Friday 9 March 2007

Why India Will Sit out Iran (UPIASIA)

M.D. Nalapat

Manipal, India — Iran's ongoing effort to master uranium enrichment technology, despite its denials, is likely to lead to a series of surgical U.S. air and missile strikes designed to cripple reprocessing capacity. The risks and rewards of such an action have been extensively detailed; hence the focus here is on a small part of the overall mosaic -- the response of India to such a strike.

Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is solicitous of perceived U.S. interests, and has been working to create an alliance between the world's two biggest democracies, geopolitical logic will dictate that New Delhi will sit out a future Iran conflict, rather than follow its instincts and back the United States.

In evidence that India-Iran strategic ties remain in good standing, the chief of the Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral S. Kouchaki, is on a March 4-9 visit to India, during which he will visit key installations and discuss joint exercises.

The reasons for India to avoid conflict with Iran are primarily four:

First is the Shiite factor. There have been a little over 17,000 Muslim-Hindu clashes since India became independent in 1947, of which less than two hundred involved Shiites and Hindus. Almost all such clashes have been Sunni versus Hindu, and 87 percent of these have been Wahabbi-Hindu, as the more moderate sections of Sunni Muslim society seldom adopt a confrontational posture with their Hindu neighbors.

Since 1987, accelerating sharply after the retreat of Moscow from Afghanistan two years later, Wahabbi networks funded and organized by Saudi and Pakistani sources have conducted a jihad against India in Kashmir, attempting to create a clone of Taliban Afghanistan out of the province. This unconventional war has often resulted in terrorist attacks across India, or on Indian interests abroad, and has taxed to near its limit the capacity of the Indian security establishment to cope with the onslaught.

During this entire period -- continuing to the present -- the Shiite networks (as heavily permeated by Iran as the Wahabbi networks are by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) have remained quiescent, uninvolved in the battle, including in Kashmir, where only the Wahabbi minority within the Sunni population has been active in opposing Indian control over Kashmir. Should the Iran-influenced Shiite networks go the way of the Saudi-Pakistani Wahabbi networks in continuing the jihad, Indian security forces would face a second front that would severely test their capabilities.

At present, unlike the United States in Iraq and the former USSR in Afghanistan, India has beaten back the fanatics, although at a very high human and financial cost. Provoking Iran by joining hands with Washington against Tehran would go against the Indian interest in keeping the Shiites out of the Kashmir jihad.

Next is the Afghanistan and Central Asia factor. Because of U.S. links to Saudi Arabia, successive administrations have backed the Wahabbi interests in both locations against those opposing them, especially former communists. For entirely different reasons, both India and Iran oppose the efforts at regime change spearheaded by these Wahabbi groups.

In Afghanistan, the United States and the EU have consistently sought to marginalize the former "Northern Alliance" in favor of the Pashtun Wahabbis that still form the base of support for the Taliban. Tehran, Moscow and New Delhi back the former Northern Alliance, as these three capitals have been doing since 1996, the year of the Taliban takeover of Kabul.

In Central Asia, once again the three capitals are in effect working in concert to keep Wahabbi elements from wresting control of the (religious) moderates now in control, cooperation that would be affected were India to side with the United States in a military strike on Iran.

Third in the list of reasons why India would decline to participate in a U.S. strike is energy. The country is developing at a speed unmatched by major economies except China, and this has led to a substantial increase in the demand for fossil fuels. Thanks to corruption, (state-controlled) efforts at discovering oil and gas within Indian territory has thus far been spectacularly unsuccessful, with periodic hype about "major discoveries" being followed by complete silence on exploitation. Unless Japan or another country can develop economical fuel-cell technology to power the internal combustion engine, India will need to increase its dependence on outside sources for oil and gas, and the closest major source for both is Iran.

Recent Indian moves to side with Washington (as expressed, for example, in India voting together with the United States in the International Atomic Energy Agency) have led to the cancellation of several contracts by an angry Iranian administration, and policymakers in New Delhi are wary of provoking a fresh Iranian backlash that could adversely affect supplies from that country. Recently, New Delhi has distanced itself from its earlier embrace of Washington, hosting a China-Russia-India trilateral and making the standard "non-aligned" noises about the efforts of the Bush team to put in place a unipolar world order with the United States at the apex.

Manmohan Singh, who is the main votary of the "Washington First" policy, has himself become weakened politically, losing even the Sikh-majority state of Punjab to the BJP-led alliance, despite being the first Sikh Prime Minister of India. Within the Union Cabinet, Defense Minister A. K. Antony and Education Minister Arjun Singh favor a return to the policy of "non-alignment" followed under the Nehrus, while Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee is too canny a politician to link his future to the pro-U.S. line adopted by Manmohan Singh, to the ire not just of the Congress Party's communist allies, but the preponderant section of his own party.

Like Mikhail Gorbachev, Manmohan Singh is now far more popular abroad than he is at home, but unlike the USSR (where the General Secretary ran the Communist Party), India is still a democracy, and the Prime Minister's plummeting ratings have constricted his ability to stick to a line that would ensure that New Delhi favor Washington over Tehran in the event of a conflict. Indeed, the political currents now flowing within the country are such that India may take a pro-Iranian line, rather than remain on the sidelines.

The final reason why New Delhi will remain neutral, or even Iran-friendly, in a future conflict is the fact that Tehran provides the only land access that India has to Central Asia and therefore to Afghanistan. U.S. ally Pakistan has continued to block India from gaining access to Afghanistan, wary of an increase in the already significant Indian presence in Kabul. In contrast, Iran has provided both rail and road access to Indian manufactures to Central Asia and Afghanistan across its territory, a lifeline that would be in danger of getting snapped were New Delhi to side with Washington against Tehran.

Despite the many threats by U.S. lawmakers that they would adopt an anti-India line were the country not to join hands with the United States and the EU in the ongoing crusade against Iran, India's own security calculus militates against such a policy. Unlike U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Iran has never worked against Indian security interests by funding and training the proponents of jihad against the Indian state. For New Delhi, Tehran has till now been part of the solution and not the problem, the reason why Prime Minister Singh is unlikely to be able to execute a U.S. tilt in the event of a strike by George W. Bush on Iran.

-(M.D. Nalapat is professor of geopolitics at Manipal University in Manipal, India.)