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India's nuclear dilemma in West Asia

November 15, 2011 18:55 IST

The strategic reality that confronts New Delhi in West Asia today is that India has far more significant interests to preserve in the Arab Gulf, and as tensions rise between the Sunni Arab regimes and Iran, India's larger stakes in the Arab world will continue to inhibit Indian-Iranian ties, says Harsh V Pant.

The Iranian nuclear programme is once again hitting the headlines and the spectre of military conflict in West Asia looms large over the horizon. Citing 'credible' intelligence in its latest report to the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency has expressed "serious concerns" that Iran is working towards building a nuclear weapon.

In its most explicit and authoritative account of Iran's nuclear activities to date, the IAEA underscores a structured, focused and secretive effort by Iran to acquire the essential skills for weapons-building, from warhead design to the testing of triggering devices.

There seems to be a certain inevitability about the Iranian capability to assemble a crude nuclear device in the near future. And this poses a particular dilemma for the Barack Obama administration. Much like its predecessor, the Obama administration has also vowed that it would not allow Iran to go nuclear. Israel is already fretting and debating its pre-emptive options.

Tel Aviv has made it clear, time and again, that it would not hesitate to act unilaterally, overruling American objections, if they judge that Iran is getting too close to nuclear capability. Meanwhile tensions are rising in the capitals of Arab Gulf states. It was the Saudi King, after all, who had famously advised the American diplomats that the only Iran strategy that would work was one that "cut off the head of the snake."

Since January, the Islamic republic has seen its largest regional rival -- the government of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- toppled by protesters, while the Iranian-backed Hezbollah has strengthened its grip on Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia, another regional bulwark against Iranian expansion, is distracted by uprisings on its borders, particularly in Yemen, Oman and Bahrain. Sensing an opening, Iran has ratcheted up its competition with Saudi Arabia for influence in the region.

The recently disclosed Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States is just one of the latest manifestations of this long-standing conflict. Iran's hand is being suspected in the death of a Saudi diplomat in Pakistan earlier this year and the role of the Quds Force, the most elite Iranian unit, is coming under scanner.

The Obama administration is having to rethink an Iran strategy that relied on Middle Eastern allies to counterbalance Tehran's conventional forces and prevent cheating on economic sanctions. A new containment policy is being structured by Washington with the installation of antimissile batteries in the Arab states and with an emerging plan to put more ships and antimissile batteries into the Persian Gulf as the concerns of Arab Gulf states have risen.

There is little likelihood of more serious sanctions as the Chinese and Russians remain opposed to any new sanctions and have already made it clear that the revealing new evidence by the IAEA will only harden Iran's position.

India shares with the West the belief that Iranian nuclear ambitions would be destabilising for the Middle East. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is on record suggesting that a nuclear Iran is not in Indian national interest. But New Delhi does not have the luxury of viewing Iranian nuclear ambitions only through the prism of Iran-Israel rivalry which is the norm in the West.

India has to consider this issue from a much wider perspective where Iranian nuclear drive becomes a product Arab-Iran, and especially Sunni-Shia, rivalry. For Tehran, its nuclear ambitions are as much a counter to a two-front encirclement of Shias by Sunni Pakistan and Sunni Saudi Arabia as it is about ending Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region.

The Riyadh declaration signed in January 2010 during Dr Singh's visit to Saudi Arabia asked Iran to "remove regional and international doubts about its nuclear weapons program." In fact, India has even endorsed the Arab call for a nuclear-weapons free Middle East -- a proposal traditionally targeting Israel but increasingly focused on Iran.

India's broader position on the Iranian nuclear question is relatively straightforward. Although India believes that Iran has the right to pursue civilian nuclear energy, it has insisted that Iran should clarify the doubts raised by the IAEA regarding Iran's compliance with the NPT. India has long maintained that it does not see further nuclear proliferation as being in its interests. This position has as much to do with India's desire to project itself as a responsible nuclear state as with the very real danger that further proliferation in its extended neighbourhood could endanger its security. India has continued to affirm its commitment to enforce all sanctions against Iran as mandated since 2006 by the UN Security Council, when the first set of sanctions was imposed. However, much like Beijing and Moscow, New Delhi has argued that such sanctions should not hurt the Iranian populace and has expressed its disapproval of sanctions by individual countries that restrict investments by third countries in Iran's energy sector.

India would like to increase its presence in the Iranian energy sector because of its rapidly rising energy needs, and is rightfully feeling restless about its marginalisation in Iran. Not only has Pakistan signed a pipeline deal with Tehran, but China also is starting to make its presence felt. China is now Iran's largest trading partner and is undertaking massive investments in the country, rapidly occupying the space vacated by western firms.

Iran's total crude exports to China increased 47 percent from January to July 2011, compared to an identical period the previous year. Where Beijing's economic engagement with Iran is growing, India's presence is shrinking, as firms such as Reliance Industries have, partially under western pressure, withdrawn from Iran and others have shelved their plans to make investments.

The strategic reality that confronts New Delhi in West Asia today is that India has far more significant interests to preserve in the Arab Gulf, and as tensions rise between the Sunni Arab regimes and Iran, India's larger stakes in the Arab world will continue to inhibit Indian-Iranian ties.

At the same time, New Delhi's outreach to Tehran will remain circumscribed by the internal power struggle within Iran, growing tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbours, and Iran's continued defiance of the global nuclear order.

Harsh V Pant