No one should be surprised that the international noose is tightening around Iran. Following in the footsteps of the financial sanctions announced by the US, the European Union (EU) has announced oil import sanctions. Less publicised are the copycat actions by Turkey or the quiet promises by Saudi Arabia and other oil producers to make up for any Iranian oil shortfalls. Further economic and diplomatic activity on this front can be expected through this year.
There is little doubt in anyone's mind that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. The real question is whether the rest of the world can and should do something about it. There is a consensus view that if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon, a range of countries from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Turkey would follow suit. This would be a proliferation explosion without match in the past half-century. Tehran, so far, shows no concerns about the fallout of its actions. The western countries argue that they are less interested in forcing Iran to rollback its programme than simply getting Tehran to come to the negotiating table and talk frankly about why it is doing what it is doing and whether a compromise is possible. This is an acceptable goal if one considers the regional consequences. The sanctions are really about getting Iran to make a credible effort at negotiations. New Delhi accepts the dangers of Iran's nuclearisation but is sceptical of the sanctions' ability to do much to bend Tehran's will. India also has other common interests with Iran including the future of Afghanistan after the US withdraws and, to an extent, access to Central Asia. And it does not believe that it can afford to put Iran in the stocks one day and then shake hands the next — a luxury that the US or the EU can. So India has declined to follow the West's sanctions and keeps up the hunt for a means to funnel oil payments to Iran even as its refineries quietly look for alternative sources.
Nonetheless, while there is much exaggerated sentiment regarding relations with Iran, New Delhi should consider pressing diplomatic buttons in Tehran about holding credible talks, and press hard. The Persian Gulf is one region whose isolation from the world would bring India to its knees. Tehran and the West should be urged to find a middle ground. One possibility: the sort of 'everything short of a weapon' that nuclear India had for years. The sanctions game will drag on for months. It may or may not work, but it is important to realise that if economics fails to budge Iran then the military option will become a genuine possibility. Part of the reason the US and the EU are pushing so hard is that if they do not then countries like Israel, backed by the Sunni States of the Gulf, have indicated they will take events into their own hands. India is barely even a pawn on this chessboard. But given the size of its stakes, New Delhi may wish to shake off its normal passivity and at least try to see if a middle way is possible in what is proving to be an extremely warm winter in the Persian Gulf.