Embrace of the strategic partner

It was in a conference room in distant Vienna where one of the most significant post-Cold War shifts in New Delhi's foreign policy was implemented. On 24 September, New Delhi decided to cast its lot with its 'strategic partner' the United States, and jointed a resolution against 'good friend' Iran at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The resolution accused Iran of pursuing a 'policy of concealment' with regard to its nuclear programme, saying that Teheran was 'non-compliant' with the IAEA statute. Declaring that Iran's nuclear aims fall 'within the competence of the Security Council', the resolution also demanded that Iran halt all enrichment and processing of uranium.

India's vote provoked outrage back in Delhi. Left-wing allies of the Congress party, the right-wing opposition, scholars and journalists alleged that India had gone back on the very principles of non-alignment that it had championed before the world, accusing the government of reducing the country to an American client state. Old friend Teheran expressed 'hurt', 'surprise' and 'shock' at this betrayal. But that was acceptable for a newly acquiescent New Delhi – it had gotten a pat on the back from the Bush administration. Sections of India's strategic elite were exultant at this 'realist' turn to foreign policy.

New Delhi's decision to jettison a decades-old posture was embedded within a complex web of regional and international issues: the evolution of Indo-US and Indo-Iranian relationships; the implications for Southasian energy security; and the Washington DC strategy to isolate Iran. India's Vienna decision reflects the broader trend towards subservience to US interests, and is both morally untenable and strategically myopic.

The betrayal

New Delhi has suddenly turned the tenets of its earlier Iran policy upside-down – those of seeking a decision by consensus, retaining the nuclear question within the ambit of the IAEA, and supporting Iran's right to develop a nuclear programme for peaceful purposes. The resolution paved the way for referral of the issue to the Security Council and sought to halt even those nuclear activities that Teheran is entitled to undertake under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Pro-establishment spin-masters in New Delhi have incongruously sought to portray the vote as a pro-Iran move, one that has bought time for diplomacy and prevented the immediate referral of the issue to the Council. In reality, the very recognition that the issue lies within the Council's purview means that Iran's nuclear programme is now officially deemed to be a 'threat to international peace and security', firmly putting the country in the dock. If Teheran is furious and Washington elated by the IAEA resolution, we would like to know, how can the move be in Iran's favour?

India, with eyes wide open, has played into the hands of the US neo-conservative establishment and their cheerleader George W Bush. This group is now focusing on Iran as the next country in line for intervention among the infamous 'axis of evil'. Once again, 'weapons of mass destruction' – yet to be found in Iraq – is the catchphrase being used to attempt to isolate Teheran. The fact is, the IAEA reports that Iran has shown 'good progress' on the nuclear question: "all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for and, therefore, such material is not diverted to prohibited activities."

No weapons-grade uranium has been found in Iranian facilities; only the prejudiced believe at this time that there is a 'clandestine weapons programme'. Iran does need to disclose the history of its P2 centrifuge programme – reported to have been obtained from the shadowy network of A Q Khan – and the IAEA needs to be fully convinced that Teheran is not engaging in some undeclared nuclear-related activity. But the IAEA has processes for that, and the world need not jump the gun. Teheran has already signed the Additional Protocol that allows a liberal, even intrusive, inspection of its nuclear programme – this should have been the means to deal with any Iran-related apprehensions.

New Delhi's stand in Vienna, based on misrepresentations of Iran's nuclear programme, assists the US in the next phase of its 'war on terror'. While an American invasion is unlikely at this time, given the probability that it would end in a classic case of imperial over-reach, there is clearly a strategy of sanctions in the works. Washington has long eyed Iran as a prized catch in its West Asian game, mostly because of its large oil and natural gas reserves. The invasion of Iraq will not be justified until Iran is subdued, apparently. Besides, in the larger matrix, Iran is the only country in the region that has the potential to stand up to Israel. It is also the lynchpin for any independent energy initiative in Asia. With its Vienna vote, India has become complicit in a strategy that is being engineered for someone else's benefit; in so doing, it has infringed on the sovereignty of an old friend.

New Delhi's about-face defies strategic logic as well. Iran has been India's closest ally in the 'Islamic world' and has supported India at crucial junctures over the years. It has also helped to arrange India's economic access to Central Asia. But it is in the realm of energy collaboration that Indo-Iranian cooperation has such immense potential. The agreement between the two countries on the supply of liquefied natural gas, and Teheran's enthusiastic support for the Iran-Pakistan-India gasline, holds solutions for India's ever-increasing energy needs that are crucial for poverty reduction and economic expansion (see Himal Jul-Aug 05).

Immediately after the vote, Iran's disappointed representative in Vienna reportedly walked up to Indian diplomats and declared that the pipeline deal was now dead. While Teheran has since clarified that the energy agreements are still on, there is no escaping the mistrust that has now entered into the relationship. All of a sudden, the prospects for the 'magic pipeline' seem to have receded into the distance.

Adding to the vote's irony is India's own nuclear dynamic. Here is a state that has stayed outside of the global nuclear order and has tested nuclear weapons as recently as 1998. Suddenly, it has sat in judgement against another state that is a signatory to the NPT, that appears to have abided by international rules, and where traces of a nuclear-weapons programme have yet to be found. India's own 1998 logic of a 'hostile security environment' would seem to apply to Iran as a country surrounded by hostility – the US's orchestrations from afar and its presence in next-door Iraq and Afghanistan. Not to mention the nuclear-armed Israel in the vicinity, which geo-strategists tend to forget.

Great power

The Vienna vote has to be seen as a part of the broader shift in Indian policy towards aligning with the 'superpower' in a 'unipolar' world – jettisoning, as one laudatory newspaper editorial argued, the "weak and crumbling multilateral crutches". But New Delhi cannot hope to piggyback its way to Great Power status by curtailing its autonomous decision-making and turning its back on those it claims to represent.

In the specific context of Iran, there is little doubt that India buckled under the weight of its much-coveted 'strategic partnership' with the United States. American lawmakers had made it clear to New Delhi – 'in plain English', as one US Congressman put it – that the civilian nuclear cooperation deal signed between the two countries in July this year would come through only if India voted with the US in Vienna. The July agreement is prized because it includes de facto US recognition of India's nuclear power status; and promises the supply of previously prohibited nuclear material, in return for Indian pledges to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities. For the deal to come into force, however, it has to be ratified by the US Congress a clear US bargaining chip to bully India's Vienna vote.

Policymakers in New Delhi need to ponder exactly how this new alliance with Washington DC has curtailed India's own strategic and political space on the global stage. Given the asymmetry of power and inequality that characterises Indo-US relations, New Delhi may well find itself toeing the American line again and again, until all of its carefully cultivated independence is lost. This time, the scales were tipped by a nuclear energy deal – the very utility of which is extremely suspect, a fact that only went un-highlighted because India's anti-nuclear lobby seems dead in its tracks. The next time, it could be the lure or promise of a trade agreement. The benefits of such tradeoffs are as doubtful as the costs are clear.

As it seeks access to the corridors of power in Washington DC, New Delhi will rapidly lose respect and support among the countries of the South. While most countries of the Non-Aligned Movement abstained in the Vienna vote, India crossed the floor. In our view, for a country that is starry-eyed in its hopes to represent the voice of the developing world in the Security Council and the World Trade Organisation, this action was glaring and unwise. Will it be possible for New Delhi to pull back from the path it has already embarked upon? Even if better counsel prevails, how will it wrest back its autonomy? We will wait and see, as the IAEA meets again in Vienna this November.

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