quite correct that the US views almost any joint infrastructure project in central Asia as a threat to themselves. Mostly, I think, the White House is now so paranoid that any deals between any countries not under their direct supervision are viewed with a great deal of suspicion.