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The gathering Gulf storm
December 27, 2006
It involves a region where nearly 5 million Indian nationals live, who support millions of households in the country directly or indirectly and remit billions of dollars annually to India, and, least of all, from where India also sources most of its imported oil.
South Block has done well to be circumspect about the unfolding developments in the quarter century old saga of the US-Iran hostilities.
Washington has made it clear that last week's United Nations Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran is intended to "humiliate" Iran. The US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns made that much pretty clear during his video conference call in Washington DC last Saturday.
India's foreign policy has never been about "humiliating" other countries.
New Delhi cannot but anticipate that the gathering storm in the Gulf and the Middle East will pose a formidable challenge to India's foreign policy in the coming year � its great asset in having a first-rate team heading the foreign policy establishment at this juncture notwithstanding.
Delhi would take note that the grandstanding that might be the prelude to a nasty confrontation in the regions bordering our subcontinent's western periphery might have begun.
In an idiom reminiscent of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Burns said Washington intended to go beyond last week's Security Council resolution and would see that the world community "stop doing business as usual with Iran", and would press for "a graduated set of stronger sanctions".
"We do think it's time for an end to business as usual, and in addition to these sanctions � it wouldn't make much sense to put all of our eggs in the UN Security Council basket," he added ominously,
Washington is gearing up for coercive means. An outright invasion of Iran is beyond the US capacity at the moment. But a strong likelihood arises that the US is moving toward a limited military strike against select Iranian targets.
An additional US aircraft carrier is moving into the Gulf waters though the Iraqi insurgents (or Osama bib Laden) are not known to possess any naval flotilla. Of course, it is less costly for the US to lay a naval blockade that paralyses Iran.
Yet, what has Iran done to deserve all this?
According to Burns, Washington's "beef with the Iranians is threefold". First, Iranians could be indulging in a "clear effort" (whatever that means) to make nuclear weapons. Second, Iranians are the "central banker" funding Hamas, Hezbullah and Islamic Jihad. Third, the Iranian regime is a "major human rights violator" of the Iranian people!
Clearly, the US is itching for a fight with Iran. No wonder, important regional capitals like Cairo have strongly criticised "double standards" behind last week's Security Council resolution singling out Iran but sidestepping Israel's clandestine nuclear weapon stockpile.
The Gulf Cooperation Council countries, where the overwhelming portion of the Indian expatriate community in the region live, have once again reiterated their demand for a nuclear weapon free Middle East that also brings the barely-disguised Israeli nuclear programme into account.
South Block would have taken note of the shades of grey.
But, sadly, sections of Indian opinion do not. They, almost instinctively construe that this is all about Uttar Pradesh, it is a matter of "vote bank" politics, though no doubt a turbulence of such proportions in the Muslim world is bound to cast its shadow on India's huge Muslim population � and a good foreign policy must always be an extension of the country's national policies.
Nor is it about nuclear non-proliferation as some in India may think, who are either simply na�ve or are habitually inclined to suspend disbelief.
To be sure, the Indian intellectual debate over this issue must elevate itself from pedestrian levels. It mustn't trail behind any foreign power like an inebriated, inchoate straggler.
What is unfolding in the Gulf and the Middle East is nothing short of a remaking of that region in geopolitical terms. The Iran nuclear issue is a mere smokescreen.
The unravelling of the century-old Sykes-Picot agreement underlying the 1922 Middle East settlement is now complete. Like Lawrence of Arabia did almost a hundred years ago in creating the myth of an "Arab revolt", the Iran nuclear issue is becoming the locus of a new geopolitical order that is sought to be imposed on the region.
It is foolhardy to imagine that the anarchy in Iraq is prompting a US withdrawal from the region. On the contrary, a terrible beauty has been born in that anarchy, and it is beginning to slouch toward Iraq's neighbouring countries � the Shia-Sunni sectarian strife.
This Iraqi strife is far more potent in its viciousness than Lawrence's Arab revolt, which pitted the nomadic Bedouin against the urbane Ottoman Turk.
It is poised to turn into a regional sectarian strife playing out on various theatres in the region, apart from Iraq and Lebanon.
The sectarian strife aims at isolating Iran in the region. But why is Iran so important?
In purely strategic terms, it is the only country in the Gulf and the Middle East that has the potential to exercise power in regional terms � by virtue of its human and material base, its natural resources and its geographic location, apart from its profound civilisational background.
In other words, Iran is the only power that can potentially rival the Anglo-Saxon dominance of the region.
The stakes are high. The well-known economist Hani Findakly estimated that if Iraq war were about oil, then, 40 years of Iraqi oil would not pay back the cost of the war so far, which is already estimated to add up to the equivalent of China's annual income and four times that of Saudi Arabia.
And a continued US military occupation of Iraq for another 2-3 years would mean, according to Findakly, the US would have to sell Iraqi oil for 80 years in order to recoup its war bill.
Such high stakes hinge on Iran's current strategic defiance of the US that unless Tehran is brought to its heels, a reordering of the Middle East's political order paving the way for the perpetuation of Western dominance of the region remains unthinkable.
On the other hand, if Tehran doesn't capitulate but instead lives to fight another day, its impact on the region's political order is going to be equally deep. The archaic political order, which lacks legitimacy, though it has faithfully sub-served western interests in the past century, will then have to give way to the compelling modernity of the Arab street.
Thus, South Block has a point in reserving the right to study the implications of last week's Security Council resolution on Iran.
The statements emanating out of Moscow and Beijing also echo forebodings that Washington may at some point choose to abandon the UN as a qualified partner, and might consider any opening to "nuclear" Iran as an unacceptable concession.
New Delhi has taken a position similar to that of Moscow and Beijing, namely, that the issue must be resolved through peaceful means, and, secondly, that the Security Council shouldn't usurp the centrality of the International Atomic Energy Agency in handling this issue.
Finally, what happens to the "war on terror"?
At the Iraq level, we are inching toward an abandonment of the charade of "democracy" in Baghdad. What lies ahead is most certainly the dissolution of the Iraqi parliament and the imposition of an emergency power structure in Baghdad.
Hardly has Saddam Hussein departed from the scene, and history is all set to repeat itself.
But it is the Afghanistan end of the "war on terror" that must annoy New Delhi. The looming preoccupations over the Gulf and the Middle East may result in a US drawdown in Afghanistan.
That brings a Taliban takeover in Kabul within the realms of possibility. With an election behind him in 2007 that he is destined to win with relative ease and credibility, Pervez Musharraf seems destined to play an even bigger and enduring role in the US regional policy.
Saudi Arabia is fast becoming the frontline state in the confrontation shaping up between the US and Iran. And if Saudi Arabia comes in, can Pakistan be far behind?