Thursday, May 22, 2008

India Ahmadinejad

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.
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Friday, May 16, 2008

Bush Ambushes Israel

With good intentions Bush ambushes Israel
Rediff May 16, 2008 20:30 IST
Two State visits in less than five months are one too many for a world leader and more so if it is US President George W Bush. But that is what has happened when he came to Israel on Wednesday to take part in Israel's 60th Independence Day celebrations.
Unlike his previous visit in early January, this time Bush did not visit the Palestinian areas. Both sides were keen to make it an exclusive visit to a friendly country. Israel could not have asked for a friendlier American leader.
During the first term the American president consciously kept away from the complex Middle East peace process. Unlike his predecessor Bill Clinton, he was not keen to invest any political capital in the peace process. If Clinton could not accomplish much, why even try. Taking cue from their leader, senior American officials also opted for a hand-off policy towards the Arab-Israeli peace making.
Israel at 60: Surviving the odds
With the trauma of the September 11 attacks consuming much of his time and energy, President Bush had little interest in the peace process. His primary attention was devoted to fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Subsequently, Iran and its suspected nuclear programme garnered his attention.
As a result, more than any other American leader, President Bush largely left the peace process to Israel and its leaders. He was quick to embrace Ariel Sharon who was elected prime minister weeks after the American election. They worked in tandem. Bush echoed when Sharon said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was 'no peace partner' and soon Arafat became persona non grata at the White House.
When Sharon unveiled his unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip, the American leader was more than happy and conveniently forgot the more complicated West Bank. The security fence that Sharon ordered gravely violated the pre-June 1967 borders or the Green Line. But Bush would not take notice.
Even after Sharon left the political scene following a massive stroke in early 2006, Bush pursued the same course. Dismissing European advice, Bush joined Israel in isolating Hamas following the spectacular victory of the Islamic militants in the Palestinian election later that month. Bush found no contradiction between this and his campaign for democratising the Middle East.
During the second Lebanese war the US President gave a large leeway to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to 'clean up' the military operations against Hezbollah. He was not prepared to demand a ceasefire until the Israeli commanders admitted that they did not have a workable military option to secure the two Israeli soldiers captured by the Islamic militant group.
Furthermore, more than any other world leader, Bush has been taking a strong and belligerent position against Iran and its periodic outbursts against Israel. Suspicions over the Iranian nuclear programme brought Israel and the US closer.
Partly to regain credibility and party to secure Arab support for his policy on Iran and Iraq, he has been reiterating his support for a two-State solution; Israeli and Palestinian States living side by side with peace and security. With much fanfare last November he organised a Middle East conference in Annapolis where leaders from over 40 countries and organisations took part and reiterated their commitment to the Middle East peace process. With the sole exception of Iran every major player in the world was present at the jamboree.
To give an impression of seriousness, President Bush even promised tangible outcomes before he leaves office; in practical terms, before the US presidential election is held later this year. His two visits to Israel in quick succession have to be viewed within this self-imposed November 2008 deadline.
As many analysts have pointed out, by excessively identifying with the policies of Israel, Bush has actually worked against Israel's long-term interests.
Indeed, the Jewish State has become more unsure now than in it was in January 2001 when Bush became president. Since then Hamas and Hezbollah exposed the limitations of Israel's military options. The Palestinian Authority enamoured by Israel and Washington is friendlier, accommodative but ineffective. Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2006, Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas is not even a paper tiger. Abbas promises friendship but Hamas delivers Qassam rockets.
Furthermore, Iran, Israel's principal adversary, has gained from Bush's Middle East strategy. He removed two most dreaded enemies of Tehran; the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. By 'democratising' Iraq and handing over power to the majority, Bush has also created as Arab Shia State. When Iranian officials speak of a Shia crescent extending from Bahrain in the Persian Gulf to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, they would secretly thank Uncle Sam.
In tacking Iran, both the US and Israel are clueless. Informed analysts in both countries dismiss a military option as ineffective and counterproductive. At the same time, Israel and the US have not been able to evolve a viable politico-economic strategy that would be acceptable to other major players.
Meanwhile, the US-Europe divide over Iraq came handy to Iran and like the resurgent Moscow under Vladimir Putin, Tehran has managed to exploit its energy resources to create a severe wedge between the US and other energy-dependent economies like India and China.
If these are not enough, the Iraqi saga continues and there appears no honourable exit for the US from the quagmire it had created. If its continued presence intensifies resistance, its early exit would have unpredictable consequences of many of Iraq's Sunni neighbours, most of whom are friends of the US. Dammed if you pullout and dammed if you don't.
Bush's newly-found involvement in the peace process is a typical case of too-little-too-late. With the US election just months away, no one expects anything dramatic. As Clinton found out during the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000, a century-old vexed conflict can't be resolved in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, what about the two-State solution? Wait for a more sober US president, if not the next generation!