India should signal its willingness to play mediator between the two antagonists
It is heartening to see that K Subrahmanyam believes that India could offer to become a mediator between the United States and Iran.
The North Koreans used a nuclear test and nuclear weapon making effort successfully to deter threats of externally induced forcible regime change to persuade the US to negotiate directly and to obtain much-needed aid. Iran is in a somewhat analogous situation with US threatening regime change and military action. In the case of North Korea, China acted as a successful intermediary. There does not appear to be an intermediary to facilitate an Iran-West dialogue which can lead to the resolution of the issue. In a sense, India is in a position to play that role. China made it clear that it did not favour North Korean nuclear weapons and that did not prevent China playing the mediatory role. In this case, one cannot be confident whether such an offer will be acceptable to Iran and the US. But India does not lose anything in making that offer. [IE]
This is the question I asked Stephen Cohen recently:
Q: Is it possible for India to play a bridging role between America and Iran, much like the role played by Pakistan between China and America?
A:I don’t think so. It is largely our problem, a psychological one to be more specific, that goes back to 70s and the hostage crisis. Too many Americans are still wrapped up in that. We have an obsession and we cannot get rid of it. So it is hard for India to play that kind of role. By the way, there are other countries that want to play that role also.
Indian is caught between all kinds of contesting powers. I am not sure if India wants to play any role at all. I know one Indian diplomat who has said that India is better off not being a permanent member in UN Security Council. If it were a permanent member, then it would have to take a position on every issue. Historically, India is best off by not taking positions, given its fragile domestic politics and the loss of a foreign policy consensus. There is room for creative Indian diplomacy on Iran, but they have to take Pakistan along. I think India ought to go with Pakistan to the US and say ‘look we understand your concerns about Iran but pipeline is more important to us’. [Pragati Issue 15 | June 2008]
The hurdles Dr Cohen refers to might be collapsing. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, has signaled his willingness to engage Iran’s top leadership directly. Even if he doesn’t make it to the White House, the fact that he is advocating such a stance indicates that those psychological barriers are coming down.
Second, as Mr Subrahmanyam’s op-ed suggests, India might not only be willing to play this role, but it might be one where India’s geopolitical interests and the diktats of its domestic politics are in some alignment.
Other countries might well want to play the role, but not all of those have the requisite capability to even attempt such a thing.
The main resistance to a US-Iran rapprochement will come from Pakistan, China and to some extent, from Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is unlikely to prefer another of its Western neighbours to be on good terms with the United States, and China would like nothing better than for the US to be tied down in as many Middle Eastern knots as possible. So it is unlikely that India can ‘take Pakistan along’ on this one.
To the extent that a US-Iran rapprochement will diminish its influence in the region (and strengthen the Shia arc), Saudi Arabia will be against the plan. But Saudi Arabia is unlikely to want a nuclear Iran or indeed see another war in its neighbourhood. Also, winning Russia’s support will be key.
But this is a diplomatic project that is worth India’s effort.