Iran: N for Nuanced
The US will not push military confrontation with Iran, at least until after the November presidential polls. There are strong indications that direct back channel talks are on between Washington and Tehran
Nilova Roy Chaudhury Delhi
As the rhetoric surrounding Iran’s nuclear imbroglio gets shriller, with the failure of the ‘technical’ talks in Istanbul on July 3, 2012, the only certainty is that the situation has reached a stage where someone has to blink. Public posturing apart, there is a palpable sense of urgency to find a face-saving “resolution” from which both Iran and its interlocutors, among them the P5+1 and the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), can claim a measure of victory, failing which the “huge trust deficit” could have consequences that may “spiral out of control,”argued analysts.
In this scenario, India is urging for calm and a sustained dialogue to resolve the impasse, with a greater emphasis on interlocutors with whom Iran is “comfortable,” “possibly” like additional representatives from BRICS countries.
Increasing tension in the Persian Gulf is adding to India’s economic and strategic woes at a time when its own economy is showing severe signs of strain. The last thing it needs is sky-rocketing crude prices, inevitable if there is a conflict situation in the Strait of Hormuz between the Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf.
As sanctions begin to bite and curtail Iranian supply, there is greater pressure on Saudi Arabia to help meet world demand, especially from countries like India, China, Japan and South Korea. India is slated to import 32 million tonnes of crude from Saudi Arabia during 2012-13, as against 27 million tonnes during 2011-12. India is also seeking four million tonnes of additional crude from Iraq during 2012-13, its third biggest supplier.
According to Samuel C Rajiv of the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), India’s continuing strategic dilemmas in the rapidly evolving situation vis-à vis the Iranian nuclear issue, are evident across three different sets of important bilateral interactions. These include the India-US, India-Israel and India-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relationships and each of these is crucial for India.
India shares one of its most important multifaceted strategic relationships with the US. While annual trade exceeds $100 billion, India also has a strong defence partnership, recently procuring equipment worth over $8 billion from the US, and a vital counter-terrorism partnership.
Israel, likewise, is a valuable ally in India’s defence modernisation, counter-terrorism and developmental needs. Annual trade between the two countries is currently worth over $5 billion, and should further rise after the free trade agreement (FTA), currently being negotiated, is finalised before December 2012. India has also bought defence and security equipment estimated to be over $9 billion from Israel.
Bilateral trade with GCC countries during 2011-12 was $119 billion, coupled with a huge presence of almost six million Indian citizens in these countries, and their very substantial remittances into the country.
However, each of these important ‘strategic partners’ share mutually antagonistic relationships with Iran. For Tehran, the US is the ‘Great Satan,’ Israel is an entity which should not exist and Iran is locked in a geo-political struggle for regional dominance with GCC countries led by Saudi Arabia.
The GCC was, in fact, formed in 1981 as a direct response to the Iranian revolution and its stated goal of exporting its brand of Islam to other countries.
India has tried to maintain a ‘pragmatic balance’ in its relations with all the players involved in the imbroglio to safeguard its core national interests, including its energy requirements, defence modernisation needs and safety and security of its citizens. India has voted against Iran thrice at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA; September 2005, February 2006 and November 2009), and is clear it does not want Iran to possess nuclear weapons.
Also, Iran being the only land corridor to Afghanistan, and thence to energy-rich Central Asia, its importance to Indian interests is vital.
India’s current policy of multi-sourcing its energy requirements, reducing imports from Iran, maintaining a ‘pragmatic balance’ in its key relationships in the region, and keeping its options open on long-term economic and security interests in Central Asia and Afghanistan is the way forward in the immediate future.
India has consistently supported a negotiated settlement, opposed unilateral sanctions while being part of the multi-lateral United Nations Security Council (UNSC)-mandated sanctions regime, opposed military strikes, and insisted on the important role of the IAEA as the lead technical agency to address concerns emanating from the Iranian nuclear programme, senior officials said.
According to Samuel Rajiv, “In the rapidly evolving situation, India’s policy determinants of strategic autonomy, regional strategic stability and national security will continue to be operative.”
Evidence of these policy determinants ‘in action’ in recent times include India continuing its energy and trade cooperation with Iran despite rising roadblocks to such interaction. India, for instance, did not desist from sending a trade delegation to Tehran on March 9, 2012, despite US Congressmen viewing the move as hurting the international sanctions regime. In the light of ramping up of unilateral sanctions by the US and European Union (EU) in January 2012 and the targeting of the Central Bank of Iran, India’s finance and oil ministers insisted that ‘it is not possible for India to take any decision to reduce the import from Iran drastically’.
The US pressure on India to cut back on its oil imports from Iran is in tune with its “dual-track” policy of “sanctions in pursuit of constructive engagement”, as stated by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The US will not seek to push any likelihood of direct military confrontation, at least until after the November 4, 2012 presidential elections, and there are strong indications that direct back channel talks are on between representatives of Washington and Tehran. Washington may have moved additional minesweepers and other naval vessels into the vicinity, but it is studiously silent and non-responsive to Iran’s heightened rhetoric.
At the time of writing, European and Iranian officials are supposed to meet on July 24, 2012, to discuss the Iranian nuclear impasse, according to the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s media service. Brussels will be represented by the deputy high representative for European foreign and security policy, Helga Schmidt, while Ali Baghari, Iran’s deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, will represent Tehran.
As fears of military conflict grows, western ‘psy-ops’ (psychological operations, as opposed to military operations) have increased over the last few years, with Iran becoming the target of a series of cyber attacks, some of which were linked to its nuclear programme. According to an article in The New York Times in June 2012, during President Barack Obama’s first few months in office, he secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on Iran’s computer systems at its nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyber weapons.
The best known of the cyber weapons was ‘Stuxnet’, a computer worm. This is a malicious computer programme that turned up in industrial programmes around the world in 2009. Stuxnet, developed by the US and Israel, appears to have wiped out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges Iran had been spinning at the time to purify uranium.
In May 2012, a data-mining virus called ‘Flame’ had penetrated the computers of high-ranking Iranian officials, sweeping up information from their machines. In a message posted on its website, Iran’s Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center warned that the virus was potentially more harmful than Stuxnet. In contrast to Stuxnet, Flame appeared to be designed not to do damage but to secretly collect information from a wide variety of sources.
With a potentially crippling set of further economic sanctions kicking in from July, there are reports even from senior Iranian officials that the tough unilateral US and EU sanctions have begun to seriously affect the Iranian economic situation negatively. Nearly half of Iran’s oil exports have been curtailed in July. The onset of the EU oil embargo and measures targeting the transport of Iranian crude have further raised the economic stakes for Iran, already struggling with runaway inflation (almost 40 per cent), falling imports and a dropping currency.
In response, several, seemingly conflicting signals are emanating from Tehran. According to the Mehr news agency, Iran is ready to negotiate the production of nuclear fuel enriched to a purity of 20 per cent (as P-5+1 negotiators seek) if its needs for fuel for several planned reactors are fully met, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on July 11, 2012. However, Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani insisted that his country’s nuclear programme would not be affected by sanctions and Iran’s lawmakers have the right to pass legislation to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to EU oil embargoes, Chinese news agency Xinhua reported on July 7, 2012).
Meanwhile, the Chairman of Iran’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Maj Gen Hassan Firuzabadi, said Iran has a plan for closing the strait, but it will only do so if the country’s security is threatened. Responding to the increased presence of US minesweepers in the Persian Gulf, however, Ali Fadavi, a naval commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, warned that it will increase its military presence in international waters, strike at US bases and block all shipping through the strait.
Although it is difficult to accurately gauge the public mood within Iran to this ratcheting up of the official rhetoric, it is unlikely that the public is willing to risk a full fledged war over the nuclear impasse. Indicative of Tehran’s predicament (and possible western ‘psy-ops’) is a television poll conducted recently by Iranian state television which backfired leading to major embarrassment for Iranian authorities: 63 per cent of respondents said they wanted Iran to abandon its nuclear programme to ease sanctions. The results led the state broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), to quickly stop the voting and accuse the BBC of manipulating results, a charge the latter refuted.
The online poll asked viewers how Iran should respond to the new oil embargo imposed by the EU, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized, calling them “the strongest ones that have ever been applied against a country”. Ahmedinejad told IRIB: “Our enemies assume that they are able to corner Iran in a weak position with these sanctions.”
Contrary to Ahmadinejad’s defiant stance, Iranians overwhelmingly backed the poll’s option for “giving up uranium enrichment in return of the gradual removal of sanctions.” Only 20 per cent of respondents said they supported closing the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation.
Systematic targeting of top Iranian nuclear scientists has been another aspect of “psy-ops” with at least five scientists being killed mysteriously in recent years. Iran and other sections around the world suspect Israeli hand behind these killings, including by ‘sticky bombs’.
Indeed, Iran’s nuclear programme is one of the most polarizing issues in one of the world’s most volatile regions, which can have devastating consequences. American and European officials believe Tehran is planning to build nuclear weapons, while Iran’s leadership says that its goal is to fuel medical reactors to meet medical requirements (for cancer treatment) and generate electricity without dipping into its crude reserves. Its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even issued a ‘fatwa’ against nuclear weapons. But the trust deficit threatens to tip the issue over the brink