Tehran, Iran — While Sonia Gandhi prefers the European Union, Manmohan Singh's favorite country is the United States. Both as India's finance minister from 1992-96 and from 2004 onwards as prime minister, Singh has been open in his belief that a Washington-set agenda is in his country's best interest.
Sadly for him, few share this view, with the result that his efforts at implementing the Bush team's prescriptions for India have stalled on opposition within Parliament, even though Sonia Gandhi has managed thus far to silence dissent within Singh's own Congress Party, and has backed the prime minister in his U.S.-centered policies.
Largely as a result of the perception that he is following Tony Blair in the role of White House poodle, several countries otherwise friendly to India have distanced themselves from the Sonia-led regime now precariously in office. Russia made Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee undergo the indignity of a body search at Moscow airport recently, while Vladimir Putin declined to find the time to meet with visiting Indian Defense Minister A. K. Antony.
Moscow's mood has not been improved by Manmohan Singh's second rebuff of Russia's efforts to sign a nuclear deal with India that would enable the country to import four more nuclear reactors from Moscow. The move would cut into the potential profits being factored in by U.S. corporations eager to enter the Indian nuclear energy sector on advantageous terms.
Three years ago Putin had offered India a nuclear deal on far more lenient terms than that mandated by the U.S. Congress, but was spurned by Singh in favor of the 2005 understanding with George W. Bush. This week the Indian prime minister once again refused to agree to the Russian reactor deal. He prefers to wait for his own Parliament to change its mind on the U.S. deal, even though that possibility seems remote to all but political neophytes such as Sonia Gandhi and Singh. And in a visible snub, Singh spent a mere 28 hours in Moscow this week, as opposed to his weeklong official visit to the United States and four-day forthcoming trip to Beijing. However, Moscow ought to consider itself lucky to get a full day and more of Singh.
Another Indian "strategic partner," Iran, has been totally cold-shouldered by the Sonia-led ruling coalition. India even voted with the United States and European Union in favor of an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution to block Iran's nuclear program, rather than join other Asian states in abstaining or backing Tehran. And although there have been numerous statements expressing support for the Iran-Pakistan-India hydrocarbon pipeline, thus far Singh has refused to allow Petroleum Minister Murli Deora to join Pakistan and Iran in implementing the project, which has been in the pipeline for 11 years.
By contrast, India has moved ahead on an alternative pipeline that would link it to Central Asia via Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan known to be outside the control of non-jihadist forces. This alternative pipeline has been backed by the United States, acting through the same team that negotiated U.S. backing for the Taliban from 1994-96, and has infuriated both Tehran and Moscow, which now sees the Sonia-led ruling coalition as joining Kabul and Baghdad in following the U.S. lead in major policies.
Small wonder that there has been an early winter chill in relations between India and Iran, despite past cooperation in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and the provision of a land route for Indian produce through Iran to Central Asia and Afghanistan, the shorter alternative having been blocked by U.S. ally Pakistan.
Last year, while more than 25,000 visas were given to Iranian nationals to visit India, less than 4,500 Indians were permitted into Iran, most of them pilgrims visiting Shiite religious sites. And although Iran has three cultural centers in India, in Hyderabad, Mumbai and New Delhi, the Ahmedinejad government has refused the persistent Indian request to open at least a single Indian Cultural Center in Tehran.
The mullahcracy has also banned Indian movies from entering the country, although this prohibition is being flouted daily by Iranian citizens, who buy VCDs of Indian films by the hundreds of thousands. So negative is the present regime in Tehran to anything Indian that they have refused permission to the Indian Embassy to organize an India Cultural Week in Iran, while pressing for sanction to hold a month-long Iran Cultural Festival in India.
While more than 9,000 Iranian students now study in Indian universities, there are fewer than a couple of hundred Indian students in Iran, most of them in religious institutions of learning. A few months ago, Iran's only department of Indian studies, in Tehran University, was shut down by the mullahcracy, who regard the moderate ethos of the world's biggest democracy with suspicion.
Iranian authorities have even barred the entry of a film about the Taj Mahal, the monument built by Emperor Shah Jehan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, despite the fact that the shah was of Persian origin. The movie is directed by Akbar Khan, who cannot be accused of hostility toward Islam.
The ruling elite in Tehran is bracing for a 2008 attack by either the United States, Israel or the European Union, or a combination of all three. It is taking countermeasures to ensure that all three will suffer severe punishment for daring to challenge the program of the Islamic Republic of Iran to develop nuclear technology and materiel. Iranian networks are active throughout the region, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman will be the most vulnerable to covert action, apart from the primary target, Iraq.
Their fear of an Iranian reaction is motivating the security establishment in New Delhi to demand that Manmohan Singh restrain his impulse to align India with a future U.S.-EU-Israel attack on Iran by providing maintenance and re-supply facilities, R & R, naval surveillance and patrolling of the sensitive waterway between India and the Middle East. The fear is that a second, Iran-backed front will open up in the ongoing jihadist war backed by elements within Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This would tax severely the Indian security system's capacity to respond.
The increasing frequency and depth of negative signals from Tehran is impacting the minds of policymakers in New Delhi, few of whom share Manmohan Singh's enthusiasm for Bush-Cheney global prescriptions. Now that both Moscow and Tehran have made their displeasure open, pressure on the Sonia-led United Progressive Alliance coalition to moderate its tilt toward the United States may grow.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)