Daft of Hillary to Push Us on Iran
Amb Kanwal Sibal

India-US relations have neither burgeoned as much as the enthusiasts may have wanted nor withered as much as the skeptics may have anticipated. The relationship is neither in an impasse nor is it set to surge ahead dramatically.

The welcome improvement in India-US ties does not automatically mean a convergence of interests on thorny issues.

On Iran, for example, our differences are real. The US is pressuring India to scuttle its relationship with Iran, which India is resisting.

The inconsistency of the US position on Iran and Pakistan in relation to India is glaring. This weakens the US case on Iran in India’s eyes.

The US wants India to disengage itself from Iran which is not India’s adversary but engage Pakistan which is one.

It wants, moreover, to retain the freedom to disregard India’s concerns while maintaining a level of relationship with Pakistan that it feels its national interest requires. At the same time, it wants to constrain India’s choices vis a vis Iran irrespective of the requirements of India’s national interest.

India has interests in Iran that go beyond the US-Iran relationship, just as the US has interests in Pakistan that go beyond the India-Pakistan relationship.

What is different in the two cases is that while India is doing nothing to boost Iran’s capacity to directly threaten US security, US policies bolster Pakistan’s capacity to directly threaten our security.

The US wants India to recognize the frightening danger of Iran’s nuclear conduct and its involvement in international terrorism and therefore join it to squeeze Iran politically and financially. We are being asked to sacrifice our national interest for the sake of the larger interest of the international community as seen by the US and its allies.

For India, Pakistan’s nuclear conduct with China’s support and its long standing use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy is far more of a problem. Yet, while recognizing the reality of Pakistan’s doings, the US and its allies do not seek to squeeze Pakistan politically and financially.

The US threatens to use military means to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but it continues to give military assistance to Pakistan even when, according to its own assessments, Pakistan is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal and is blocking negotiations on the Fissile Missile Cut-off Treaty at Geneva in order to amass more fissile material as a riposte to the India-US nuclear deal.

It is in this background that Hillary Clinton’s heavy handed diplomacy on the Iranian question during her India visit earlier this month should be considered.

She thought she would convince our public that Iran should be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons as its leadership intended to use them to wipe Israel off the map. Why Iran should commit national suicide by such recklessness was not explained.

She made far too much of Iran’s involvement in the terrorist attack in New Delhi against an Israeli embassy member to persuade us of Iran’s unspeakable terrorist affiliations when the US has been long equivocal about the terrorist attacks India has suffered at Pakistan’s hands for over two decades leading to the carnage at Mumbai.

India cannot see Iran as a bigger terrorist threat to international security than Pakistan.

Her open pressure on India to reduce oil supplies from Iran was not wise either. The US is not unaware of India’s energy compulsions and other valid reasons why it should maintain a viable relationship with Iran.

If placating Congressional opinion is a factor driving the US to put pressure on countries like India, the Indian government has also to take cognizance of parliamentary opinion which is against succumbing to US pressure on Iran.

Hillary Clinton was also ill-advised to publicly commend India for already reducing its oil purchases from Iran. This suggested that India was meeting the US demand, despite its protestations otherwise. Knowing the political sensitivity of the issue, why give ammunition to the opposition to attack the government?

This deliberate raising of the salience of the Iran issue to India-US ties and making it a test case of sorts for the strategic relationship is low-yield diplomacy in the long run as pressure breeds wariness.

Why Hillary Clinton felt the need to visit India just before the scheduled strategic dialogue between her and Foreign Minister Krishna next month in Washington is not clear.

It is one thing if the intention was to make some positive announcement on India-US relations on Indian soil to capture maximum attention. But if it was to mobilize support on Iran, FDI in retail or canvas for US nuclear suppliers, then the timing and the purpose can be questioned.

On Iran, the Prime Minister rightly reminded her that with the global economy in crisis, oil prices rising and India needing an additional 10 million tons, we could not afford to reduce oil supplies from Iran.

Foreign Minister Krishna acknowledged in his joint press conference with Clinton that Indian imports from Iran had in fact declined for commercial and technical reasons. The Petroleum Ministry has since declared officially that oil imports from Iran would be 15.5 MTs in 2012-13 as against 18.5 MTs in 2010-11 and 17.44 MTs in 2011-12.

Has India acted under US pressure or has it been forced to reduce imports because of payment and shipping insurance problems, as well as the reluctance of private sector companies and banks to risk losing access to the US financial sector because of the draconian US sanctions on Iran?

In either case, India’s legitimate strategic needs have had to yield to US’s dubious strategic calculus. This underlines the present limits of the strategic partnership between the two countries.

Published in Mail Today 22th May 2012

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