Only Ahmadinejad gains
New Indian Express (Chennai), Thursday May 22 2008 09:27 IST
“Re-energizing, Playing the great game or defining moment.” This is how seasoned observers described the recent stop over visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For some it was sign of ‘autonomy’ in foreign policy formulation and a reminder to Washington of its desire to pursue a policy that serves Indian and not American interests.
The visit was undoubtedly a diplomatic coup for Iran. Now the Iranian leader can claim his country’s increasing acceptance by all major non-Western powers. Was it due to the unexpected election of Ahmadinejad or growing Indian proximity with Washington? Either way for a while India remained the last Third World country which was trying to the Iranian leader. Hence, bilateral ties got into cold waters.
If the two votes at International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) were not sufficient, India gave a distinct impression that it was seeking to keep a distance from Iran. Tehran, however, was not disheartened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh avoiding the meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Council in 2006. In a calculated move in February last year, it ambushed visiting Foreign Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and suggested a summit meeting among the three leaders to resolve the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. Thus, Iran turned the technical need for a stopover from Sri Lanka into a diplomatic accomplishment. An insignificant state visit was transformed into a visit of the sub-continent, with Pakistan hosting him on the way to Colombo.
The subdued manner in which Indian commentators reacted both before and after the visit, tells an interesting story. It was a defining moment for Iran, yes.Was it a defining moment for India? Signs are they are not. What was India trying to convey to the outside world by hosting the Iranian leader. Iran cannot be ignored but nor can one be blind to the belligerent and confrontationalist stands of its leaders. Many anti-India elements within the US administration could see this as an unfriendly act, especially when President George W Bush is seeking closer ties with India. Should the anti-Iranian rhetoric intensify in Washington the handshake would be used to torpedo many pro-India moves.
In more substantial terms, what was accomplished during the visit? To expect miracles in seven hours is outlandish even for those with fertile imagination. But having kept a distance from someone who has been increasingly becoming controversial not just in the West, one is tempted to ask: what were India’s expectations when it rolled out the red carpet?
Was there a breakthrough on the energy front? The press conference of Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon let the cat out of the bag. After Dr Singh-Ahmadinejad meet, he told reporters that from India’s viewpoint, “most important is to construct an economically, commercially viable project, to have assured supplies and to ensure the security of supply in various ways. Discussions will continue. They both agreed that the officials would continue to discuss how to craft such a project which would meet the various criteria that we have mentioned.”
Simple English? More than a decade after the idea originally began the pipeline option is worth trying. Informed observers feel that with the kind of price demanded by Iran, the pipeline would be a pipedream.
On the LNG front, Menon felt that negotiations are on but added: “… of the conditions of the agreement have changed since both countries signed the agreement in 2005.” Basically he was confessing that India would have to pay a higher price than the $ 3.215 per million British thermal units (mBtu) that was agreed in June 2005 during the visit of the then Oil Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar.
One interesting development was that Menon’s press conference was dominated by the Israeli angle and the recent launching of an Israeli spy satellite by India. In the past such an obsession was confined to the Egyptians.
Is it a sign of independent foreign policy? For many, ‘independent’ foreign policy has been an euphemism for anti- Americanism. Not surprising, most of those who demand India to be assertive vis-à-vis Washington followed Kremlin during the Cold War. Not long ago those lamenting about the American quagmire in Iraq were justifying the Soviet ‘presence’ in Afghanistan.Above all, a single act rarely makes profound impact on foreign policy and the stopover visit is definitely not one of them. Onenight stands might bring fun but they never make an enduring relationship.
Is a sign of constructive engagement? Despite the official spin, it is essential to recognise the controversy surrounding Iran would be resolved without any role for India.
The problem primarily is between Tehran and Washington and having mishandled its vote at the IAEA, India is not in a position to mediate between the two. Iran cannot trust it and the US would take it for granted! Nor does India have the kind of leverages and incentives enjoyed by China and Russia especially their political clout in the UN Security Council.
Was it domestic politics? Unlike the past the UPA government has been more than willing to admit the role of domestic factors shaping India’s Iran policy. In September 2005 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters in New York that India’s decision at the IAEA would also be governed by the Shia factor. The same spin was used when the National Security Advisor announced Ahmadinejad’s visit at an international conference in New Delhi. The verdict on the cynical use of foreign policy for electoral considerations would be known very shortly in Karnataka.
Iran is not only a regional power in the Middle East but also an important player in the global energy scene. At the same time, Tehran, especially since the election of Ahmadinejad, is also a quarrelsome player. By reneging on its earlier price agreement, it has raised doubts about its reliability. Some of its belligerent actions and statements have unnerved its Arab neighbours.
While developing a policy towards Iran, New Delhi could afford to ignore American or other Western concerns. But it could not ignore one third player: the Arab neighbours of Iran. They are equally, if not more, important than Iran. In short, nearly four million Indians are gainfully employed in the Arab countries and not in Iran. Any short-sighted move on Iran would boomerang heavily on India’s ties with the Arab world.
Iran is thus an enigma. Depicting it merely as a friend or foe of India could be ideologically satisfying but intellectually dishonest.