- Gateway House - https://www.gatewayhouse.in -

India-U.S.-Iran Impasse?

The winds are not in the sails of the India-U.S. relationship. The failure to close the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement, the suspension of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail, the stalling of economic reforms in India, the revival of outsourcing to India as a U.S. election issue  – all these have caused a slight chill to settle over an accommodation that was so promising just two years ago.

Now the two countries are facing particular challenges over Iran. The U.S. has imposed punishing sanctions on Iran, the latest of which is a refusal to exempt India from sanctions against Iran and a U.S.-supported European Union sanction on reinsurance of oil supplies from Iran; these have complicated the shipping of crude from Iran to India, and are likely to constrain the country’s already tight energy supplies.

Frank Wisner, the former U.S. Ambassador to India and Egypt, who is privy to Washington’s India and Middle East policies, spoke to Gateway House’s Manjeet Kripalani about the possibility of a strike against Iran and its effects on the India-U.S. relationship.

How concerned are you about the growing tensions around Iran?

I am very concerned.  Henry Kissinger was in Delhi and said there is a 40% chance of an Israeli attack on Iran. That is a serious contention.  The U.S. will be caught in the cross-hairs of an attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear fabrication system. There is scant support in the U.S. for new military ventures, especially given the present economic situation. Nearly 60% of Republicans don’t want an Iran-Israel war, and 75% of Democratic voters don’t either.

But there is no place to hide when something like this happens. The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, and U.S. allies, are in harm’s way. The chances of an accidental encounter are high. We will be forced to defend ourselves.

What will be the consequences in the region?

Opinion in the Muslim world and beyond will be hugely negative. Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia predicts a hugely negative reaction in his country, and the same is true in India with its own Muslim community.

How did things reach this point?

Iran’s commitment to its nuclear capability is long-standing – going back to the time of the Shah. There is pride that Iranian scientists have managed to acquire the technology required to put a nuclear system in place. Some Iranians feel they need nuclear capability for security in a hostile region. Iranians have a sharp sense of vulnerability. Many believe they are under constant assault, especially from the U.S.

Some Iranians have a deeply-held view that they are an important force in the Middle East and their voice has been stilled for generations; that they have not exercised their due share of influence; that a nuclear capability will give them that influence.

Israel sees Ahmadinejad’s denial of the holocaust and outspoken hostility as a threat to its existence. While the threat of nuclear proliferation from Iran is real, the core threat is political i.e. the Jewish state survives because it has dominance in all military fields. Israel will not sit quietly and loose its edge. It will demonstrate it has enough power to ensure its security.

The U.S. has a moral commitment to the survival of Israel. It is concerned about the shift in balance of power in the region, and the threat of proliferation which could be set off by Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons. The lines between weaponization and capability are very thin. And for the first time in history, we have U.S. soldiers and airmen on Iran’s maritime and land borders. And then there is the question of the global economy and the fragile state of our recovery.

What if Israel attacks Iran? What are the implications for India?

It will be a game-changing disaster. My Israeli friends believe “the window of opportunity” to attack is now, especially when there is disarray in Europe and the Arab world, and when the U.S. is headed to elections.  Many in Israel feel that Iran is on the verge of hardening its nuclear enrichment facilities.

Like the U.S., India does not want to see weapons’ proliferation either; you took a stand at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Making sure Iran’s nuclear program does not lead to nuclear weapons is in your interest.

You are taking practical steps in coping with your oil supplies.  You are also keen to protect your long-standing ties with Iran that go to the heart of your national security calculations. Iran has been a shield on West Asia for India. Your access to Afghanistan is through Iran.

How affected is the India-U.S. relationship by the situation we are facing?

India-U.S. relations are moving in parallel, and are not necessarily congruent on issues that are of common interest and concern – Iran, Afghanistan post-2014 and, over the horizon, China.  We seek similar goals but intend to pursue them independently.  Our nations can reinforce one another.

What do you think India can do?

There is a need to move beyond the nuclear front… to provide a broader regional security framework.  A regional security dimension is vitally important if the states of West Asia are to live in peace.

Here I contend, India has a place in conducting diplomacy. As disastrous as violence would be, it might just open the door to diplomatic outcomes. We must think through contingency. There is an opportunity to create political structures to deal with consequences.

Since the 1980s, Iran has been at the receiving end of U.S. sanctions. There are U.S. bases around Iran. So it is a rich irony that Israel feels threatened by Iran. And an irony that the U.S. is indulgent on Pakistan’s nuclear programme with the same potential consequences as nuclear development in Iran.

Let’s not forget Iran is a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory. Its nuclear preparations strain creditability, especially in light of its behaviour as a power in the Middle East.  Unlike India which is a responsible international power, what is Iran?

At heart is a great irony. Nearly 1 million Iranians live in the U.S.  In Tehran, the U.S. is very popular! There is no natural misalignment between the U.S. and Iran. It is the nuclear capability and Iran’s conduct in the Middle East that leads to distrust.

Clearly Israel has nuclear weapons. But the issue is not the use of weapons, which I view as unlikely, but the political consequences of weapons. An international agreement with Iran that limits its capability to enrich uranium to 5% enrichment is imaginable.

I am right to be anxious about the situation. The crisis is sharpening to the point that decisions must be taken. But we operate in a dark room. How little we understand of Iran and its politics or the politics of negotiations.  Can the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei move now? Are we to take his reiteration of his fatwa on nuclear weapons at face value?  There are some encouraging signs. In the recent elections, the Supreme Leader has marginalized Ahmadinejad and cut him down to size. Almost two-thirds of the seats in Iran’s Parliament are on the side of the Supreme Leader. Does this strengthen the Supreme Leader’s hand to conduct negotiations with the EU 3 (France, Germany, United Kingdom) plus 3 (Russia, China and the United States)?

There is a new Great Game being played out – what is the role of Turkey, of Russia, of Pakistan, of China?

I see the Middle East in terms of a balance of power.  When the U.S. became involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Turks saw U.S. influence in maintaining a balance along Turkey’s southern borders diminish; the Turks may have seen the emergence of a Shiía “crescent”. When the trouble in Damascus began, Turkey quickly moved against Assad to re-establish balance. Turkey can live with Iran if there is a balance. I feel Turkey is acting on the basis of long-standing national interests.

Iran is Russia’s neighbour, and the Russians are trying to be part of the Middle Eastern equation and its relationship with Syria is its point of entry.  Russia wants to be sure its interests are accommodated.

China has developed important economic interests in Iran, especially in petroleum. It will seek to be part of the international actions but China is not yet a front-ranked player. It is a front-ranked observer.

The oil interests of the U.S in the Middle East are small, but India is hugely dependent, and so is China and Korea…

Oil is an international commodity; its price is set internationally and we are all hugely dependent. If there is a disruption in one place, it will impact everyone. We pay the same high international price as India and China.

The U.S. government would like to see India be part of the solution, by joining in sending signals to our Iranian friends to settle now.

How soon will India have a more focused foreign policy, and play a real role in this region? What role could and should she play?

India has a disposition and capability to be a great force in and beyond her region and she is determined to keep the balance of power in Asia, and on the world stage.

Washington found this hard to believe 20 years ago. Now Americans have a better understanding of India’s interests and the depth, subtlety and nuance of positions India adopts.

Should India be assertive or leave the defence of international standards to others? India’s style is different from ours. India’s way to demonstrate its position, especially, vis-à-vis China, is political; which is not to say India doesn’t see the need to reinforce its message by building its defence capability and strengthening its relations with the U.S. and with China’s neighbours. India wants to live in peace by maintaining a balance. Maintaining a balance of power in Asia, as I see it, is explicit in India’s Look East policy.

India’s place in the world is, as I understand it, based on an all-party agreement. The wrestling matches going on in Delhi just now will continue, but the consensus on foreign affairs is deeply entrenched. As a result, India is now in a credible position to speak and act on the world stage.

Ambassador Frank Wisner is a former U.S. diplomat, who served as Ambassador to India, Egypt and the Philippines.

Manjeet Kripalani is executive director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

This interview was exclusively conducted for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.in.

© Copyright 2012 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.