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Top billing for Tehran

The US should know better than to downplay Iran’s importance, writes Vikram Sood.

india Updated: May 10, 2007 02:46 IST

The shoes are by Bally, slacks by Balenciaga, the bag by Givenchy and the hijab by decree. Elsewhere, in places like the island resort of Kish in the Persian Gulf where the laws tend to be slack, one can see blonde-streaked hair peeping out from under a Hermes scarf worn somewhat casually. This is the modern Iranian woman who also typifies modern Iran, a mixture of the old and the traditional, the modern and the technological. This, despite 28 years of sanctions, which no Iranian lets you forget.

Tehran itself is a concrete jungle, a moving parking lot as the locals call it, where all power and privilege resides in the north and the people live in the southern part of the city. Petrol sells at the equivalent of one US cent a litre and bottled mineral water costs thrice as much — not that there are water shortages or power outages. The infrastructure is marvellous and the roads, like the one to Arak where the Iranians have built their heavy water facility for the 40 MW reactor to be constructed, are black-topped without potholes.

Iranian scientists at Arak asserted that the indigenously built IR-40 heavy water reactor would produce radioactive isotopes for various medical and industrial uses. Western scientists say that the facility at Arak could produce plutonium in another seven years. This and the other facilities across the country are a symbol of not just the Iranian struggle for modernity, but also of national pride and sovereignty that no Iranian is willing to give up at any cost. As signatories to the NPT, Iranians assert it is their right to process uranium for peaceful purposes.

If Arak and the Tehran TV tower, the fourth highest in the world and built indigenously, are symbols of modernity, Isfahan signifies the traditional and artistic Iran. Isfahanis proudly call their city Naqsh-e-Jahan (Half of the World). Close to the exquisite Imam Mosque is the Chehel Sotun Palace. On its walls hang paintings of Nadir Shah’s conquests in India and of the visit of deposed emperor Humayun to the court of the Safavid King, Tahmasb I, seeking assistance for his restoration.

Four hundred and fifty-three years later, Murli Deora visited Tehran seeking an agreement for LNG but he got neither the kind of coverage nor the promise that Humayun got. The Iranians are keener now to have the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. There is also a sense of astonishment, hurt and even anger at the way India has twice voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency. They interpret this as a sign that India has subserved its strategic independence in favour of US interests in the region.

In our search for new strategic options we seem to forget that Iran and India were neighbours for centuries till 1947. Iran was anti-India at its virulent best during the time of the Shah of Iran, America’s regional surrogate. It is true that in its initial post-revolution years, the regime routinely exhibited its Muslim closeness by siding with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. It is equally true that it was Iran which prevented a consensus Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) vote on Kashmir in 1994 that would have led the Kashmir issue to be eventually re-opened at the United Nations Security Council. Given that gratitude is not reason enough for international relations, India has to seek mutually beneficial relations with Iran purely for geo-strategic considerations.

Ten per cent of the world’s oil reserves — about 132.5 billion barrels of proven reserves — are in Iran. It has the world’s second largest reserves of gas. Given these assets, it is far too irresistible a prize, far too important, to be left alone and strong in the region. Iran is, therefore, a natural and prime target of US actions in the region in its quest for full spectrum global dominance. The German-born Baron Reuter (of Reuters news agency) acquired the Reuter Commission in 1872 that gave the British monopoly over Iran’s economic and financial sector. From then to the overthrow of the brutal Shah in 1979 was a long history of exploitation of Iran by Western interests.

The Americans equated Iran with the Arab peninsula regimes, mostly installed by imperial powers post-World War I, expecting it to be similarly amenable. Unable to understand that Iran is a civilisation that predates these Arab nations, the West has routinely applied sanctions, tried isolation, but Iran has withstood all this since 1979.

A third aircraft carrier, the Nimitz, will augment the largest naval armada in the region, which now backs a covert financial war. Reports speak of Iranian missiles reaching European targets in another eight years, whereas US cruise missiles can reach Iranian targets in eight minutes or less today. Iran’s response has been to sell 70 per cent of its oil in euros. This sharply marks the beginning of a challenge to the supremacy of the US dollar. Plans to establish a new Iranian oil bourse on Kish island are ready for execution. This will challenge New York’s NYMex and London’s IPE, break their monopoly and establish the euro as a currency for international oil-trading mechanism. Iran is also selling oil to China in yuan and has entered into a long-term bilateral $ 100 billion arrangements with China to develop its Yadvaran oil fields and Pars gas fields. The Japanese are also said to be willing to pay for oil in yen.

Reacting to US attempts at creating trouble for it in its periphery, Iran recently reminded the Azeris to its north that it was not long ago that they were a part of Iran and this could happen again. Even though Iran had cooperated with the Americans and helped them gain influence in Afghanistan in 2001, the US today accuses Iran of interfering in Afghanistan. Iranian actions are possibly in retaliation to American actions in Iran’s Sistan Balochistan, where covert operations have been launched in recent months.

Iranians assert that their decision to stand up to American pressures all these years has been vindicated, what with the US seeking — or begging as some of them put it — that the Iranians talk to them and help them out of the Iraq quagmire. It is unlikely that the Iranians will agree to cooperate with the Americans without a quid pro quo on the nuclear issue. The mutual animus and suspicions are far too deep to be overcome in one or two rounds of talks. There is the other possibility that the US could use the failure of the talks to declare lack of good faith and justify recourse to military action.

Meanwhile, the Iranians now feel that they are the predominant regional power in the Muslim world and are a major factor in all developments in the region. As a member of the SCO and Saarc, Iran is going to play an increasingly larger role in the region’s affairs. The Arabs see this as the rise of the Shia crescent led by Iran, and, worry. The oil and military — industrial billionaires, who made record profits from the Iraq misadventure — see larger profits in Iran. Not having learnt from recent, or any other history, there is still a school of thought in Washington that strongly advocates an American-led ‘shock and awe’ treatment of Iran. But first, excuses have to be found and a casus belli concocted.

This could be a last ditch effort to restore US supremacy in the region and, paradoxically, destroy the world.

Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing.