ASIA CENTRE BANGALORE           


Chairman

Mr. A.P. Venkateshwaran  Former Foreign Secretary


Vice Chairman

Mr. Peter Sinai IFS (retd)


Director      

Lt. Gen (Retd.) Ravi Eipe



Governing Board


Member Directory


Speaker Profiles


Join Us


Support Asia Centre


Contact Us

  Asia Centre

 1843 First Floor, 6th Cross,   20th Main,  J.P Nagar,  Bangalore Karnataka 560078, India; 

Call: (+91 80) 26595150, 26593689

asiacentrebangalore@hotmail.com

Email us

Asia Centre Home  

 


Seminar                         Summary Reports   


Indo-Afghanistan      

Geo-political Contest in Afghanistan and its impact on India ’s Interests

"Strategic Options" by Brig Rahul Bhonsle (Retd)

"The Regional Contest" by                  Dr Shanthie D’Souza

"The Afghan Riddle" by Shri Hormis Tharakan 

"The Way Forward" by 

 Ambassador S K Lambah, IFS (Retd)

Indo-China       

CHina's Defense Modernisation: Implications for India 

"Upgradation of Chinese Forces- Implications by

Mr. D.S. Rajan

"Missile and Space Modernisations" by 

Prof R.  Nagappa,

"A Strategic Review" by Air Chief Marshal Fali Major (Retd)

"Economic Implications " by 

Prof Srikanth Kondapalli

"The Way Forward" by Amb. C.V. Ranganathan

Indo-Iran              
Complexities of the situation of Iran: India's strategic interests and options

"A Historical Perceptive" by           Amb. Akbar Mirza Khaleeli                          "A Strategic perspective" by           Vice Admiral (Retd)         P J Jacob                            "A Media perspective" by Shri Kesava Menon. 

Indo-Myanmar     
Indo-Myanmar security relations: Measures to improve trade and economic ties

Presentations by:

Col. R Hariharan (Retd),  

Dr Sayed Ali Mujtaba,  

Shri T P Sreenivasan,  

Indo-Nepal              
Developments in Nepal: impact on India

Presentations by:

  "A Security Assessment" by            B. Raman

  "The Current Scenario" by               Shri K V Rajan, IFS (Retd)

  "Implications for India" by Maj. Gen (Retd. Ashok K. Mehta  

  "Current Situation and its import" by     Shri Gururaj Rao


Recent developments in Nepal and their impact on India's security

Presentations by:

  "The Political Scenario" by Dr. Arvind Kumar

  "Analysis of Political events" by Dr. Smruti Pattanaik 

  "Implications for India" by Maj. Gen (Retd.) Dipankar Banerjee

  "Strategic Analysis and Opinions "by Maj. Gen (Retd.) Ashok K. Mehta

Indo-Pakistan       

Whither Pakistan?

"The Crisis in Pakistan"  by

Captain Alok Bansal, IN

"A security assessment" by 

Shri S Gopal

"A Strategic Overview" by M K Bhadrakumar, IFS (Retd)

"Whither Pakistan?" by Lt Gen Satish Nambiar (Retd)

Indo-Russia             

India-Russia strategic relations in the new world order 

     

" Vision and Realityby Ambassador Shri Rajiv Sikri  (Retd)

" Historical Perceptive and Current Realities"

by Amb. A Madhavan, IFS (Retd)

"Defence Cooperation Aspectsby

Air Marshal N Menon (Retd)

Indo-US        
Changing contours of Indo-US relations: Challenges, Risks and Opportunities

Presentations by:

"A strategic review"  by Dr. Brahma Chellaney

" A historic perspective"

by Amb. Krishnan, IFS (Retd)

"India's options in the global senario" by

Lt Gen S. S Mehta

"Indo-US core interests" by

Shri Aravind Sitaraman

 

Look East Policy  

Impediments to India's Look-East policy’: suggested remedies

" India's Look-East Policy: Vision and Reality"  by Ambassador Shri C.V Ranganathan (Retd)

 

" Impediments to India’s Look-East Policy – China’s Reservations and Suggested Remedies Realities"

by Shri. D.S. Rajan  

 

"Maritime Aspects of our Look-East Policyby

Vice Admiral (Retd)   P J Jacob

Seminar Summary Report

COMPLEXITIES OF THE SITUATION IN IRAN: INDIA’S STRATEGIC INTERESTS AND OPTIONS

  As compiled by Shri A Madhavan, former ambassador of India and a current member of Asia Centre;

  22 March 2008;  IAS officer’s Association, # 1, Infantry Road, Bangalore -1

            In continuation of its objective to promote political, economic and social exchanges with neighbouring countries, Asia Centre has been conducting a series of seminars to review India’s security environment and policies that relate to political, strategic and economic aspects of the region.

             In this connection, the centre organized a seminar on "Complexities of The Situation in Iran: India’s Strategic Interests and Options” on 22nd March 2008 . The event was chaired by Shri  A P Venkateswaran, former Foreign Secretary. The main presentations"

 

"A Historical Perceptive" by

Shri Akbar Mirza Khaleeli, Former Ambassador to Iran

"A Strategic Perspective" by 

Vice Admiral (Retd) P J Jacob, Former vice Chief of Naval Staff and former Naval Attaché in Tehran .

"A Media Perspective" by                                                                                                            Shri Kesava Menon. Associate Editor, The Hindu, and its West Asia Correspondent from 1994 to 2002.

  This report summarises the essence of the presentations and the discussions that followed.


INTRODUCTION.

Shri A.P. Venkateswaran, Chairman of Asia Centre, welcomed the participants  and the three speakers : Shri Akbar M. Khaleeli, former Ambassador to Iran , Vice Admiral (Rtd.) P.J. Jacob, former Vice Chief of Naval Staff and former Naval Attaché in Tehran , and Shri Kesava Menon, Associate Editor, ‘The Hindu’, who was also a former West Asia Correspondent (1994-2002) of the paper. He said that Iran is the centre point of world turmoil.  If the US attacks or invades Iran , India ’s foreign policy moves would be keenly scrutinised for signs that it has succumbed to American pressure.  He invited the three speakers to share their perceptions with the audience, drawing on their long experience in examining the political and strategic developments of Iran since the 1979 Revolution.   

Lt Gen (Retd)   Ravi Eipe, Director of Asia Centre, welcomed the speakers and the participants. Introducing the subject he gave an overview of the Indo-Iranian connection with its long history and cultural interfusion.  India has a strong interest in maintaining friendly relations with Iran , a proximate country abutting Baluchistan on Pakistan ’s western borders.  For military reasons a friendly Iran is strategically invaluable to India .

Iran claims that its nuclear programme is civilian and it is pursuing a benign research for future energy requirements. But the US is convinced that its purpose is military, for developing nuclear weapons.  India has to examine this ambiguity of the Iranian situation with concern and decide on our response.

 India is in an evolving strategic partnership with the US .  President Bush had named Iran as one of the three powers in the “Axis of Evil”.  For the US , terrorism by Islamic extremists is a danger to be exterminated. For India , Iran is long standing and strategically important friend. How will India balance its policy towards Iran in the midst of this contradiction?

India has important economic projects in its Iran agenda, one such being the proposed gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan .  The US is pressing India to give up the idea of participation in it, and warns that it would entail sanctions by the US against several Indian entities. How this dilemma will play out is our concern.

A Historical Perspective

by Shri Akbar M Khaleeli

 Ambassador Khaleeli presented a broad historical survey of Iran and the Indo-Iranian interaction since ancient times to the present. Iran, China and India are the three enduring Asian cultures.  Iran was the nodal area of the Silk Route .  The speaker dwelt on the psychology of the Iranian peoples, the terrible sufferings they overcame during the period of Arab ascendancy followed by the more terrible Mongol invasions, their pride and sense of humour and love of independence.  He expounded the beliefs and values of the Shia faith, after pointing out that Iran was Sunni-dominant for four centuries until the Safavid era.  The Shias, he said, constituted in a sense the most continuous political party in the world. He cautioned against Indian diplomats taking a facile view that Sunni Islam as a majoritarian group is more Islamic than the Shias.

  He then spoke of Iran 's humiliation in the 19th Century as a hyper-colony and contrasted it with India 's condition under the British Raj.  Iran had to yield control of its minerals, oil and forestry to the European powers.  It was caught up in the rivalry among Russia , France , Britain and Germany .  The Iranians of the time were not anti-American and wanted a balance between the big powers mainly Britain and Russia  to avoid complete dominance by either.  An example of their joint power till the first decade of the 20th Century will suffice. When Iran obtained the services of an American expert, Morgan Schuster to advise on the administration and finances of the country, both powers made a demarche, forcing the fledgling Majlis to pass an act debarring Americans and others from employment under the Iranian Government. After Prime Minister Mossadeq nationalised the oil industry, the US , allied by the UK , authorised a CIA coup in 1953 to topple his government.  The US brought in the Shah from Rome to head a pro-Western government in Iran .  

The rise of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian revolution of 1979 was a partly- nationalistic backlash by a proud people chafing under out-dated restraints.  In the post-revolution phase, especially after the out-break of the Iran-Iraq war and the assassination of many Iranian revolutionary leaders, the moderating influence of the  provisional government appointed by Khomeini (and the party called the Liberation Movement of Iran, under Mehdi Bazargan and Ebrahim Yazdi), was overwhelmed by the clerical hardliners.  After this the latter became more powerful and emphasised the Islamic dimensions of the  Republic of Iran .  Thus a moderate course in Iranian foreign policy was hampered if not precluded from the start in the post-revolution period.

Shri Khaleeli gave a brief exposition of the centrality of Khomeini's personality and political vision in shaping the constitution of Iran . Whether or not anyone else can fully realise his vision is open to question especially the momentum and balance between revolution and national realism. In religio-juridical terms also, one cannot assert that the last word has been said. One can  sense that Khomeini while asserting political control over Iran, did not want vested interests to become too comfortable and hence in many ways  his influence in preventing  back-sliding is still felt. The decimation of the Iraqi religious leadership over the past two decades has also given Iran an edge in international Shia politics. Nevertheless, Shia-ism is too intellectually vigorous and naturally dissident to become monolithic with or without Iranian influence.

The anti-American backlash of the Shah Pahlavi era is still effective.  Iran 's policy towards Israel and the other states of Western Asia is inevitably coloured by this bias, which the Bush administration has done nothing to offset by conciliation or understanding.  The commitment of the Hizbollah in Lebanon and the  Islamisation of the Palestinian cause are seen as results of Iran's influence and have caused concern in many Arab regimes while at the same time accelerating American efforts towards Israeli-Palestinian ( read PLO) rapprochement, albeit in a road map filled with tragic accidents.

The present Iranian government, with President Ahmedinejad at the head, is defiantly unbudging in the face of American hostility to its nuclear programme.  His statements questioning the legitimacy of Israel as a state and the holocaust are an oblique response if not a challenge. 

US relations with Iran should not be reduced to the single dimension of terrorism.  Iran  has always been more sensitive about safeguarding its sovereign rights over nuclear energy, no less than its rights over oil and gas.  Mossadegh had shown  to other countries also the way  towards national control of oil resources in 1951. The two countries had friendly relations in the past.  In 1922, Reza Khan made an American, Millspaugh, Administrator-General in Iran .  The latter helped to stabilise the economy and initiate modernisation.  The present crisis in US-Iran relations must be seen in context.  Any government of a country with a population of 70 million or more would lessen dependence on oil and gas and seek other energy alternatives.  The first nuclear research reactor was supplied by the US , after an agreement in 1967, under the Atoms for Peace programme.  Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi had sent Iranian scientists to be trained abroad in nuclear power generation.  The Franco-German reactor planned for Bushehr conformed to these plans.  At that time there was no Western objection to the Shah's policy.  The current confrontation over Iran 's nuclear aspirations is an updated version of the old Western attitude of denying energy security and diversification to developing countries.  It is ironic that India , a victim of such suspicions and discrimination, should now strive to align itself with such an attitude in hopes of gaining nuclear materials and equipment.

This shift in foreign policy may marginalise India in its friendly relations with countries like Iran .  Its indifference to the American occupation of friendly Iraq and the conversion of Iraq into a breeding-ground for Islamic terrorism and networks, when none existed earlier, could have consequences in India . For India to get involved in Iraq on USA 's behalf as also its present indifference, can both harm our interests in Iran . If India has asserted its predominance as a regional power in the sub-continent and the Indian Ocean , it should not be surprised by Iran 's dominance in the Persian Gulf .  Outside powers including super-powers are not always destined to remain that way. One should keep our neighborhood relations in good repair.  

The US has followed different tacks in dealing with the nuclear threat from the policies of North Korea , Libya and Iran .  With the other two being more or less tackled, the US is bent on pressurising Iran via crises in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Syria and Central Asia .  Some Arab countries may be compelled to plan for an Arab bomb to counter a feared Persian nuclear capability by going nuclear themselves: a risk which would vastly complicate American policy in the region.      

Does India really wish for a wider role as a consequence of the US-Iran confrontation and as a beneficiary of access to sensitive US technology?  If the Indo-US deal comes to fruition, will it not make for long-term hostility in Indo-Iranian relations?  It is not easy to balance our relations when two partner countries are having sharply conflicting interests.  But it would be unfortunate if our government, while legitimately seeking to enlarge areas of strategic co-operation with USA, over-steps itself and gives the impression that by being in the good books of a super power it can carelessly undo the painstaking diplomatic goodwill and friendly relations we have built up especially since 1979 with Iran, which like China is bound to be around for a long time. 

Iran wants Pakistan to be stable and prosperous, but it is not in favour of changes in the status quo in Kashmir .  It understands that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are more antipathetic to Iran than even to the US Iran has absorbed Islamic values on its own, not from Arab clerics.  These factors make for Indo-Iranian rapport on the basis of shared interests and values.

Iran has diplomatic room, in that it can nimbly alter its equations with the US , Europe and Russia .  It was Iran that helped the US to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan .  The West may need Iran 's offices to bring about peace and order in Iraq where sectarian conflicts are raging under American auspices. 

If Iran is attacked by USA , would India remain unconcerned?  If so, would we be able to parley with the Iranians for their gas to be directed eastwards instead of westwards?  Will the nuclear deal with the US  ostensibly for strengthening our energy security paradoxically become a factor in sacrificing our autonomy to choose partners like Iran who could be more important for energy security and regional co-operation?

A Strategic Perspective

by Vice Admiral (Retd) P J Jacob

India and Iran have a very complex relationship fraught with sub-equations.  The perspectives to be considered are historical, religious and regional, apart from the further complications of the US factor and terrorism.  Bilateral relations have traditionally been positive.  In January 2003 Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and the President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami signed the New Delhi Declaration announcing a “strategic partnership” between the two countries.  It addressed cooperation in economic matters, hydrocarbons, science and technology, education and training, apart from collaborative work on Afghanistan ’s reconstruction and on global issues. 

Indo-Iranian relations can be considered in the following stages.  1)  By the early 1970’s, both countries had emerged as important regional powers.  Iran was powerful in global oil politics and had a military presence in the Persian Gulf .  India was the strategically pre-eminent power in South Asia .  Though Iran ’s support for Pakistan during the 1971 war had again adversely affected the warming trend in bilateral relations, Foreign Minister Swaran Singh’s visit to Iran in July 1973 dispelled some mutual apprehensions. 

When Pakistan successfully cultivated the Arab Gulf states, Iran sought friendlier ties with India .  For India , it was a welcome balance, and a new period of mutual engagement began.  2) Between 1970 and 1990, India assessed that Iran was letting go of its contacts with the West.  Iran was espousing Islamic causes.  Both Iran and India had common concerns, such as security threats from US hegemony and the collapse of the Soviet Union .  The Soviet collapse threatened the stability of Central Asia and endangered energy supplies.  The rise of the Taliban and commercial interchanges were shared interests between India and Iran . Improved bilateral relations were also helped by convergence on the Afghan developments, with the Taliban, backed by Pakistan , becoming a source of anxiety for India as well as Iran .  Both countries backed the Northern Alliance for several years.  In this period Iran-Pakistan relations worsened, mainly because of their divergence on Afghanistan . Sectarian terrorism in Pakistan also contributed to this trend.  3)  1990-2001 (9/11).  In this decade India was a low-cost option for Iran in developing infrastructure and industry.  4) Since 9/11, both countries share concerns in containing terrorism and safeguarding energy supplies.  When the US consolidated its military presence in Afghanistan and accused Iran of being part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, Iran wished for closer bonds with India .  But Iran ’s nuclear programme and ambitions began to cause misgivings to the Indian government.  Meanwhile, the Indo-US nuclear deal for civil nuclear energy cooperation created a dilemma for India in its relations with Iran .

   There are various strategic perspectives to consider.  1) Energy security is the most important.  As stated in the New Delhi Declaration, there is a complementarity of interests in this sector which needs to be developed.  Iran has surplus energy resources, while India needs more energy for its rapid development.  Besides, India is seeking to diversify its sources of petroleum and its products.  Iran , with five percent of the world’s crude oil resources and 14 percent of its natural gas reserves, is keen on the Indian market.   Energy cooperation between the two is therefore highly desirable and logical.

   India and Iran have been involved in the stalled project of a gas pipeline via Pakistan for more than fifteen years.  India was initially averse to dependence on a pipeline through Paikistan territory, though Pakistan was ready to give assurances for its security.  The Indo-US nuclear deal has caused re-thinking in India .  The US probably insisted on India abandoning the pipeline project being suspicions of Iran .  It warned us of the sanctions it would be obliged to impose on our entities entering deals with Iran .  India is still keen on keeping its option open.  Iran is said that it is ready to sign the trilateral deal, but technical issues between India and Pakistan (now under a new elected government) are hampering the process.

In defence cooperation, there is an increasing trend.  The two sides have begun to institutionalise contacts between the armed forces.  A dialogue on mutual security issues and arms sales to Iran are on the cards.  The 2003 Declaration included exploring cooperation in defence, so that our strategic relations have gained a subtle but significant military dimension.

Iran has a fair amount of defence equipment of Soviet make.  India ’s known capacity to manufacture such arms under licence promises complementary interests.  This would boost India ’s military exports to West Asia , a region of geopolitical importance for us.  The Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2003 was another milestone.  It envisages Indian support for building a warship repair facility in the new Iranian port of Chahbahar , stationing Indian aeronautical engineers at Iranian military bases to help upgrade MiG 29 fighters, engineers to refit and maintain T 72 tanks.  The two countries had held joint naval exercises.  Iran has sought India ’s assistance to service its naval and air force equipment and to develop batteries for its Kilo class submarines, these being more suitable in Gulf waters than those supplied by Russia . 

As regards terrorism, India and Iran have mainly cooperated to secure their interests in Afghanistan .  Iran feared Sunni extremism by the Taliban regime.  India saw the situation as a manifestation of the Islamic extremism that it was contending with in Kashmir .  Both countries supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, in contrast to Pakistan .  Both also supported the US military action to oust the Taliban regime and both seek to prevent a return to a revived Taliban regime.  Both have given economic aid to Hamid Karzai’s government.  Other than this, Iran ’s anti-terrorism credentials are suspect.  The assassination of Hezbollah’s external operative, Imad Mughniyeh, is a sign that Iran continues to be a key player in global terrorism.  It has close links with Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.  Iran may still have a hand in aiding Al Qaeda agents.  Iran has been called the world’s ‘central banker of terrorism’.  The US 9/11 Commission found that Iran helped Al Qaeda agents to transit its territory into Afghanistan, though there was no evidence of Iran’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks.  This warrants great circumspection on India ’s part in joining hands with Iran in anti-terrorist actions.

   Iran-Pakistan relations are of importance to India .  They have not always been smooth.  Iran supported Pakistan in crisis situations, giving the latter moral, political, diplomatic and even financial support.  But after 9/11, when the US tightened its alliance with Pakistan , things have changed.  Iran is in effect caught between two wars, in Iraq and in Afghanistan .  The rise of the Taliban has made for acrimony between Iran and Pakistan .  But still their relations remain close.  Pakistan ’s nuclear cooperation with Iran indicates a certain strategic congruence.  Pakistan would like normal relations with Iran , since it would otherwise have problematic neighbours on both sides.  Pakistan ’s future course will affect its relations with Iran .  If Pakistan experiences Shia-Sunni clashes, Iran would be impacted.  

For India , better relations with Iran would be an advantage vis-à-vis Pakistan .  If, for instance, military cooperation moves to an Indian presence in Iran , it would add strength to our watch on Pakistani affairs.  But Iran could use greater access to India to urge both India and Pakistan to moderate their policies towards each other.  Iran was the first country to try for a détente and dialogue between India and Pakistan when tensions ran high in 2001.

Iran ’s nuclear policy poses a serious dilemma for India .  India has to go along with the world community in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon power, since such a development would have adverse security implications for us.  But to do this without impairing good relations with Iran is difficult.  We would be liable to answer charges from Islamic countries that India , which previously opposed the double standards of the West, was now adopting them.  But it is doubtless correct that India cannot accept a new nuclear power in the region and that it must side with the world community to ensure that Iran’s programme strictly conforms  to the IAEA provisions on non-proliferation.  The government faces the internal problem of keeping the Opposition parties and the Left from spreading the perception that India has become the ‘junior partner’ of the US .  These parties have also opposed any dilution of Indo-Iranian relations.

In 2005, contrary to some speculation, India voted at the IAEA for the resolution finding Iran in breach of its international obligations.  This was a notable shift.  It was criticised as submission to US pressure.  In January 2006, the US ambassador to India linked the progress on the nuclear deal with this issue, hinting that if India did not vote with the US , the US Congress would thwart the nuclear deal.  This was attacked by India ’s opposition parties as an affront to our sovereignty.  Yet on February 4, India again voted with the majority at the IAEA in referring Iran to the UN Security Council, while also stating that it would not detract from India ’s close relations with Iran .  However, it is in India ’s interest to see that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.  Though Iran was disappointed by India ’s vote, our relations do not seem to have suffered too much.  Pragmatism and mutual needs should govern our relations with Iran .

Another issue which can affect smooth relations with Iran is the closeness of Indo-Israeli ties.  Iran being one of the staunchest opponents of Israel , the increasing exchanges between India and Israel , including our purchases of Israeli arms, could well cause misgivings and friction.  Iran seems to have maintained a tolerant view of it so far.  But Israel is apprehensive of close ties between India and Iran , particularly of Israeli defence technology reaching Iran through India .  Israel ’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, on a visit to India in 2003, asked for guarantees from India that it would not transfer any acquired technology to third countries, especially Iran .  On the other hand, Iran was unhappy that an Indian rocket launched an Israeli spy satellite into space in 2008.  Managing these counter currents would determine the future of Indo-Iran relations.

The strategic imperatives before India may be listed as follows: 

India must keep up its energy cooperation with Iran , including the tri-nation gas pipeline project, regardless of the Indo-US nuclear deal. 

India must actively pursue defence cooperation with Iran and extend it to training Iranian personnel.  Naval cooperation and joint exercise to provide inter-operability will be desirable.

Cooperate on anti-terrorism to the extent possible, keeping in mind our reservations on Iran ’s policies.

 

Cooperate with international efforts to make Iran follow non-proliferation norms and to ensure that Iran does not go in for nuclear weapon capability.  India could impress on Iran the wisdom of complying with the IAEA requirements on inspection and safeguards to avoid sanctions and other dangers.

 

The enhanced engagement with Iran since the mid-1990’s have deepened bilateral relations.  However, India ’s improved relations with the US and Israel , which Iran views with suspicion, could test the leadership of both India and Iran .  India has to weigh its strategic options if Iran begins to edge away from us on account of our relations with the US and Israel .  India is in quite a sound position economically and militarily to balance its national interests and should be able to pursue its strategic imperatives without greatly ruffling one party or the other.

A Media Perspective

by Shri Kesava Menon

He conceded that journalists sometime oversimplify issues, but said he would try to set out the points of view commonly taken by the media on this subject and raise questions to delve deeper into the matter and present a clearer perspective.  There are four interlinked issues which need to be examined. 

 

1) Iran’s strategic orientation;  2) how the US is trying to manage global affairs; 3) how India is coping with the US; and 4) India’s position on the Iran issue and India’s strategic orientation.  Media coverage of inadequate depth may be responsible for the biased and superficial discussions of these issues one has seen.

 

One current trend in our media is that in a unipolar world, where the US is the superpower with a global reach, India should align itself with the US to become one of the major powers, this in spite of all the development that India has achieved in recent years.

 

A contrary view, to some outdated, is that India should stick to the established principles of our foreign policy, abiding by certain ideals.  Though we have occasionally erred by becoming over-idealistic, we have modified our stand to suit necessity, for example, by moderating our concerns for human rights and democracy where our security interests are endangered.  But the one principle we cannot afford to give up is independence. This is not an expression of anti-Americanism.  But it is reasonable to be skeptical of American motives in foreign policy. The US will always give priority to its interests and will not offer free lunches.  In dealing with a much bigger power, it is right and realistic for us to be cautious in our responses to their moves. 

 

Thus, our independence should not be regarded as too idealistic. Independent judgement means that we must we must first ascertain the facts of a situation and understand the reality.  What are the facts regarding the confrontation between the US and Iran ?  Why have a group of countries sided with the superpower in this?

 

It is asked whether Iran needs its nuclear programme in view of its abundant petroleum resources.  Iran ’s answer is that these resources are finite and that Iranian demand for energy is growing and that other sources must be tapped.  Iran signed the NPT; as such has undertaken not to develop or possess nuclear weapons, but it retains the right to obtain the know-how for a nuclear fuel cycle. 

 

From 1980 to around 1995 Iran sought help from three countries to set up a uranium enrichment programme.  In all three cases, US pressure blocked any deal.  Iran then felt justified in going clandestine and obtaining plans and materials from A.Q. Khan, the discredited Pakistani scientist.  There are credible reports that the US knew at the time about the actions by Khan and the complicity of the Pakistan leadership.  But this information was buried in the lower echelons of the US administration.

Iran claims that from 1996, when it obtained help from Khan, till 2002 it did not undertake any action for uranium enrichment.  Iran ’s installation of a facility to produce uranium hexafluoride and a separate facility for the centrifuge array could be regarded as controversial if not suspect.  But all the technical questions concerned were sorted out to the satisfaction of the IAEA after many rounds of discussion since 2003.

 

In this period the Western media relayed scare stories to depict Iran as pursuing a secret nuclear weapons programme.  In one instance, a document purportedly detailing the process of machining uranium into hemispherical shapes deliberately ignored the fact that it made no reference to the size or dimensions, without which no bomb or warhead could be made.  Nor did the media mention that the document itself had actually been handed over by the Iranians to the IAEA, and was therefore not something concealed from it.

Iran has at every stage acceded to the requests of the IAEA for clarification.  The IAEA itself has accepted that Iran ’s disclosures confirm to the information it has gathered through its investigations.  The reports pertain to the declared sites of the Iranian programme, including the facility for uranium conversion and the centrifuge workshop.  What the IAEA is unable to certify is that Iran does not have any undeclared sites, facilities, assets and materials of nuclear technology.

 

It is not Iran ’s fault.  It had accepted the Additional Protocols of the NPT, empowering the IAEA to carry out surprise inspections.  The latter did carry out tests impartially, including environment sampling.  The bulk of its findings seemed to confirm the Iranian contention of having no clandestine programme.  But Iran , being known to be fiercely independent in its foreign policy, is a victim of suspicion by other states that its territory may be hiding underground enrichment facilities.

 

If Iran is persuaded to accept the Additional Protocol again and if the IAEA can inspect the sites, the matter could be settled.  But this it is doubtful if Iran will comply now with the demands.

 

On the negative side, Iran ’s withdrawal from the Additional Protocol is cited.  Further, it has resumed its enrichment of uranium after two years.  Its centrifuge array has been augmented.  But at every stage, Iran was reacting to provocation.  Based on the IAEA Board of Governors’ negative report to the UNSC, even before the inspectors had finished investigations, the UNSC imposed sanctions against Iran .  This preceded the conclusion of the discussions between Iran and the EU interlocutors.  Iran was bidden to suspend its enrichment programme as a pre-condition for further talks.  Iran is conscious that its previous suspensions produced no benefits.

 

Some analysts believe that the US has pressured the world community into a policy of shifting the goal-posts in order to provoke Iran into an indiscretion like withdrawal from the NPT, which would give its opponents a casus belli.  This may be unrealistic since the Bush administration lacks the political capital to launch a new major military operation.  It is surely aware that the costs would outweigh any advantage to be gained from such a thrust.  A massive air strike would provoke Iran to counter-attack and plunge the whole region in ruinous conflict.

 

Can this danger be averted?  The latest US National Intelligence Estimate conveys the consensus of all their intelligence services that Iran gave up efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003.  This has prompted American strategists to advocate a cautious line rather than a belligerent one. 

 

This gives India an opportunity.  Would all the experts present agree that India could go beyond the official channels and work actively with those sections of the American strategic community that are looking for a wider range of options?  The option most to be desired is one where India stands to benefit from its relationship with the US as well as Iran . The speaker hoped that the discussion would result in a better understanding of India ’s Iran problem

 

Discussion

The Chairman invited questions from the audience. Replying to a question on nuclear armed Iran , Adm. Jacob said that it is not in India ’s interest to have another nuclear power in the neighbourhood.  But, the irony is that India can at best only delay such a development. 

Shri Khaleeli answered a question about the ethnic composition of the Iranians.  There are minorities like Azeris and those of Turkmen stock, Ispahanis, Kurds and Baluchis too.  These minorities have lived in peace with the main population.  The speaker went on to add observations on Iran and nearby countries.  Turkey has benefited from the Iranian revolution.  Pakistan has helped Iran to cultivate relations with China .  Iran wants safe borders with Pakistan free of ethnic contention.  The impression that Iran is isolated is not correct.  It has quite good relations with the Gulf countries.  The Shia-Sunni problem should not be exaggerated, since both communities have lived together for long periods in Iran as well as Iraq .  As for the nuclear programme, it was the Shah who first began it in Bushehr.  Iran is keen on preserving its sovereignty and conserving its oil/gas as long as possible.  If Iran goes nuclear, the US may even give nuclear weapons to other Gulf states . The strategic importance of a gas pipeline from Iran running eastward instead of westward should not be forgotten. 

 

In reply to a question on what India could do to make Iran a secular democracy, Shri Khaleeli said that India could be a good example of such a polity.  Iranian society is more integrated than the Indian.  Women are given greater respect there.  A democracy cannot come about by decree.  It has to be a process.  The Chairman concurred that a democratic country cannot tell others how to be democracies.  The US has made such a mistake in Iraq . 

 

Adm Jacob explained India ’s involvement in the construction of new port facilities for Iran in the Gulf, at Bandar Abbas and Chabahar , Iran is highly conscious of its role in the security perimeter of the Arabian Sea / Indian Ocean . 

 

Shri Khaleeli explained that women in Iran were capable of being achievers, as was evident from example of the Nobel laureate, Mrs. Shirin Ebadi, Shri Kesava Menon added that Iranian women are progressive.  It is not rare to find women taxi drivers.  

To a question on Central Asia ’s oil reserves and the politics of oil, Shri Khaleeli said that Iran ’s nationalization of the oil refining company had jolted the West, which intended to keep the price of oil at one dollar per barrel.  Oil diplomacy in the so-called ‘New Great Game’ in Central Asia had become very significant.  To another question by an Indian-American scientist, he said that harsh words had been exchanged between the US (‘axis of evil’) and Iran (‘ America as the great Satan’).  India has no role in moderating Islamic fervour.  Islam should reform itself.  If Indian Muslims, numbering 150 million, can live well, that would be a great contribution to Islamic opinion.  Mr. Bush acts as a Christian leader but passes off as secular, he said. 

Chairman observed that though India is now much more powerful than it was at Independence , it commands less respect.  There is a high probability that the US would bomb sites in Iran , even with tactical nuclear weapons. This could happen before Mr. Bush leaves the White House, directly by the US forces or through Israel as its surrogate.  What would be the Indian reaction? India should be ready to respond to a strike of this kind, justly, if it should happen.

On Iran ’s possible aid to the Shias in Iraq in the internal conflict, Shri Khaleeli said that formerly there was no Shia-Sunni problem in Iraq , or blatant discrimination against Shias.  He did not believe Iran was promoting dissension within Iraq .  After all, in the Afghan drive against the Taliban, Iran had been helpful the US .  Under American occupation, crime has increased; rape wich was uncommon is now happening more often.  He believes that the country could break up under the present dispensation.  

 

Conclusion 

The seminar clearly brought out the perception that the potential for a mutually beneficial Indo-Iranian  relationship is too important to be surrendered to the hazards of the confrontation between the US and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme.  Some remained skeptical about Iran’s protestation that its programme is a genuine, legitimate quest for nuclear energy and not a ruse to make nuclear bombs through uranium enrichment or plutonium extraction; but there was a conviction that the IAEA and the UNSC are under pressure from the US and the EU to apply more stringent sanctions on Iran and impose more onerous preconditions to enable any possible diplomatic resolution of the problem.  A consensus was also forming that it would be contrary to India ’s interests if Iran became a nuclear weapon power, although the irony of India having become such a power in defiance of the West was also noted.  In brief, there is more sympathy for Iran than has been apparent in the conspicuous foreign policy shift of the UPA government in voting at the IAEA with the US on Iran matters.  This was attributed to the desire to clinch the Indo-US nuclear deal.

India cannot ignore the fact that US policy is blind to the wanton armed attacks by Israel against Lebanon ’s Hezbollah.  More recently Israel carried out a lightning air strike with impunity on an alleged nuclear facility under construction in Syria .  India has to distance itself from one-sided American criticism of Iran which overlooks Israeli provocations and bellicosity. 

 What was missing from the seminar was a parallel view of Iran ’s relations with Russia and with China .  Both these major powers have pursued their own policies and interests towards Iran , which they rightly regard as an energy rich country with tempting lines for productive economic cooperation.  They have gone along with the West in the UNSC by agreeing to impose sanctions on Iran for its non-compliance with the IAEA procedures to establish its civil nuclear credentials, but they have also retained their right to trade with Iran and to give it sophisticated technical aid for approved plans, including a nuclear reactor in Bushehr (Russian design). Iran is counting on their support to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, unlike India .  That is a strategic move worth watching.   India on the other hand has been over-cautious and over-solicitous in its Iran policy to avoid American disapproval.  Even Pakistan has been more forthcoming on the proposed Iran gas pipeline.  Such a pipeline could be stretched to India if only the implacable confrontation between Iran and the US (and Israel ) could be by-passed through diplomatic efforts. 

In the month since the seminar was held, there are developments which could augur a course correction by India .   President Ahmedinejad of Iran visited New Delhi on his way back from Sri Lanka and Pakistan on 29 April.  India ’s Minister for Petroleum recently went to Pakistan to discuss the revival of the aborted plan for the Iran gas pipeline.  (Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee had visited Teheran and held talks with Iranian leaders in February 2007, keeping a line open for eventual restoration of bilateral trust and cordiality). Even if these moves come to naught, the very fact that India and Iran are more openly seeking a more positive relationship is all to the good. The National Security Adviser (M.K. Narayanan) has spoken of the civilisational ties between India and Iran , while the Foreign Secretary (S.S.  Menon) has stated that sanctions or military action would not provide a lasting solution, but only exacerbate the situation.  “We need to evolve something that involves Iran ”, he said, since non-proliferation worldwide can only succeed in a reformed system in which Iran is also a party.  Such sentiments are overdue in our foreign policy.

 

The US for its part seems to be moving away from its over-rigid stance of root-and-branch hostility towards Iran which is establishing its due place in the West Asia in spite of it.  The Iranian president has recently visited Baghdad and held talks with Iraqi leaders.  The US must have acquiesced in it or even quietly encouraged it.  The American animus against Iran has long been at work in the active instigation of dissident Iranians to overthrow the government in Teheran in “a regime change” reminiscent of 1953.  For several years now, both Israel and the US have readied detailed plans for a devastating strike at Iran ’s nuclear facilities and even for inflicting damage amounting to national erasure if Iran should make a false step by a sneak attack on Israeli or American strategic assets.  The US can find a casus belli in Iran ’s influence with Iraqi Shias and Hamas in Palestine , Hezbollah in Lebanon and also in Syria .  The only deterrents now are the economic mess in the US , the Iraqi quagmire and the desperation in Afghanistan .   

 

The US has asked India to persuade Iran to cooperate with the world community by halting its drive to enrich uranium through arrays of centrifuges.  This unsolicited and openly given advice has ruffled the Indian government, keen as it is to avoid seeming overly identified with the US worldview.   Meanwhile, (according to a report dated April 14 in the respected ‘Independent’ of Britain,  based on a telephonic interview with Ambassador Pickering), both the US and Iran, being no novices in diplomacy, are exploring back-channel contacts, away from the public eye and earshot, to negotiate a deal which would prevent another American inspired descent into military adventure, occupation and chaos.

ASIA CENTRE is a registered 80G tax exempt non-profit organisation.