US secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday reiterated that India must scale down its energy imports from Iran, as part of the US-led efforts to limit Iran to a 20% uranium enrichment programme.
But by the time the sanctions take effect in July 2012, Iran's nuclear programme will be so deep underground that even the world's most powerful weapons may not be able to uncover them. Iran may not wait till July 2012, and the US also knows that sanctions will not be the sole reason to tame Iran and that India, China and many others would find it difficult to do without Iranian oil. So then what's driving the present US strategy — act tough but don't attack Iranian nuclear sites — on sanctions? First, Washington fears an increase in Iran-sponsored attacks on the US forces in West Asia. And second, is its reluctance to get caught in a web of ongoing political struggle across the Muslim world.
"The crisis of authority is the defining context of political struggles across the Muslim world, but particularly in the Middle East," says strategist F Gregory Gause. The issues generated by the successful 1979 Iranian revolution are eating into the vitals of West Asia politics.
By declaring Islam as the basis of the Iranian republic and by propagating the establishment of an Islamic State, the clerical leadership in Iran was competing with Al Sa'ud in Saudi Arabia on their own turf. Saudi Arabia derives its legitimacy from the fact that it looks after Mecca and Medina and that it rules the country according to the Islamic norms and customs. But Iranian clerical leader Khomeini decreed that a monarchy was non-Islamic and that a republic was the only form of State adequate to Islam.
Gause, however, believes that it is not a "binary conflict between Islamists and secularists; Islamists, too are divided by sect and by strategy; secularists don't favour complete Islamisation of politics". The secularists, on the other hand, are threatened by Iran's choice of governance model. They — but not the Islamists — favour (at the political level) US influence in the region on grounds of regime stability.
The latter, whether moderates or radicals or terrorists, do not want the US model of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord nor do they want US bases anywhere in West Asia. In the past, the US's presence in the region had fanned anti-US sentiments and the 9/11 attack was a manifestation of this.
The US's involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the West Asia peace process, its backing of the monarchies have coalesced Islamist public opinion against the country. This anger is the single biggest threat the US has faced since the end of the Cold War. Even as Arab states, major or minor, look at the US to balance each other to negate the rise and power of the other or to balance the rise of Iran, there is also an underlying discontent with US's involvement in the region at the people's level.
The US is, therefore, sitting on the horns of a security dilemma. If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, which it will, given the ongoing negotiations and pace of sanctions, the region will look to the US to provide a security umbrella against Iran's nuclear weapons. If Washington does this to prevent a nuclear arms race, it will also need to continuously evaluate and assess the nature and degree of its involvement in the region, lest it produces another wave of resentment like it has done in Iraq and in the Af-Pak region. All such moves would be good news for terrorists because they will then be able to exploit this to fan public resentment.
India must, therefore, manage its own interests that are critically dependent on Iranian oil, as the US, too, is mindful of its own interests.
Rohit Singh is associate fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.