Energy, trade, and transit issues are important but the key task for India is to assert itself as a factor for peace in Washington's looming confrontation with Tehran.
5 February 2007
India must have a proactive agenda in Iran
PRANAB MUKHERJEE'S first official visit to Tehran as External Affairs Minister on Tuesday comes at a time when tension between Iran and the United States is slowly edging towards breaking point. Frustrated by its inability to staunch the steady homeward flow of bodybags, the Bush administration has begun blaming Iran for the surge in Iraqi insurgent attacks on U.S. soldiers there. The latest accusations cap Washington's attempts to put the squeeze on Iran over the nuclear issue. Last December, the U.S. succeeded in getting the United Nations Security Council to impose limited sanctions on Iran for not agreeing to suspend its programme of enriching uranium. Predictably, those sanctions have had no effect on Iranian government policy. So the Bush administration is also threatening European and Asian banks that do business in Iran. The State Bank of India, which is the only Indian bank to operate in both the U.S. and Iran, is coming under pressure to wind up its office in Tehran or face the prospect of being frozen out of the American banking system.
Against the backdrop of all these developments, the U.S. military build-up in Iraq and the Persian Gulf is beginning to look increasingly ominous.
As a neighbour and economic partner of Iran, India has an enormous stake in the way in which the crisis that is shaping up eventually plays out. But despite our proximity, size and interests, India has allowed itself to become a marginal player. By allowing itself to be pushed into voting against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors in 2005, India effectively voted itself off the slate of countries with clout enough to remain engaged with the issue. Iran felt it had lost a valuable friend and potential interlocutor, while the U.S. — which saw how easily India buckled — began to take New Delhi's support for granted.
Mr. Mukherjee should use his visit to Tehran to put India back into the equation. And he can do so by asserting India's fundamental interest in averting war and helping Iran convince the international community that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.
Over the past two years, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often declared that it is not in India's interest to have another nuclear weapon state in the region. He is right. But what Mr. Mukherjee needs to assert explicitly is that it is also not in India's interest to have another country in the region invaded or attacked. While in Tehran, therefore, the Minister should state that India opposes the very suggestion that there could be a "military option" as far as resolving the Iranian nuclear issue is concerned. Such a statement coming from a "strategic partner" of the U.S. will help calm the region and send an important message to Washington.
Secondly, Mr. Mukherjee needs to counsel his Iranian interlocutors not to make the mistake of ending their cooperation with the IAEA inspectors. Nor should Iran consider renouncing its adherence to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), since such a step would be treated as a casus belli by the war party in Washington.
Thirdly, in order to help resolve the nuclear issue, Mr. Mukherjee should sound out Iran's willingness to cooperate with a new five-power initiative involving India, Russia, China, Brazil, and South Africa. The initiative should seek to accelerate the process of inspections and scrutiny of documentation related to the P-2 centrifuge programme so that the IAEA can verify — in an efficient and time-bound manner — the fact that there are no undeclared nuclear activities inside Iran. The five powers would also seek to come up with a multinational fuel cycle proposal that would both satisfy the international community's apprehensions about a potential weapons programme as well as Iran's energy needs. Clearly, Iran would have to be willing to resume its adherence to the Additional Protocol. It is possible that the launching of such a new initiative might also induce Tehran to agree to temporarily suspend its fuel cycle activities, in line with UNSC resolutions.
Apart from helping to catalyse a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, Mr. Mukherjee's visit will provide India another opportunity to push its energy and trade ties with Iran. After bruising negotiations over gas prices, there does appear to be light at the end of trilateral pipeline project as well as the reopened LNG deal. As for the proposed Indian involvement in the development of Iranian oil and gas fields, it is important that the External Affairs Minister emphasise that India is opposed to the extra-territorial application of domestic U.S. laws on Indian entities.
As for transit-related issues, India needs to give a push to the trade corridor being constructed from Chabahar, on Iran's Makran coast, to Afghanistan via the new Zaranj-Dalaram highway. When opened, this route would enable Indian goods to flow to Afghanistan despite Pakistan's refusal to grant transit rights for Indian exports.
In the final anaysis, however, it is the preservation of peace that India has to pay first-rate attention to. And Mr. Mukherjee's visit must serve as the first step in a new and proactive Indian initiative to help find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.