Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement (2)

The geopolitical implications of the new route to Central Asia

Commenting on India-US relations after the UPA government won the vote of confidence last week, Nikolas Gvosdev contends that Iran will remain as the key stumbling block for improved bilateral relations. Well, it doesn’t have to be.

A realist re-appraisal of the geopolitics of Central Asia will indicate that the United States and India are among those who lack good access to the region. China and Russia have an upper hand as they not only have borders with Central Asian states, but have extended their influence over gateways to the region. Once the Iran-Afghanistan corridor becomes operational, India will have an opportunity to improve its access to Central Asia. As Dr Gvosdev points out, the United States could benefit too:

There are even some positives for the US—a new trade route that provides an alternative to Central Asia’s continuing dependence on Russian export routes; a new alternative to China; another “brick” in the stabilization of Afghanistan by opening up trade and providing fees. [The Washington Realist]

Now, access to Central Asia is only one element of in US calculations: but if American policymakers understand that thirty years is long enough a time to be miffed, they will find that better relations with Iran not only solves many of their problems, but also that this has become necessary. The Bush administration’s recent decision to send a diplomat to join the Europe-Iran talks in Geneva and Barack Obama’s willingness to break the ice with Iran are therefore steps in the right direction.

At the very least, to the extent Iran is a ‘stumbling block’, a US-Iran rapprochement is in India’s interests (see previous post). This will require proactive diplomacy on India’s part. But it won’t be difficult to generate domestic support for such a project. And why, it’ll take wind out of the sails of those who are against better relations with the United States.

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7 Responses to Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement (2)

  1. NS 27th July 2008 at 03:10 #

    Nitin,
    I hate to say pour some cold ice on the idea of India playing a role in the Iran-US conflict but i want to add my two cents. I some times forget that this is a blog published from an Indian perspective – for the longest time i thought you were actually living in the US and running this blog ! Your blog postings generally seemed to be supportive of the US ( which is kind of refreshing given the rampant anti-Americanism that is always in fashion)

    As some one who has been in the US for the past few years and watching local politics here, I have come to a few opinions on American foreign policy with respect to Iran. These are just that -opinions and i may be wrong in my analysis.

    1. The US would love to have better relations with Iran. But not at the expense of its allies in Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and of course Saudi Arabia. The Iranian regime has a certain air of fantasy about its own power and is in a direct collision course with US strategic interests in the region. Take the Israel-Palestine for example – there is no bigger supporter of Hamas Govt than Iran. Mohd Abbas for all practical purposes is seen as nothing more than a lap dog for America.

    Hamas of course is the sworn enemy of Israel and is supported by Israel’s biggest threat – Iran. And we have not come to Lebanon yet – where Iran once again is the biggest patron of Hezbollah (Syria being the other). Iran supplies the arms, ammunition, political idealogy that fuels Hezbollahs struggle for power against the minority Sunni’s,Druze,Mernoites who make up Lebanese Govt. Lebanon had a bloody civil war from the mid 70s to the 90’s the results of which were never conclusive to the warring sides.

    The US ofcourse supports the Lebanese Govt and considers the Iranian/Syrian nexus a threat to stability and peace in the region – remember Lebanon is not even a major energy rich country and yet the US/Israel are crossing swords with the Iranian desire to expand their strategic influence in the region.

    2. Iran has been trying to develop nuclear weapons for a long time now – basically they have been giving the IAEA the go-around so that they can gain time. No sane observer in the region thinks that Iran will be using its nuclear capabilites to just generate electricity. Unless the US or Israel acts, Iran is going to get the bomb – we dont know how quickly they can weaponize but the moment they get nuclear weapons, their leverage increases by a huge and unimaginable factor. They now can use it to blackmail the world pretty much the way Pakistan did. It comes as no surprise that AQ Khan was busy selling centifuge designs to Iran.

    3. In short, a US Iran rapproachment is not going to happen unless a Israel-Iran understanding is acheived. It does not help, to put it mildly that a lunatic Ahmedinejad openly declares an intent to wipe Israel from the pages of time – gee, i wonder what that would mean to a people who are defined by the Holocaust.

    The theocratic Islamic regime sees itself as modern harbinger of the purest form of Islam to the Middle East and chants “Death to America” with a seriousness that no one wants to confront.

    4. The Iranian people on the other hand absolutely love the US – they are critical of some of its actions but they were one of the very few people in the Middle East who had a candlelit vigil on 9/11 expressing support and sympathy in America. American culture is a magnet for the younger ones.

    5. Please do not count on the Bush administrations recent move to send diplomats to meet with Iran as any thing more than what it is – a last ditch effort. You may want to know what happened AFTER THAT meeting – The Iranians basically said – no dice. The US official was present to show to the Iranians how serious the US was in trying to forge a diplomatic consensus to the problem – so far the EU3 have been doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in talking to Iran – but only they can as they have trade relations with Iran. The US does not have these relations and hence no leverage.

    6. Please dont me taken in by the charlatan Barack Obama – I am a McCain supporter but i have not seen a more duplicitous politician on Iran than Obama – he once dismissed the country as having 1% of the US GDP and then proceeded to call it a “grave threat”. He once made a promise that he would talk unconditionally to Iranian leaders and then backtracked on it saying that he would do so only after “preparations” ( What ever the hell thats supposed to mean)

    7. Iran is basically challenging the will of the US-EU. What is it that they can do about Iran’s nuclear program ? In short, nothing – not if you want to save the world from a global recession, once Iran shuts off its oil supplies and stops oil from being transported thru the Straits of Hormuz.

    8. I have not even mentioned the troubles Iran caused the US in Iraq – but i guess its a story every one should know by now.

    India’s role in lubricating the relations between the two countries is very very limited in my view. The Iranian regime thinks that it holds the cards and has the necessary leverage to get nuclear weapons. And it may actually be right.

    The ball is now in the US court – it can either accept a nuclear armed Iran – but doing so would mean that its strategic influence in the Middle East has received a stunning blow, especially after what now seems to be a promising situation in Iraq.

    Or the US can officially declare the containment of Iran as its policy. Yesterday the same Obama who once wanted to meet unconditionally face to face with Iranian leaders declared that he would not let Iran become a nuclear armed country ! I dont think i actually believe him when he says stuff like that, but the US will have to accept a nuclear Iran especially if its not prepared to do anything militarily about it. The Israelis tried some bluster a few weeks back with their exercises in the Mediterranean, but pretty much every one who observes the Middle East – agree that its nothing more than bluster.

    Some interesting times ahead for sure – and i just dont see how a country that just faced a second terrorist strike in the last two days is up to the task of playing middle man in strategic games in the ME – its way over India’s influence.

  2. Atanu Dey 27th July 2008 at 13:38 #

    NS, thanks for a very cogently argued position. The entire piece is good but I especially note the concluding para. I totally agree that India needs to set its house in order and doing so is challenging enough without taking on additional roles in areas where it has little possibility of success.

    India is increasingly becoming a powerless nation. I mean that literally. Its policymakers are so myopic that they cannot even project how the demand for electrical power; believing that these worthies will be able to project power abroad — or even mediate successfully in power struggles — is ludicrous.

  3. Nitin 27th July 2008 at 16:22 #

    NS,

    I limit my discussions on US politics and policy to the extent that they are relevant to India’s international relations. What you say about US, Iranian and Israeli politics and politicians is true. But I believe that there are influential quarters in all these states that know what their interests are, and are neither too impressed nor caught up with the rhetoric that comes out of the mouths of their politicians. Ditto in India. I usually address these quarters.

    Atanu,

    I disagree with the notion of “get your house in order first” before you play a role in the neighbourhood. Both in general and this particular case: relations between US and Iran have major implications for India’s energy security. It’s got a lot to do with power, actually.

    I know four years of the squeaking blue turban has pooped many a person’s confidence in the capability of this country but past performance is no guarantor of future results. And let’s just say that the Indian strategic establishment is limited by the kind of political masters it gets. And when you least expect it, the Buddha smiles.

  4. NS 27th July 2008 at 22:43 #

    Nitin,
    Dont mistake me – i do agree that there are quarters within the US, Israel, Iran who know what their interests are and dont put too much weight on the political rhetoric of the day. How ever, where i disagree is the degree of influence that they actually wield.

    It is no secret that the US State Dept under Condi Rice has been for a more diplomatic approach dealing with Iran. In fact this is no recent development – as far as back in 2006, Rice made an offer to talk to Iran (http://www.tompaine.com/articles/2006/06/05/rices_iran_gambit.php) on the condition that they stop uranium enrichment – it was also a time when the US was cleary losing the war in Iraq.

    How ever diplomatic efforts made by Rice have been consistently undercut and reconciliation made harder by the Iranian regime. Political rhetoric may not count for much- but it is dangerous to ignore it completely or to say that it wont have an effect. When Ahmedinejad makes his statements about Israels destruction they evoke stong feelings from both the Israeli and American sides – it is very unhelpful to say the least and sets a tone that becomes difficult to ignore – it also effectively undercuts people in Iran who do want to this cold war between Iran and the US and are looking for better relations between the two countries.

    What is even more tragic is the fact that Condi Rice had to fight a lot to come to get the US to adopt her diplomatic approach on Iran – she faced down powerful enemies from Vice President Dick Cheney and the neoconservative wing of the Republican party which believes that all this diplomacy with Iran is nothing more than footdragging that ultimately is going to lead to war, how ever much one may not want such an undesirable event. It takes two to tango and right now the Iranians are simply daring the US and the rest of the world to do what they possibly can.

    Here is an interesting take on why Condi Rice agreed to overturn long standing policy to directly negotiate with Iran – (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/jun/01/world.iran)

    Unfortunately the people who hold real power in Iran have been recalcitrant to put it mildly – I dont think they are going to change suddenly. This is because the “nuclear” issue is only a part of the puzzle – the bigger picture is extending Iran’s strategic influence in the region and forcing the United States to deal with it, one way or the other.

    When oil prices hiked and it rose to about 4$ a gallon here in the US, there has been a lot of bitching and moaning about it – from average and low to middle income Americans who rely heavily on cars to go to work, shop groceries etc… No one at this point wants this situation to grow any worse. Iran knows that pretty well just like any other member in OPEC and is counting on the US ultimately not having the stomach to push for a military solution.

    That being said, this issue may come down to how firmly the EU stands behind the US in staring down Iran. (Would they agree to a total economic ban on Iran like the one that the US has ?)If they buckle, the Iranians walk away as winners at least for the time being. Some really interesting and dangerous times ahead.

  5. NS 27th July 2008 at 23:07 #

    Major correction from my previous post
    “it also effectively undercuts people in Iran who do want to this cold war between Iran and the US and are looking for better relations between the two countries.” must read as

    “it also effectively undercuts people in Iran who do want to END this cold war between Iran and the US…”
    Oops :-)

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