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Balancing act required for India

Discussion in 'Military History' started by CONNAN, Mar 12, 2012.

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    Apr 16, 2010
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    WRITING in The Diplomat on February 20, R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state in the Bush administration, lamented the fact that India was going to continue to purchase oil from Iran. He was reacting to reports that in order to circumvent the Western sanctions on Iran's central bank, Delhi was negotiating barter deals (Iranian oil for Indian goods) and/or payment in rupees. In failing to join in the EU-US sanctions, Burns believes, India has let down the US.

    This begs the question: has not US military aid to Pakistan been more gravely damaging to India's immediate security interests than India's oil trade with Iran is to US?

    If Washington does indeed believe that the largesse of US friendship comes with the expectation that a grateful India will become a client state, the bilateral relationship is in deep trouble.

    On February 16, Frida Ghitis wrote in World Politics Review that India must choose between Iran and Israel. As the mid-February bombing of Israeli embassy vehicles in Delhi proved, India is no longer aloof from the Middle East conflicts. Yet this is about as meaningful as saying that Israel must choose between enmity with Iran and friendship with India. India has to balance a complex array of interest and values in deciding on the best course of action regarding the Euro-US sanctions on Iran.

    A nuclear-armed Iran, although not as immediately threatening to India's security as to Israel's, will bring additional strategic uncertainty and complexity to Delhi's security environment. Nevertheless India must balance calculations of learning to live with Iran strengthening its capability to get the bomb without actually getting several bombs, Israel and the West waging war on Iran to stop it getting the bomb, or provoking Iran into a war through sanctions that throttle its economy. These are grave questions that any self-respecting country with clout in world affairs will want to answer for itself, not outsource the decision to Washington or Tel Aviv.

    A post-attack nuclear-armed Iran will be far more dangerous and unpredictable. The sobering truth is that we have not succeeded in preventing any regime determined enough to get the bomb from doing so.

    Bilaterally, India must balance relations with Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US. India's Defence Minister recently paid an official visit to Riyadh, the first such ever, and the two sides have agreed to draft a roadmap for defence co-operation that could include joint military exercises, joint training and production of defence equipment, and joint anti-piracy maritime patrolling. Relations with Washington have warmed over the past decade, while those with Israel have depth and breadth.

    But India also has good relations with Iran based on shared trade, security and geopolitical interests.

    Iran supplies about 12 per cent of India's oil imports.

    Delhi has also had a long-standing interest in building a gas pipeline from Iran to India, but that would have to run through Pakistan and therefore could leave India exposed to its enemy's goodwill in a future emergency. There has been an equally longstanding convergence of India-Iran strategic interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan that will outlast the Western military involvement in Afghanistan.

    There is a sneaking sympathy in India's strategic community for Iran's present predicament that matched India being out in the nuclear cold and suffering technology denial in a nuclear apartheid order for three decades.

    Just as important, India and Iran are not divided by any major clash of interests today or in the foreseeable future.

    Nor can any Indian government ignore the reality of 150 million Indian Muslims. India is not immune to the Sunni-Shia sectarian rivalry, as between 10 and 15 per cent of Indian Muslims are Shia.

    Delhi must make a real effort to appreciate US and Israeli concerns. But India's friends, too, must understand its policy compulsions.

    Ramesh Thakur is director of the Centre for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at ANU's Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy

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