The apparent rapprochement between the US and Iran is historic. After the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, this is the first time Iran has reached a semblance of normalcy and that is something positive: Iran is too large a power, and has too great a sense of self from its imperial Persian heritage, to be consigned to the 'Axis of Evil', as George W Bush did some years so. It is generally a good thing if the P5+1 talks with Iran lead, by their June deadline, to some breakthrough, although the chances are still only 50:50. But, in substance, the putative agreement will make it much harder for Iran to go nuclear: they will need a year, as opposed to a presumed three months now.
The fact is that Iran has always insisted that its nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes, not weaponisation. This agreement ensures that it is so. That also fits in with India's general stance: it is not good for us if there is another nuclear power in the vicinity, in addition to the two belligerents already in play, Pakistan and China. Besides, it will trigger an arms race, and Saudi Arabia will quickly acquire the bomb that it has presumably funded in Pakistan. So India stands to gain, in addition to the general likelihood of a fall in oil prices as Iranian oil re-enters the market.
Apparently, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is pursuing a much more conciliatory line than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, possibly reflecting the national mood, where the sanctions are biting, and the young are chafing at being treated as untouchables abroad when the world had been their oyster in the good old days. And the Persians are too good to be kept down for long: just look at the fabulous films from the country, for instance those by Makmalmouf and Farhadi.
The rehabilitation of Iran is, of course, affecting the balance of power in West Asia, and the other regional powers are concerned. Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been consistent in suggesting that a resurgent Iran posts an “existential, grave threat” to his country. The Saudis have been more circumspect, but the ongoing war in Yemen may well be a proxy battle between the Shia champion (Iran) and the Sunni champion (Saudi Arabia). Egypt, the other major power in the vicinity, has been more or less silent about the whole thing.
But the Yemen war and the resultant evacuation have shown that India, too, is an external player, although less involved than the US, in the affairs there. It is a factor in West Asia. India's ability to project naval power there (after all, it is the nearest large power, just across the sea) has given a needed boost to our geo-political ambitions in the region. I was amazed to see the US State Department suggesting to its citizens that there would no American evacution, and that they should get in touch with the Indian embassy should they wish to leave! Here is the excerpt from the State Department message – which seems to be a new form of 'outsourcing', perhaps.
It says: “The Indian government has offered to assist US citizens who want to depart Yemen for Djibouti. This potentially includes flights out of Sana’a and ships from Aden. US citizens wishing to take advantage of this opportunity should contact First Secretary Raj Kopal at the Indian Embassy in Sana’a at 00967 734 000 657; you may be required to present a valid US passport for boarding. The next flights from Sana’a are scheduled to depart early on April 7”.
This is an astonishing turn of events, but it shouldn't really be. India was the pre-eminent power in the region in the early 20th century, and the Indian rupee and Indian postage stamps were used as defaults by, if I remember right, many Arabs, and certainly the United Arab Emirates. It is only later, with the creation of the ill-considered Non-aligned Movement (NAM), that India shrank in stature and has mostly been a supplicant to Opec and the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).
Mumbai is only 1,759 nautical miles from Aden, and Muscat a mere 982. India has not adequately utilised its geographic advantage of being the pre-eminent power in the Arabian Sea, dominating the sea lanes from the Straits of Hormuz to points east. In fact, by starving the Navy, India may have allowed the Chinese to steal a march over it. On the other hand, India has had blue-water naval capability for some time, and if we invest heavily in new ships, we may wrest the initiative back again. The launch of the first Scorpene submarine is a good step in this regard.
Coupled with the Prime Minister's recent visits to the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, this flexing of military muscle should be a precursor to Pax indica that one has been waiting for since 1996 (see my old column, “The dragon and the elephant”). It is also timely that India just celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of the epic voyage of Rajendra Chola and his mighty navy, which went clear across the the ocean and defeated the maritime Sriwijaya Empire in Sumatra. It was arguably the greatest fleet in history before the advent of steam. India then was a major maritime power, much more so than the hyped-up Chinese admiral Zheng He's voyages.
The Yemen evacuation has been done with precision and panache by Indian Navy and merchant ships, and full marks to General VK Singh and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for that. Apparently India has evacuated nationals from more than 25 countries. I only have one small quibble. Who is paying for this large naval exercise? Are we charging the foreigners, or is it being done for free?
I ask because anything that is done for free diminishes in value in the eyes of the recipient. It is a life-and-death situation today, and therefore it is only fair that India does the humanitarian thing, but I imagine there must be some inter-governmental mechanism for cost allocation that will make the bean-counters happy. I mean an Indian taxpayer may not be keen – propaganda value aside – on subsidising the rescue of some foreigner.
Unfortunately, I have to ask the same question about the Indians who were rescued from Yemen. I am glad that massive efforts were made to bring them home, but who is paying? It may sound churlish to ask that question, but it is legitimate and should be considered. If there is no money set aside, it becomes a transfer of public funds to private hands. I acknowledge that they have been sending remittances to India, but those were private funds going to private accounts, nothing to the public purse.
Furthermore, there have been many warnings to Indians in Yemen that they should leave; yet many chose not to do so for reasons good and bad: that they were in essential medical services or that they needed the money. The rescue effort, in my opinion, should be fully charged to them. In future, perhaps all emigrants should be made to take on compulsory evacuation insurance so that the risk is covered: else it leads to moral hazard/adverse selection if the rewards are theirs, but the risks are the taxpayer's.
There is also the ethical issue – and a tough one it is – whether those foreign essential services people, such as nurses and doctors, should be leaving in droves just when they are needed the most. The Kuwaitis were upset with the Indians who fled during the Iraqi invasion; those who stayed back were rewarded. Can the Yemenis give some guarantees about their safety: but then which Yemenis? The embattled government or the Houthi rebels?
The larger picture in the Yemen war, of course, is whether it will become an all-out Shia-Sunni conflict, spreading to Oman (with a large Indian expatriate population) and elsewhere. How far will the Saudis (and their mercenary Pakistanis friends) go? Will Israel launch an offensive against Iran? What is Iran's gameplan? Are they actually abjuring nuclear weapons, or will they be tempted to cheat?
On the face of it, the framework as articulated in the media seems to be a significant climbdown by the Iranians: no reprocessing of spent fuel; the number of centrifuges (the devices that enrich natural uranium to weapons-grade uranium) cut by 66 percent; the newer centrifuges reduced to virtually none, and the rest stored under foreign supervision. (The centrifuges are key: there was the Stuxnet computer worm, suspected to have been of Israeli/US origin, that decimated a bunch of them).
The limit in terms of the level of enrichment is 3.67 percent, which is only useful for peaceful nuclear uses, not weapons. The amount of enriched uranium they will be allowed to keep has been reduced from 1,000 kg to 300 kg, the rest to be moved abroad. The two secret reactor complexes at Fordow and Natanz will be rendered toothless: Fordow no more than a research center; and at Natanz, the centrifuges drastically reduced. The Arak Heavy Water Reactor is to be redesigned and its core removed so that it can no longer produce plutonium. Plus, there will be continuous and intrusive monitoring by outsiders at every stage in the entire fuel cycle.
Iranians may find these conditions demeaning, and they may wonder if it was all worth the trouble, including the mysterious deaths (assassinations?) of scores of nuclear physicists. Thus the deal may yet founder on the rocks of public opposition inside Iran.
In the US, Republicans have promised to make it difficult for President Barack Obama to ram this through Congress, rightly pointing out that in a lacklustre presidency, this is in effect the kingpin of Obama's legacy. They have no great wish to support their – say the more virulent among them – mortal political enemy. So the deal may founder on that Scylla, as opposed to the Charybdis of Iranian opposition.
Nevertheless, if the deal goes through, it is good for India from another strategic angle. The reason the US has been dependent on Pakistan is that it had no other way to get to Afghanistan. I have long argued that India should act as a mediator for a US-Iran thaw just from the point of view that Iran would be a much better gateway to Afghanistan than Pakistan, thus diminishing the latter's geo-strategic importance and perhaps putting paid to its ambitions of strategic depth in Afghanistan, which the Iranians also would not want. It was a missed opportunity for India.
India, on the other hand, has had generally good relations with Iran, although a strong Islamic bond does exist between Iran and Pakistan. India has been developing the Chabahar port in Iran as a gateway to Afghanistan, bypassing troubled Pakistan altogether. A few days ago there were reports of skirmishes on the Iran-Pakistan border, with several Iranian border guards being killed – possibly the result of the ISI attempting to export its friendship to Iran as well.
Thus, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the Yemen evacuation are both helpful for India to project itself as the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean, in the crucial Hormuz-to-Malacca sector. China's “Maritime Silk Road” is a direct challenge to that, and India needs to invest in overcoming it.
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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2015 13:32:32 IST