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How India must leverage its opportunities in Iran

Last updated on: August 28, 2012 14:48 IST

India has a great opportunity to act as go between Iran and the rest of the world, says Colonel (retd) Anil Athale.

As Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh leaves for Iran for the Non-Aligned Meet summit, Iran is passing through a severe crisis. Iran's refusal to stop its uranium enrichment activity has triggered economic sanctions against it. Under American pressure, India that sourced nearly 40 percent of its oil imports from Iran has promised to cut it drastically. Saudi Arabia has gladly stepped in to meet the shortfall.

The PM's visit comes in the backdrop of increasing closeness with Saudi Arabia as seen by its handling of Indian/Pakistani terrorists. India has also voted in favour of economic sanctions against Iran and toed the American line on Syria as well.

As the most important Shia Muslim country, Iran is peeved that the Syrian regime is being targeted by pro-West Sunni rebels. Shias have also not forgotten the way the Americans and the West ignored the brutal suppression of Shia-led pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. Iran feels threatened by the concentration of American naval might in the Persian Gulf and reports of Israeli preparations for an aerial attack on its nuclear establishments. Iran has been desperately seeking international support and wooing India as well.

Iran is important for India not just for its oil but also as a friend who shares our concerns in Afghanistan. Neither Iran nor India wants the pro-Pakistani Taliban to return to power in Kabul. The memories of persecution of Shias are still fresh. Out of the Indian Muslim population of nearly 200 million, at least 20 percent are Shia and have emotional ties with Iran. In Kashmir the district of Badgam with a majority Shia population, has been peaceful and has resisted separatism.

The vital areas around Kargil and some other areas of north Kashmir have been against the Kashmiri separatists knowing fully the fate that awaits Shias in Pakistan. As the sectarian strife in Pakistan shows no signs of abating (just a week back 25 Shia bus passengers were shot while on the way to Gilgit), Iran is anxious to make a common cause with India.

Wider Picture

Iran, like Egypt, is an heir to an ancient civilization and culture. Iran, earlier known as Persia, had a very advanced civilization, language, art, architecture and philosophical traditions. After it succumbed to Arab invasions and turned Islamic, it nevertheless maintained its identity by being Shia or followers of Ali as opposed to most of the Arab world that is Sunni Muslim. The conflict that began in 680 continues to date. This sectarian divide finds Iran and Saudi Arabia ranged on the opposite sides in the Islamic world.  

Iran feels acute sense of insecurity since after the end of the Cold War, Turkey has made major inroads into the central Asia. Aided by the US, Turkey has gained influence in Kazakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbegistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. Thus the Iranians feel boxed from the north by Turkey and its supporters while in the west and east by the Arab/Sunni world.

When Pakistan managed to get nuclear weapons, bankrolled by the Saudis, Iran felt especially threatened. It is a certainty that these weapons are available to Saudi Arabia. If the recent reports are to be believed, more than US, it is Saudi Arabia that is keen that US/Israeli combine knock out Iran's nuclear capability. Since China and Russia are both opposed to the American/Saudi/Turk designs in the Middle-East, Iran has moved closer to these countries.

Iran's quest for nuclear power and weapons goes back to the days of Shah Raza Pahlavi. Iran under Shah had begun to show growing independence. In his quest for power, he had established clandestine contacts with South Africa (then facing an oil embargo and economic sanctions due to Apartheid). Secret documents reveal that South Africa and Iran signed an agreement on March 31, 1975 to swap oil for nuke technology. It is a known fact that South Africa also had close collaboration with Israel.

It is indeed 'interesting' that Ayatollah Khomeini, who was living in exile in Paris, was permitted to reach Iran in 1979 helping him to generate a revolution that saw ouster of the Shah of Iran. It is not clear what were the other expectations from Khomeini, but at least on the nuclear front he delivered. Khomeini abhorred nuclear weapons, called them un-Islamic and shut down the nuclear weapons programme.

But Khomeini was acutely aware of the US designs and fate of earlier revolution under Mohammad Mosaddegg. Mosaddegg, a popularly elected leader was overthrown in a CIA/British coup in 1953 and confined to mental asylum till his death in 1967. Determined to avoid fate like Mosaddegg, Khomeini launched a virulent cleansing campaign in Iran that saw the pro-West elements killed or thrown out of Iran.

This author has first hand information about these events since Major Ramezan Ali Karimi, an Iranian armoured corps officer was a fellow student at the Staff College in 1979. At the end of the course Karimi had to flee to the US. Even in India, he was beaten up by pro-Khomeini students in Pune! The seizure of American embassy in Tehran and abortive American attempt to rescue the hostages (Operation Eagle of the Delta Force that was a spectacular failure and led to defeat of President Jimmy Carter) further solidified anti-American feelings.

In the ten-year, bloody Iran-Iraq war, the US had sided with Iraq. The memories of that war are still fresh in Iran.

The point in narrating these events is to bring out the fact that after Iranian revolution led by Khomeini carried out a through purge of pro-American elements in Iran. The American endeavour of last several years to duplicate Libya, Tunisia or Syria and carry out regime change is unlikely to succeed easily.   

Tightrope walk for India!

It seems that India has gone close to the US as far as its Middle-East policies are concerned. In our enthusiasm for embracing Saudi Arabia, we must not forget that most of the funding for the fanatic Wahabi mosques and madarsas in India comes from Saudi sources. It is also naïve for us to think that in any serious clash between India and Pakistan, the Saudis will stay neutral!

On the other hand as the persecution Shia's in Pakistan gathers momentum, Iran would look towards India for support. We cannot also forgo the support we receive in Kashmir from the Shia community. The current policy orientation towards Iran has changed from the one in years 1999 to 2004. It is no secret that the then PM A B Vajpayee enjoyed substantial support amongst the Shias of Lucknow. The present UPA dispensation on the other hand has been wooing the Sunnis. One hopes that the domestic electoral calculations do not influence our outreach to Iran.

In 1997, the Late Lieutenant General Eric Vas had propounded the 'satyagraha' approach to nuclear weapons (available at the Inpad site). In a nutshell this means that a country masters all the technologies for nuclear weapons and fissile material but refuses to weaponise! Indian approach has elements of this as also our unilateral 'no first use' pledge. Iran would do well to follow Indian example in modified form-being a signatory to NPT is does not have the right to conduct tests!

But even more importantly, Iran has to understand that many threats to its security arise from its own aggressive policy of 'export' of its revolution. India ought to impress on Iran that unless it gives up its aggressive posture, even acquisition of nuclear weapons will not make it secure. The example of Pakistan and contrast with India is telling.

India has a great opportunity to act as go between Iran and the rest.

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale is coordinator of the Pune-based Indian Initiative for Peace, Arms-control & Disarmament. He has worked on the Middle-East for his doctoral thesis.

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale