Earlier this year, I asked a senior American diplomat why India and the United States differed fundamentally in their vision of Iran and its place in the world. He blunted my leading question, suggested that both countries were on the same page as far as sanctions were concerned, and began reeling off measures India had taken to reduce Iranian crude oil imports. His response to my query on the “big picture” was in part boilerplate, but no less revealing. It is not among American diplomacy’s stated aims to convince India why Iran is a threat to global security. But the U.S. has tried its best to co-opt India within its economic embargo on Iran, first at the United Nations Security Council and then through unilateral measures. For the most part, it has succeeded. India’s ties with Iran today are largely driven by the need to steer clear of the sanctions regime, rather than charting its own autonomous course. In other words, the relationship has become transactional, rather than strategic — reduced to the volume of oil India imports from Iran, or the permissibility of New Delhi’s assistance in building Iranian infrastructure.
Tough for India
There is then a great irony in claiming that the interim agreement signed on November 24 in Geneva between the P5+1 bloc (U.S., Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia) and Iran is also good for India. That the Geneva deal may have reduced the scope for military confrontation between Israel/U.S. and Iran indeed aids India’s interests. But beyond this, the prognosis from Geneva is grim for New Delhi. Under the interim agreement, U.N. sanctions will continue to remain in effect. The agreement does not also permit an increase in crude oil sales: while India can now release its payments owed to Iran for previous transactions, the interim deal offers hardly any wiggle room for constructive energy diplomacy between both. In fact, the resumption of dollar payments will likely burden our Current Account Deficit — the Iranian oil-for-rupee proposal, which India unwisely sat on, will now be relegated to history.
Pending an agreement that lifts the cap on crude sales, Indian imports will remain exposed to U.S. pressure and continue their downward trajectory. The fact remains that the U.S. is firmly in control of the narrative which has set the tone for our relationship with Iran: that the Islamic Republic is bent on creating and stockpiling nuclear weapons.
This would have been a convincing objective had the U.S. not shown a stunning lack of good faith in brokering a deal with Iran. As the Associated Press and Al-Monitor have revealed, the Geneva agreement was fleshed out primarily through backchannel diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran. Most P5+1 members were unaware of such negotiations until the second round of talks in Geneva earlier last month. One U.S. official suggested to Al-Monitor that “the goal, everything in the bilateral channel, was to be fed into the P5+1 channel [sic].” If concern over Iran’s nuclear programme has gained traction internationally, it is in no small measure on account of the broad political spectrum the P5+1 represents. That the U.S. chose to undercut this coalition and facilitate an interim agreement premised on its own interests reflects poorly on its intentions.
U.S. efforts to micromanage every step of this multilateral process — and with it, the global perception of Iran — were apparent in the aftermath of efforts by Brazil and Turkey to secure a deal on the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). The Brazil-Turkey proposal — essentially a nuclear “fuel swap” — was a small but important initiative to which Iran’s faithful adherence would have earned the confidence of neutral observers like India and Germany. U.S. President Barack Obama even suggested so in his letter to Brazil’s then President, Lula da Silva, only to disavow the deal after it had been finalised.
The TRR proposal was merely a variant of what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) itself had proposed in 2009 as part of Iran’s discussions with the “Vienna Group,” comprising the U.S., Russia and France. Under this proposal, 1,200 kg of Iran’s Low Enriched Uranium would be shipped to Russia and kept under IAEA watch. Then, a U.S. official had described the initiative as “a positive interim step to help build confidence.” When Brazil and Turkey brokered the same deal, the U.S. shunned it, realising that any bona fide action would strengthen Iran’s hands at the U.N. and elsewhere.
Nowhere is the U.S. attempt to control this global discourse more evident than in the debate surrounding Iran’s “right” to uranium enrichment. The Geneva interim agreement has stoked a controversy with the U.S. suggesting that the P5+1 has not recognised Iran’s enrichment rights. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran holds an “inalienable” right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Enriching uranium is an integral part of the nuclear fuel cycle and any argument that Tehran needs to earn this entitlement is tendentious and politically coloured. There exists no known principle in international law that allows a few countries to suspend the rights of a fellow signatory to the NPT, pending evidence of good faith. In fact, the P5+1 is hardly united on this front.
The Russia-India-China trilateral summit that concluded a few weeks ago “recognised Iran’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including for uranium enrichment under strict IAEA safeguards.” Not only is the joint statement from the RIC trilateral an admirable consolidation of India’s stance, but also clearly indicates the position of Russia and China, key P5+1 constituents. If the interim agreement paves the way for IAEA’s stringent monitoring and inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities, why is the U.S. not keen to recognise its right to civilian nuclear energy?
Iran’s global relevance
For long, the U.S. has played host to an internal debate on the intentions of the Islamic Republic. Neo-conservative factions in Capitol Hill, supported by Israel, have stridently pressed for greater sanctions (and even a military assault) on Iran. Given the enormous domestic pressure on his administration, President Obama can ill-afford to reverse the trajectory of Iran-U.S. relations overnight. On the other hand, it has become increasingly difficult to shun Iran from the international community. The Arab Spring, the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the Syrian civil war have all seen the Islamic Republic emerge as a strong and influential broker.
The best that Washington can do is to mitigate Iranian influence and “manage” its re-entry on the global stage. The nuclear question, therefore, serves as an ideal veneer for this objective. New Delhi fell for this ploy first in 2005, when it was asked to vote against Iran at the IAEA in return for seeing the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal through. Then, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the high moral ground, suggesting that proliferation concerns had motivated India’s vote. Once the IAEA referred the matter to the U.N. Security Council, however, there was little that India or other like-minded countries could have done to change course.
To be sure, recent signals emanating from South Block suggest that India would like to distance itself from the U.S. calculus on Iran. Whether and to what extent it can successfully do so in light of the sanctions regime remain uncertain. The Geneva deal endorses a tightly controlled, U.S.-driven narrative on the relevance of Iran among nations. India could continue to hitch its wagon to this process, but its strategic calculus on Afghanistan and West Asia would remain tethered to U.S. plans for the region. On the other hand, if India sees the Geneva deal as fait accompli — a ringing endorsement of the fact that Iran is no longer a bit player — it would do well to push the envelope on commercial and strategic ties with Tehran.
This article first appeared in The Hindu, one of India’s leading newspaper