Whereas most countries foresaw a U.S.-Iran thaw and readied for it, the Indian establishment buried its head in the sand.
What makes Barack Obama an extraordinary politician is the audacity and hope with which he has held out time and again when adversity hemmed him in. The U.S. opening to Iran carries the full stamp of Mr. Obama and has all the hallmarks of his presidency. The “thaw” has the makings of a historic breakthrough, the significance of which is comparable to Richard Nixon’s overtures to China in 1972. The fascinating part is that Mr. Obama is laying a foundation with the bricks that were thrown at him.
The health care reform plan, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crisis, the declining global influence of the U.S. (as painfully shown by the Olympic Committee’s snub to Chicago’s claim to host the 2016 festival) — the list is indeed lengthening in the politics of spite, as Paul Krugman put it, targeted at Mr. Obama. Also, when it comes to Iran, the powerful Israeli lobby invariably circles the wagons that would drain the urge out of the most determined U.S. President to talk to Tehran.
What needs to be factored in is that Mr. Obama senses that the time for the U.S.- Iran normalisation has come and the process may advance with a rapidity that is probably least expected. Already, there is an acknowledgement by American scholars that Mr. Obama has extracted more concessions from Tehran in flat seven-and-a-half hours — the duration of the talks between the “Iran Six” and the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in Geneva on October 1 — than what the George Bush administration got in eight years of sabre-rattling. Mr. Bush refused to talk to Iran; deliberately racheted up tensions; dispatched two aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf; constantly threatened that “all options” were on his table in the Oval Office; and pressured the U.S. partners — including India — to atrophy friendly ties with Iran. And what he got to show for as he left White House in January was that during all of his eight years of adventure in the Persian Gulf, Iran went up from 0.2 to 3.8 per cent in being able to enrich and significantly increased its stock of centrifuges.
There is a strong urge in both Washington and Tehran to reconcile and compromise. Both are intensely conscious that normalisation between them at this juncture has a multiplier effect on their range of national strategies. Both are notoriously pragmatic (and ambitious) countries that refuse to be bogged down in ideologies when it comes to the pursuit of national interests. Mr. Obama has also been quick to learn that the U.S. plan to further sanction Iran is a road to nowhere. Tehran, on its part, has assessed that an open-minded and enlightened U.S. President like Mr. Obama is rare and his offer to bring about a “change” in the U.S. policies must be taken up.
Of course, the cool stocktaking in Washington is also that the Iranian regime has successfully withstood the avalanche of western pressure tactic. The latest American opinion poll conducted by Maryland University showed that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s popular rating among the Iranian people coasts at an astounding 70 per cent and that he genuinely did win the election in June. The unanimous resolution passed by the Majlis on the eve of the Geneva talks, wholeheartedly endorsing the government’s nuclear brief, underscores that despite the acute factionalism that perennially bedevilled Iran’s noisy democracy, the nation clings together to the crucial nuclear file. Meanwhile, an influential body of American opinion is beginning to consider that what the Iranian nuclear programme most likely aims at could be the “Japan option” — to attain the capability to construct a bomb if the country comes under threatening attack. (An internal International Atomic Energy Agency report recently concluded that Tehran now has the data to construct a nuclear weapon.)
In sum, Mr. Obama seems to realise that demonising Iran has been something of a cottage industry and while it is politically risky to puncture the illusion of menace that the powerful Israeli lobby wants to create about Iran, credible American regional policies cannot be built on vacuous propaganda. The Iranian leadership on its part seems to estimate that the optimal moment has arrived to negotiate with Washington.
Thus, the Geneva talks made progress to a degree that most seasoned observers had not expected. Iran agreed to allow the IAEA inspectors to visit its newly-announced facility near Qom on October 25; the next meet of the “Iran Six” with Mr. Jalili has been scheduled for October-end; most important, Iran agreed to send most of its stock of low enriched uranium (3.5 per cent) to Russia for processing to the roughly 20 per cent degree of enrichment needed to run its small reactor producing medical isotopes. (Iran has about 3200 pounds of low-enriched uranium, and is willing to send 2600 pounds out of it to Russia.)
These are important confidence-building measures. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Obama scrambled to respond with cautious optimism within hours of the positive tidings coming from Geneva. He said: “If Iran takes concrete steps and lives up to its obligations, there is a path toward a better relationship with the United States, increased integration of Iran within the international community, and a better future for all Iranians …We [U.S.] support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power. Taking the step of transferring its low-enriched uranium to a third country would be a step towards building confidence that Iran’s programme is, in fact, peaceful.”
“We are committed to serious and meaningful engagement,” Mr. Obama added. The reverberations of the U.S.-Iranian normalisation will be far-reaching and random happenings have begun appearing already. The “breakthrough” following the visit by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Pyongyong is most certainly a signal that things are changing over the North Korean nuclear problem. Pyongyong said ‘yes’ to the resumption of multilateral talks — provided it could first talk to the Obama administration. Again, in retrospect, Mr. Obama’s overtures to Russia on the ABM had an Iran dimension, although the overall “reset” of U.S.-Russia ties is still some way off. Surely, the three-day visit by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to Damascus highlights that the Middle East is preparing for the U.S.-Iran normalisation. Syria too has embarked on a programme to rehabilitate its image in the Arab world after a four-year hiatus since the rupture with Riyadh in 2004. Turkey has undertaken a series of initiatives on the regional scene, especially the historic normalisation with Armenia on October 10.
However, these are only nascent signs of new stirrings. Once the U.S.-Iranian normalisation gains traction — there is already talk as to how Washington could make a “gesture” towards Tehran — the tectonic plates of the geopolitics of the region will begin to shift.
India needs to prepare a frank estimation of its own insipid regional policies with regard to Iran. Clearly, it has been a policy disaster of stupendous proportions that the UPA government allowed the U.S. (and Israel) to dictate the tempo of India-Iran relationship. Whereas most countries foresaw a U.S.-Iran thaw and readied for it, the Indian establishment buried its head in the sand. Belying all logic, India stopped supplying petroleum products to Iran a few months ago, anticipating a “tightening” of U.S. sanctions on Tehran. (China, of course, stepped in to meet Iran’s needs.)
The government seems to be completely bankrupt of ideas on how to clear the heap of debris in Indian-Iranian relationship and make a fresh beginning. The minimum that should have been done was to depute a special envoy to visit Tehran after the new governments took over in India and Iran. Any serious student of geopolitics would say that unless you have a profound relationship with Iran, you wouldn’t have optimal regional policies in several theatres — Central Asia and Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East or the Caspian.
Of course, where it is likely to hurt India most is when Tehran’s new energy policies begin to unfold in the wake of normalisation with the West. This is not a matter for the Petroleum Ministry’s opaque policies on gas pricing. It is about missing out on a historic opportunity to engage Pakistan in a regional project that might make it a stakeholder in regional stability. The government can learn by tapping into the creative energies in the chancelleries — Moscow, Beijing, Berlin, Ankara — as they prepare to come to grips with the U.S.-Iranian normalisation.
Equally, it is a sign of the sad depletion of intellectual resources in our country in the recent decade or two that precisely at such a formative period in contemporary world politics, the titans in our strategic community and the media are squatting with eyes cast across the Himalayas, hoping to hear the notes of war drums. The international community will never take us seriously as a regional power if we behave like morons.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)