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Carpet geopolitics

India must assume a more assertive role in West Asia & the Gulf region in its own interests, writes MK Bhadrakumar.

india Updated: Feb 04, 2007 23:30 IST

Three things happened last week that signal the swift dynamics of a new world. Last Thursday, at the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini in Qom, south of Tehran, former president and éminence grise of Iranian politics, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the incumbent President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pledged unequivocally that the nation would uphold its ‘nuclear rights’ at any cost. They were symbolically together on the occasion of the commencement of festivities of the 28th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran.

On the same day, French President Jacques Chirac, in Paris, let it be known that the hullabaloo about the Iran nuclear issue may, after all, be trite and contrived.

In the Russian capital at the same time, President Vladimir Putin promised to consider an ‘interesting idea’ from Tehran relayed to him over the weekend — to set up an organisation similar to Opec by the world’s gas producing countries.

With these developments, several things became clear. To begin with, Iran is not going to abandon its nuclear programme. Iran’s ruling elite, including the religious establishment, has closed ranks. That leaves Washington with two choices: career away from rhetoric and constructively engage Tehran, or, rachet up tensions and unleash war. In the latter case, the US will be acting more or less alone in the international community. It is equally apparent that the gathering storm is not over issues of nuclear non-proliferation, but about salvaging the Iraq war and dominating West Asia.

It is against a dramatic setting that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee undertakes his visit to Tehran on Tuesday. But what arrests thought is something uniquely Indian. There have been recent stirrings in the UPA government’s foreign policy. In poignant moves, we are going back to our Gandhian roots. It really seems a very long time since we shared time with Kenneth Kaunda and Desmond Tutu. Putin’s visit, of course, rounded off the angularities of our post-Soviet worldview.

Further, a fortnight from now, Mukherjee will be hosting the first-ever trilateral with Russian and Chinese counterparts in India. And, the minister has chosen Iran as his first destination beyond India’s immediate neighbourhood, after having assumed office.

The first challenge for Mukherjee will be to view the storm brewing over the Gulf region. India must be ready. India must realise that the presidency of George W. Bush is

faltering on its Iran policy. Distinguished American diplomatists — James Baker, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George Shultz, Madeleine Albright, Anthony Lake —  vociferously oppose any US military attack on Iran. American people resent their President dragging their country into war. The Bush administration is nonetheless pressing ahead. Its reasoning lacks transparency and credibility, and is often contradictory.

Two years from now, hopefully, Israel and the Jewish lobby will not remain the driving force behind Washington’s West Asia policy. We would do well, therefore, to realise that we have no commonality of interests with the Bush administration’s Iran policy.

Unless US policy changes course, its catastrophic ending is not difficult to foretell. The People’s Daily commented recently, “Iran will be a far more challenging opponent than Iraq, considering the size of its territory and population, its national and military strength as well as geographical location.”

The Gulf region and West Asia have a profound impact on our national interests. The security and stability of the region is of vital importance. We must, therefore, do all we can to restrain the US from the warpath. This means primarily working with powers like Russia, France, China and Germany. We must shift gear from low-key diplomacy with West Asian countries. An initiative within the non-aligned movement, too, may be timely.

Iran will overcome this crisis. Therefore, we must give primacy to our medium and long-term bilateral cooperation with Iran, keeping in view its potential as a major regional power in our neighbourhood. The animated suspension of our energy cooperation with Iran is not taking us anywhere. Many countries have reached out to Tehran, ignoring Washington. Royal Dutch and its Spanish partner Repsol signed a deal estimated at around $ 5 billion for developing phases 13 and 14 of the giant South Pars gas field — the biggest foreign investment so far in developing Iran’s LNG.

In December, PetroChina signed a deal for 3 million tonnes of gas from the Pars LNG project over a 25-year period. Switzerland and Austria have just reached understanding for supply of Iranian gas through the Nabucco pipeline passing through Turkey to southern Europe, a project sponsored by the European Union. Malaysia has concluded a $ 2.7 billion deal for setting up a refinery in Iran.

Last week’s suggestion by Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei to Putin’s special envoy Igor Ivanov for forming a ‘gas cartel’ redefines the ABC of global energy politics. It’s time we robustly explore Tehran’s manifest interest in energy cooperation with India. American and Israeli monitoring of South Block’s briefs on Iran is nothing new. We’ve ignored it in the past when we were far more vulnerable — when we had commitments with the IMF, when Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was in disarray, when Charar-e-Sharif was burning, when Khalistanis were operating out of North America. Successive Congress governments followed Indira Gandhi’s footsteps and took care to sustain the momentum of Indo-Iranian cooperation. We’ve left behind the recent ill-advised stance at the IAEA. Tehran is keen to move forward.

The heart of the matter is that the geopolitics of West Asia is radically transforming. India can overlook the trends only at great peril to its long-term interests. American influence in the region is on the wane. There is a surge to fill the power vacuum. Close on the heels of French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently touring the region. Putin is visiting Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan next week, in continuation of his tour of Egypt and Algeria last year. China has raised its head over the parapet. Pervez Musharraf is looking around for ‘Islamic action’. An indeterminate stretch lies ahead, with no one defining rules.

Meanwhile, templates of the region’s geopolitics are surfacing. The West Asia crisis doesn’t lend itself to anything less than a comprehensive solution. Peace needs to be pursued on many tracks — Lebanese-Israeli, Syrian-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli. The containment strategy towards Iran and Syria is not workable. An enduring architecture of regional dialogue must provide room for these two countries. The exclusion of regional States makes the ‘Quartet process’ inane. Clearly, an American military attack on Iran will mean long years of hatreds and revenges, all springing out of past injuries.

Mukherjee’s Iran visit is an occasion piled high with difficulty. His formidable wealth of knowledge and wisdom in statecraft will be needed to steer India’s diplomacy through the choppy waters ahead.

MK Bhadrakumar is former Indian ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey.