Moving into orbit
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Moving into orbit

Both the criticism and the defence of India?s decision to vote against Iran at the IAEA have sunk to depths of bad taste that make a mockery of the Indian elite?s pretensions to emerging great power status.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2006 15:31 IST

Both the criticism and the defence of India’s decision to vote against Iran at the IAEA have sunk to depths of bad taste that make a mockery of the Indian elite’s pretensions to emerging great power status. While Prakash Karat and a number of intellectuals from the Left have accused Manmohan Singh of emulating Judas Iscariot and betraying Iran and non-alignment for ‘thirty pieces’ of technology and a seat at the bottom of the High Table, the advocates of ‘cold national interest’, who apparently include a member of the core group of the Congress, have not hesitated to highlight Iran’s frequent support of Pakistan in its periodic conflicts with India to justify stabbing it in the back now.

But the entire debate is one giant exercise in irrelevance. For it is being carried on squarely within the framework of an international State system that has been under attack for at least two decades and is in an advanced state of decay. This is the Westphalian system enshrined, in its final incarnation, in the charter of the United Nations. The challenge that every country faces is how to navigate in a world that is suddenly without rules? But for a large, democratic country like India there is a second challenge — this is to help write the rules of a new order. Although taken intuitively and under great pressure, the decision on Iran was the first step in that direction.

The Westphalian system rested on two pillars, the sovereignty of nation States and non-interference in each others’ internal affairs. Peace was maintained through deterrence and, after the development of nuclear weapons, was immensely reinforced by the threat of mutually assured destruction. That system came to an unequivocal end when the US, Britain and a handful of misguided ‘allies’ invaded Iraq without a shadow of justification and without the consent of the Security Council. But notice had been served on the Westphalian system a year earlier by George W. Bush when he announced a new National Security Doctrine that explicitly abjured deterrence in favour of pre-emptive assault to safeguard the US’s security and interests around the globe. The right to pre-emptive assault was nothing short of a declaration of Empire and, by definition, implied an utter contempt for national sovereignty.

The Bush doctrine was a response to the rise of global terrorism. But terrorism itself was a mindless and purely destructive response to the assault on indigenous cultures that had resulted from globalisation. Globalisation had begun to erode previously stable social systems in the industrialised counties as long back as the early Seventies when the technology-driven unification of national markets triggered a migration of capital from the industrialised to a select handful of developing countries and overturned the traditional relationship between high and low wage economies.

But the selectivity displayed by capital in its choice of destinations accentuated the economic exclusion of other developing countries, many of which turned into failed or failing States. The extensive violations of human rights in some of them became the pretext for frequent and increasingly ambitious military interventions in these States. By the time Nato launched its assault on Serbia in 1999 both the pillars of the Westphalian system were close to collapse. The Bush doctrine and the invasion of Iraq only delivered the coup de grace.

Throughout the Cold War years, when India had been at the receiving end of American suspicion and Chinese and Pakistani hostility, Indian foreign policy had become increasingly defensive. But in the past decade India’s international position has undergone a profound transformation.

While country after country has sunk into crisis, while every military intervention by the major powers, however well intentioned, has deepened the chaos in the international system, and while the de facto rulers of the new world, the US and its allies, have become embattled in a war they cannot win and cannot afford to lose, India has made a successful transformation into a market economy, has experienced rapid and accelerating economic growth, and has shown exemplary responsibility in the management of its nuclear capability. Its democratic traditions have prevented both terrorism and fundamentalism from gaining a toehold in the country and, above all, it has remained relatively free from internal stresses and strains. It was inevitable that that it would be asked to share the burden of management.

India demonstrated its growing capacity to affect outcomes when it lifted a battalion in record time to the Maldives in 1988. It demonstrated an impressive capacity to cope with natural disasters after the tsunami. For several years it had been contributing food and medicines to countries affected by drought, floods and disease, and its sizable economic assistance to Afghanistan has arguably been the most effective of all the aid that has come in. It was therefore inevitable that, sooner or later, India would be asked to shoulder a part of the burden of managing a world that is in the grip of an ever-deepening systemic chaos.

So far this new axis of cooperation had remained largely unnoticed in India. But the crude way in which some American Congressmen made a vote against Iran a condition for changing domestic US law to facilitate the supply of nuclear technology to India brought it out into the open. The American threat did weigh heavily on the minds of the prime minister and his advisers, as did the pressure they came under when they were in New York. But even had there been no threat, it is difficult to see how India could, responsibly, have voted any other way at the IAEA.

India was fully aware that Iran had been hiding elements of its nuclear programme from the IAEA, but that once these had been discovered in October 2003, it had cooperated readily in bringing these under full scope safeguards. In its report to its board of September 2 the IAEA had certified that Iran had no prohibited nuclear materials. All that it was not yet in a position to certify was that there were no more undeclared elements of the programme left.

Manmohan Singh had discussed Iran in Paris with President Jacques Chirac and in Delhi with Prime Minister Tony Blair, even before the question of ‘reciprocity’ was raised in the US Congress. These talks had led him to commit India to working with the EU-3 to prevent the development of another Iraq-type confrontation.

But there were marked differences between the Indian and EU stands. The EU claimed that Iran had violated the ‘standstill’ Paris agreement of November 14, 2004, when it resumed nuclear fuel enrichment at Isfahan on August 1. But India knew that Iran did this because of domestic pressure that arose because the EU had failed to live up to its own commitment to frame a long-term agreement that would reconcile Iran’s right to pursue its own nuclear programme with ‘objective guarantees’ that it ‘was exclusively for peaceful purposes’, by the end of July. India also knew that the EU-3 had been unable to deliver because the US refused to be satisfied with anything short of depriving Iran of the right to produce nuclear fuels — NPT be damned — and had tried to build an agreement around this demand.

India knew, therefore, that Iran was more sinned against than sinning. But if it had abstained from voting on November 24, it would have ruled itself out of the negotiation process altogether. Instead, largely at its insistence, the IAEA resolution reaffirmed Iran’s right to produce nuclear fuels, and gained more time for resolving the dispute within the IAEA before it could be referred to the Security Council. Where India was forced to give in was on the all- important finding that Iran was in violation of Article XII-c of the IAEA’s statutes. But it made it clear in its statement that it did not agree with this part of the resolution.

Through its vote India has acquired a limited but very real capacity to revive the Paris agreement. It has the moral right to urge the EU-3 to take a more even-handed stand on Iran’s right to produce nuclear fuel, and to exchange a stricter safeguard regime for guarantees on security and trade. If it does this, it will be far better situated than they are to persuade President Ahmedinejad to be more flexible and come back to the negotiating table.

First Published: Oct 07, 2005 03:08 IST