Bottomline | Devil and Deep Sea

By voting against Iran, India has lowered its geo-strategic stature

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

India will soon learn that it does not help to stand on two stools. By recently voting with the US against Iran on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution, India has undercut its own image as an independent rising power. If it does not vote the same way when in weeks the Iran issue is expected to come up again at the IAEA for referral to the United Nations, India will get discredited further. Delhi, after all, has told Iran that it supported the resolution to ensure Teheran has more time to adopt a flexible approach, which in all probability will not happen.

Worse, if it abstains, India will end up angering the US lawmakers with far reaching implications. A few Congressmen have threatened to rubbish the recently signed Indo-US joint statement which promises to help India become a major power. Meanwhile, Iran has made it clear that it may consider reduction in its trade with India (if India again sides with the US on the issue). The unambiguous hint is that the US$21 billon-deal for liquefied natural gas for 25 years beginning 2009, the promised annual additional 2.5 million tons of LNG, and the proposed India-Iran pipeline through Pakistan will be annulled. With much at stake, has India’s unexpected position against Iran served its national interest?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says yes, but gives the wrong reason. He told left party leaders that India had done so to back the European Union-3 (Britain, France and Germany), and not necessarily the US decision to give Iran more time to moderate its belligerent stance. If true, India was both oblivious of what was happening in Vienna, and completely misjudged Iran’s response. In view of Russian and Chinese opposition to Iran’s referral to the UN, it was a foregone US and European conclusion in Vienna that more time would need to be given to Iran. India had little contribution in this. The real reason for India’s action, as given by India’s ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen, was that it did not want to jeopardise the Indo-US deal on civilian nuclear energy because unlike oil and gas, nuclear energy is infinite. The implication is that the growing energy needs and not geopolitics has propelled India for partnership with the US. This proposition is dangerous because the US has, on its terms, sought India’s friendship for geo-political reasons alone.

The US has two objectives for its partnership with India: non-proliferation, and enhanced military ties for multinational operations for stability in Asia. Non-proliferation in turn has three aspects: to define and quantify India’s minimum nuclear deterrence; to ensure no internal proliferation, meaning that dual-use technology given by the US will not be employed for indigenous strategic weapon systems; and tightening of the export control regime to bring it at par with international norms. By asking India to separate its civilian and military nuclear reactors, pressure has commenced on India to both quantify its minimum nuclear deterrence, and constrain its three-stage nuclear research programme comprising Pressurised Heavy Water reactors, fast breeder reactor and thorium reactors. This implies that on the one hand, India has been asked to limit its fissile material stocks ahead of the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and go slow with its strategic weapons programmes including indigenous ballistic and cruise missiles. On the other hand, curtailment of indigenous nuclear research will ensure that India remains dependent on imports of nuclear fuel and nuclear reactors for its growing energy needs.

This is not all. Regarding military ties under the recently signed 10-years bilateral defence framework, the US has sought increased cooperation in three areas of combined military operations, improved sales of US weapon systems, and collaboration between the defence production complexes of the two countries. The eventual US aim is to ensure that Indian defence forces use more US weapon systems, have good interoperability and understanding of US multinational operations. The last issue is being tackled by the US at both informal and formal levels with the external affairs ministry and as ‘scenario building’ exercises with senior retired and serving Indian military officers. Meanwhile, US defence manufacturers are aggressively trying to sell weapon systems to India. Cases in point are F-16, FA-18 aircraft, Patriot anti-missile system, and India’s involvement in the fifth generation F-35 fighter aircraft. It does not need a genius to conclude that India’s national security is not served by the growing partnership with the US. India has military threats from Pakistan and China against which it needs befitting strategic and conventional weapons capabilities. There are the added internal stability needs that require urgent attention.

If national security does not improve, have the other two crucial elements of national interest, namely, India’s growing energy needs and geo-political stature enhanced by the recent voting against Iran? The answer to both is no. The nuclear energy needs that India is seeking from the US, provided it actually comes about, are well into the future. For the near and medium term, India will remain dependent on hydrocarbon fuels from the Gulf, notably Iran. However, two things have certainly happened by India’s action against Iran: India’s regional standing has taken a hard knock, and Pakistan, by its absentia vote against Iran has made the point that the US needs it more than it needs the US. Unfortunately, with India, the opposite is true.


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