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#3579, 27 February 2012
 
US, Iran and Israel: India in a Diplomatic Bind
Sitakanta Mishra
Research Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) & Associate Editor, Indian Foreign Affairs Journal
email: sitakant@gmail.com
 

The kind of response that Iran’s refusal to allow IAEA inspectors into the Parchin nuclear site may provoke from the US-Israel-Europe axis is a matter of speculation. Although many options to curtail Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambition are being considered, the use of India’s leverage over Iran is being strongly urged by the US and its allies. India is certainly in a ‘diplomatic bind’ as all those involved in the stand-off are important to its national interest. A diplomatic fine-balancing and the conveyance of a strong message on India’s compelling concerns is the way out of this bind.

Perceptibly, three strings are attached to India’s current diplomatic bind over the Iranian nuclear issue: energy security, pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation, and strategic partnerships with major powers. Should the tryst for energy security gag India when it comes to taking a stand on nuclear weapons proliferation and nurturing India’s strategic partnerships with the US and Israel? Two straightforward policy options are available: choosing the US-Israel-Europe axis or remaining neutral. Neither way is not toll-free.

To address the concerns of the West, New Delhi has to abruptly stop 10 per cent of its total crude oil import and the entirety of trade with Iran, which has heavy economic repercussions. Disengaging Iran would also affect India’s presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia as Iran is the conduit that enables connectivity. Any military action by the West will necessitate the immediate repatriation of six million Indians in West Asia. On the domestic front, the Left parties and the Muslim population would up the ante on UPA government’s pro-US foreign policy strategy.

Remaining neutral would be equally difficult and India’s pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation would be questioned vigorously. Its nuclear energy networking and strategic partnership with the US would be under stress. Defence technology imports from Israel are also bound to be affected. The anti-India lobby in the US would gain momentum, hampering India’s international clout.

Is there a way out of this binary option? A fine-balancing of the three – USA, Israel, and Iran – with an innovative diplomatic endeavour should be attempted. The UPA government should, at the earliest, announce the cancellation of the trade delegation supposed to travel to Iran. This can be rescheduled for a later date. More importantly, India must dispatch all party delegations to the concerned state capitals to strongly convey three important messages which are vital to India’s nationhood.

First, India must convey both to the US and Israel that it “does not fancy a situation in which it might have to choose one nation over the other” by overlooking its national interest. This might in fact give rise to Cold War bloc politics which is completely against India’s foreign policy ideals. A strategic partnership denotes an understanding of each others’ vital national concerns and accommodation in a mutually acceptable manner. India’s strategic partnership with the US is important, and differences of opinion should not derail the evolving cooperation between the two. The manner in which India chooses to deal with Iran is neither ‘a slap on USA’s face’ nor inconsistent with India’s non-proliferation credentials. Considering US concerns over Iran, India has already reduced its dependence on Iranian crude oil import from 16 per cent in 2008-09 to 10 per cent in 2012. It will further reduce it when alternative options are available; but not abruptly. And if Iran’s nuclear weapons programme is proved, India would undoubtedly condemn and vote against it.

Second, India needs to emphasize to both the US and EU the limits of sanctions against a nation’s nuclear weapons ambition. This approach has never worked; sanctions and aggressing posturing would only strengthen Iran’s resolve (if any) to acquire nuclear weapons. A technical-legal approach is insufficient to address nuclear weapons proliferation. A sustained dialogue by addressing Iran’s, as well as the region’s security concerns would help de-escalate the West-Iran stand-off.

Third, India must convey strongly convey to Iran that New Delhi will have no sympathy for its clandestine nuclear weapons programme and for evading its obligations under the non-proliferation regime. Teheran must cooperate with the IAEA and furnish necessary answers to the questions raised. In fact, India would not like to see another nuclear weapons state in its backyard which would make the neighbourhood tenser. It will go to any extent in response to a proxy war against Israel in Indian territory. India would like to continue the unrestricted export of a range of items to Iran under the UN sanctions, but it will stand firm on non-proliferation issues.

Undoubtedly, along with unique challenges, this occasion has brought India an opportunity to be a forceful stake-holder in an intricate global issue. Instead of choosing one against the other and indulging in somebody else’s war, India must be careful to calibrate close ties simultaneously with the US and Israel, while maintaining delicate ties with Iran, all of which should be diplomatically tenable and pragmatic. This, therefore, is the time for proactive diplomatic posturing to balance the imperatives of India’s energy security, strategic partnerships and pursuit of non-proliferation simultaneously.

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