The Saudi bomb

Made in Pakistan, Supported by China, but still Saudi Arabia’s nuclear weapon

This week, a major Western media house discovered that the Saudi Arabia has already paid Pakistan for the bomb and can have it home-delivered pretty quickly. This is perhaps the first time that news of the Saudi-Pakistan nuclear arrangement is getting media coverage. This topic was something that Western mediapersons and analysts would determinedly avoid discussing in public. Even the most committed advocates of the nuclear non-proliferation regime still do not write or talk about the relationship, which makes their advocacy and intent a lot less credible than it otherwise might have been.

Regular readers of this blog will recall analysis suggesting that Pakistan’s rapid stockpiling of fissile material is linked to Saudi Arabia’s needs in correlation with Iran’s nuclear advancements. China’s grandfatherly nuclear largesse makes Beijing an accomplice in this nuclear weapons manufacturing and transfer business. This is plain and simple nuclear proliferation, no matter if the self-appointed guardians of that term choose to ignore it.

Given this background, the fact that BBC’s Newsnight is now revealing that the Pakistanis might transfer the bomb to Saudi Arabia on demand suggests that the Saudi Arabian government wants it to be revealed. This is understandable: with chances of a Iran’s rapprochement with the West increasing this year, the likelihood that the world will eventually accept a nuclear Iran is also rising. Letting it be known that Saudi Arabia also has nuclear capacity—albeit in an outsourced model—serves to reinforce Riyadh’s prestige, proto-deterrence and adds pressure on its Western allies to not cut deals with the Iranians. It also helps prepare the ground for an eventual coming out of the nuclear closet.

What Western analysts of nuclear proliferation have to answer for is when exactly did the Saudi-Pakistan-China nuclear arrangement start? If it predates Tehran’s own decision to develop nuclear weapons capacity, then shouldn’t part of the responsibility for Iran’s move accrue to Riyadh, Islamabad and Beijing? Recriminations of the intellectual kind are futile in geopolitics, but to the extent that the United States recognises Iran’s security challenges, it might be able to negotiate for better outcomes with Iran, for the international community.

The emerging problem in the Middle East is one of shaping a stable nuclear deterrence relationship primarily involving Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the United States, Pakistan and China as actors in a supporting role. Getting facts out into the open is the good way to begin addressing it.

Looking for morality in chemical composition of death devices

The debate in Washington is about guilt management, not Syrian lives.

The very public handwringing and teeth-gnashing that is Barack Obama’s decision-making on intervention in Syria is on the surface and according to the protagonists about upholding international humanitarian norms, punishing regimes that transgress them and maintaining US credibility. To do some or all of the above, they argue, the Washington must punishing Syria’s president Bashar Assad and his government for having used chemical weapons against its own civilian population.

Much of this is strange (and strangely doesn’t appear to be strange for many people) because the ‘international community’ seems to be less concerned about dead Syrian civilians as long as they died from chemicals like gunpowder, TNT, RDX or PETN. However if the same dead Syrian civilians had died from other chemicals like Sarin, it is concerned that ‘norms’ have been violated.

No, this is not an argument to give the use of chemical weapons a pass—rather, it is to make the point that such distinctions neither address the humanitarian cause nor lead to clear thinking about what the international community ought to do when civilians are being subjected to mass atrocities.

Making the use of chemical weapons the “red line” is in effect a license to odious regimes to do just what they want with conventional weapons (note the loaded term ‘conventional’ weapons). If the proposed Russian-brokered compromise—where Syria will place its chemical weapons under international supervision—comes to fruition, the international community will be forced to be a wilful bystander as the Assad government and its opponents go about committing atrocities against civilians. The death toll is both a function of the type of weapons used and how long the conflict endures. As we found out in Rwanda, it is possible to kill millions of people in months using such simple mechanical weapons as machetes.

Yet the international community seems not to be interested in finding ways to end the conflict. How can we explain its preparation to use military force without even first making a serious attempt to engage Iran?

Washington’s old dogmas on Iran, war weariness from Iraq and Afghanistan, and new fashions on protecting international norms has clouded the Obama administration’s fundamental reading of the situation. In an shocking display of serpentoleum salesmanship or dangerous naïveté the US secretary of state claimed that military intervention in Syria does not mean going to war. What Washington had in mind was an “unbelievably small, limited” strike that would rap Mr Assad’s knuckles. He didn’t say—and no one bothered to ask—what after that? [See the previous post on why such claims are dubious.]

Mr Kerry’s boss had already passed the buck to the people’s representatives. His reluctance to use force is understandable, but he has to wrap his position in a label that would mean different things to different domestic constituencies. One thing he can’t say though is that what Western governments are concerned about is not upholding moral norms—for if it were so, then the chemical composition of Syrian ordinance wouldn’t have mattered. What they are really concerned about is upholding arbitrary norms of international guilt mitigation.

There’s a certain dishonesty to liberal internationalist claims of international humanitarian norms. The need to cover that dishonesty causes the rather shameful performances that we’re seeing in Washington.

Living with a nuclear Iran

Dealing with a nuclear Iran is better than suffering an international war to stop it.

Led by the United States, much of the international community has tightened economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to prevent it from building nuclear weapons. India and China are among the few countries that have stayed out of this initiative and have been criticised for it. In a piece in the Wall Street Journal that comprehensively captures the argument against New Delhi’s current policy of not participating in the sanctions regime, Sadanand Dhume argues:

An India that uses its oil purchases and diplomatic clout to create breathing room for Iran risks scuppering the notion New Delhi has benefited from for more than a decade: that India’s rise is beneficial to the West. By contrast, should India throw its weight behind a powerful anti-Iran coalition, it stands to gain by halting the further nuclearization of its neighborhood, blunting the spread of radical Islam and bolstering its credentials as a force for stability. [WSJ]

Mr Dhume makes an important point when he says that “India’s quest for security and prosperity is most effectively pursued in a predictable and stable US-led international order.” Yet there is room—and indeed, a need—for discrimination within agreement over this worldview. In the case of Iran Washington’s policy position is dogmatic to the point of rejecting without any consideration the benefits—to the United States and to the US-led order—of a grand rapprochement with Iran. In a recent article on FP, Neil Padukone, a new fellow for geopolitics at Takshashila, details the scale and the scope of this geopolitical opportunity. I have argued that New Delhi well-placed to lubricate this process.

We have to criticise New Delhi, but for a different reason. It did not even attempt to avoid being crunched by Washington on one side and its own interests with Iran on the other. The situation in Afghanistan can change dramatically if Iran and the United States could cooperate. Where we needed imaginative and deft diplomacy, we saw resignation and default. Opportunities to improve ties with Washington on issues unrelated to Iran—from the fighter plane purchase, to UN Security Council positions over Libya and Syria—were gratuitously squandered.

On the nuclear issue, if the question were asked at a time when Iran was far away from building a bomb, the answer to whether an Iranian bomb is in India’s interests would have been a “No.” But now, at a time when the only way to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon is a war, the answer is different. In fact, the question for governments around the world now is whether an Iranian bomb is worse than an international war to prevent it.

A military conflict against Iran is not in India’s interests. Not only will it further destabilise a region that is already in deep crisis, it will do so in a form where India will be directly affected. Fuel supplies from Iran and supply routes from the Persian Gulf will come under threat and could precipitate a domestic economic crisis with unpredictable consequences. Also, doesn’t a war with Iran once again provide the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, with the encouragement of the Saudis, to once again become a frontline ally in an American war? Washington’s predisposition to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s shenanigans in the context of its own geopolitical projects was and will be expensive to India.

Those who have long enough memories will recall that General Zia-ul-Haq was in Washington’s doghouse until the United States had to intervene in Afghanistan. Those who have shorter memories will recall General Musharraf being in a similar place and his dictatorship getting a ticket to respectability when the United States had to do it again. The Pakistani military establishment used these periods to first develop and expand its strategic assets—nuclear weapons and jihadi groups. Another reprieve will be no different.

It takes a lot to believe sanctions can prevent a determined, modern state like Iran from building a bomb it wants to. The costs of these ineffective sanctions are subjective—and unless there’s a short-term way to ensure the long-term security of 11 percent of India’s energy imports—for New Delhi they are not worth incurring.

Where does this leave us? Well, with the reality of having to deal with a nuclear Iran, and consequently perhaps with an overtly nuclear Saudi Arabia too. This need not necessarily make the region more unstable, even considering a triangular dynamic that includes Israel. Let’s not forget Western nuclear deterrence theory has always lagged deterrence in practice—be it during the Cold War or in the case of the subcontinent.

This does not mean that the Iranian regime is all Persian fragrance towards India. It’s not. But you can’t survive as a regime or as a state—even a revolutionary one—without realism. There’s a reason why Mullah Omar had to flee on a motorcycle while the leaders of Viet Nam are now Washington’s strategic allies. Regimes devoid of realism write their own obituaries. The survival of the Iranian theocratic-democracy is evidence of there being an underpinning of realism. Iran’s realists, however, are eclipsed by fundamentalists like Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who feed on hostility with the United States. To the extent that the hostility can be ratcheted down, the realists in the regime will be strengthened. Even otherwise, the Iranian regime, despite its foundations on the Shia narrative, is unlikely to desire civilisational suicide. [Update: How states act after they acquire nuclear weapons – on The Monkey Cage, linkthanks @chennaikaran]

New Delhi’s position might differ from that of Washington and Tel Aviv. But just as their positions are based on their perceptions of self-interest, so is ours. While there is no need to be apologetic about its positions over Iran, New Delhi must not lose other opportunities to strengthen its relationship with the United States and Israel.

Karzai’s tightrope

Pakistan’s opposition to an autonomous Afghanistan is the problem

My op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia‘s symposium (Nov 15th, 2011):

As the Obama administration pushes for an earlier drawdown of U.S. troops, Kabul must quickly take responsibility for maintaining internal stability and charting an independent foreign policy. We asked four analysts—Michael O’Hanlon, Marin Strmecki, Amin Saikal and Nitin Pai—how Kabul should address the challenge.

The heart of Afghanistan’s problem is that its natural desire for autonomy provokes strong resistance from Pakistan. Islamabad perceives anything less than a satellite regime as inimical to its interests, in turn driving Kabul to seek autonomy by reaching out to India, Iran, Russia and China.

This vicious cycle of insecurity can be broken in two ways: reconfigure the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, or change geopolitical attitudes in Pakistan. The latter is decidedly more painless, but requires getting Pakistan’s generals to change their minds. It is not going to be easy.

Afghanistan then has to look for other solutions. To some extent, the Afghan state can look to New Delhi because India faces significant risks in the short term from a U.S. withdrawal.

Triumphant militants and their backers in the Pakistani military establishment, fresh from defeating a superpower, might decide to turn their attention to Kashmir. This is what happened in the early 1990s when Pakistani and other foreign veterans of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan edged out local militants in the Kashmir valley and began one of the most violent phases of Pakistan’s proxy war.

Hence India doesn’t want a repeat of the 1990s. There is however a sense in New Delhi that 2011 is not 1991. Only the most credulous today accept Pakistani denials that it does not use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. The good news then is that international pressure on Pakistan is likely to persist even after U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.

Even so, New Delhi is hedging in four ways. First, as the recent agreements signed by President Karzai and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh show, India intends to further bolster the capacity of the Afghan state to provide for its own security. Training Afghan troops allows India the flexibility to raise or lower its security investments, depending on circumstances.

Second, India is strengthening its relationships with Afghan political formations opposed to the Taliban. Third, it is attempting to improve bilateral relations with Pakistan, to the extent possible. Fourth, New Delhi is cooperating with other nations to keep the conflict contained within Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Kabul has its own internal problems that bedevil its foreign policy. The strategic logic in Mr. Karzai’s attempts at striking a balance in Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbors has been often overshadowed by the perception that his actions are mercurial and clumsy. That means his new friends in New Delhi, Beijing or in Moscow—with whom he is trying to get closer—may look at him with some wariness.

What’s more, Mr. Karzai is keeping the Pakistani channel open at the same time. In this he faces determined domestic opposition from quarters that disapprove of his dalliances with Pakistan and its proxies. All of this makes for a heart-stopping tightrope act.

Mr. Pai is founder of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank.

Copyright © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

The Asian Balance: US-Iran rapprochement

Can we help Washington and Tehran to get over it?

This is the unedited version of yesterday’s column in Business Standard.

As the war in Afghanistan enters what might be an endgame, it remains clear that there is broad convergence of geopolitical interests between two sets of players: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China on the one hand, and India, Iran and the United States on the other. If Pakistan achieves its ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, it benefits Saudi Arabia to the extent that such an outcome unsettles Iran, Riyadh’s regional and sectarian-ideological rival. For China, this means the United States is kept away from its south-western land frontiers, that Beijing is saved the messy business of intervening in Afghanistan and that friendly regimes help it manage the restive Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

If Beijing has masterfully managed its relationship with its natural allies, Washington has allowed a dogmatic petulance over Iran take over strategic sense. Why else would it work to undermine co-operation among India, Iran and the United States to address the unprecedented threats to international security emanating from Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex?

Imagine how profoundly the geopolitics of Asia would change were Iran and the United States to co-operate, even if it is in the limited context of Afghanistan. Remember, the Iranians collaborated with their ‘Great Satan’ ten years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, to get rid of the nearer shaitans to their east.

Since improved ties between Iran and the United States are in India’s interest, we should wonder why New Delhi doesn’t do anything to lubricate a rapprochement.

This brings us to two myths about our own relationship with Tehran. Myth No 1 is that without the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, we can neither buy gas from Iran nor really have a good bilateral relationship with it. Myth No 2 holds that the scope of India-Iran relations is limited by the tensions between Washington and Tehran. If it appears that these are ground realities, and not myths, it is because New Delhi chooses to make them so.

We don’t need a pipeline, over land or under sea, to get gas from Iran. We can purchase it as liquified natural gas (LNG) and ship it across to regasification terminals on India’s shores.

The fascination with pipelines is part economics, part statist mindset, and part due to a belief that a pipeline can bring peace between India and Pakistan.

Shipping LNG might be more expensive than the pipeline, but considering that the IPI pipeline  traverses the most dangerous territory in the world, the risk premium on the piped gas makes the project unviable without government subsidies. In other words, the taxpayer is being asked to make good what is fundamentally an unsound business case. Furthermore, even if pipelines can lock down gas supplies, Russia’s attempts to coerce Europe using its monopoly position at the head end of pipelines demonstrate that being at the receiving end can be uncomfortable.

Proponents of a ‘peace pipeline’ need to be asked whether India needs the pipeline for ‘peace’ or for energy security. Should India’s energy security be hostage to fantasies of those who want to put India’s jugular in the hands of the Pakistani military establishment? It is astounding that a project that deliberately creates a vulnerability that Pakistan can exploit at will is somehow considered part of energy security.

Forget the pipeline. We must make strategic investments in LNG, enabling us to purchase supplies from anywhere, including from Iran.

On to the second myth. With India in a position to be a geopolitical swing power, India’s ties with Iran need not be hostage to the tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Some might argue that this is already the case today, but the results on the ground have been unsatisfactory. Last year, Ayatollah Khamenei included Kashmir in the list of lands that needed to be “rescued from the demonic clutches of hegemonic powers.” US pressure caused India to disallow crude oil purchases from Iran under the Asian Clearing Union (ACU) mechanism, hurting Indian importers and refiners. We are getting assailed by both sides.

New Delhi should declare India’s interest in a rapprochement between the United States and Iran and work to bring them together, unofficially to start off with, and officially when it becomes possible. Indian diplomacy must be focused on persuading the two sides to undertake confidence-building measures. The goal should be to persuade the two sides to begin formal talks, under a ‘truce’ with Washington committing to non-aggression while Tehran halts its nuclear programme. Such a proposal will be rebuffed, but that need not deter us from taking our position.

Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad may not very receptive, but let’s remember ayatollahs and presidents can change, or change their minds. If a moderate Khatami could be replaced by a Ahmedinejad, the excesses of the latter could well cause a shift back to the centre. Similarly, if the United States is cozying up to Vietnam today, and even talking to the Taliban, Washington is not totally devoid of realism.

So things can change. Especially if New Delhi musters the imagination and resolve that distinguish statesmanship from mere diplomacy.

East Asia, yes. Iran, err.

US State Department’s view on India’s regional role

Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of an online Q&A with Robert Blake, US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia.

Nitin Pai: You have been one of the few U.S. officials to state that India is part of East Asia. How do you see the partnership between India and the United States shaping up in terms of the balance of power in East Asia? Specifically the South China Sea.

Robert Blake: Thank you for that question. As I said earlier, I expect that how we can expand cooperation and information sharing on activities in Asia will be a real focus of the Strategic Dialogue between the Secretary and External Affairs Minister Krishna. Already we’ve announced that we’re going to have a trilateral dialogue between the United States and India and Japan. And that we look very much forward to India’s increased participation in East Asian institutions such as the East Asia Summit. So I think there’s a tremendous scope for greater collaboration in this area. And again, this will be very much an important focus of the dialogue next week and the week after.

NP: Do you see the India-U.S. strategic relationship as providing a basis for India to attempt reapproachment between U.S. and Iran? After all, if the U.S. and Iran get over their vexed relationship the entire geo-politics of the region would be transformed.

RB: I think the U.S.-Iran relationship is going to be decided on the basis of some of the important efforts that are already underway on the Iranian nuclear program. I don’t expect that India will have a huge role to play in that, although we do value our dialogue with India on Iran. Let me just leave it at that. [State Department]

The entire transcript is here. See reports by Indrani Bagchi, Narayan Lakshman, Indira Kannan, S Rajagopalan and ANI.

Reconstructing Afghanistan’s natural balance

Why India must try to bring the United States, Iran and Russia together over Afghanistan

Imagine Afghanistan without extra-regional powers like the United States, NATO and others. Its stability would depend on the stability of the balance of power between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and India. The external actors would broadly fall into two camps, based on the degree of convergence of their interests: China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the red corner, and India, Iran and Russia in the blue. This was roughly the situation obtaining in Afghanistan in the second-half of the 1990s towards the end of which the red corner seized a dominant upper hand through the military success of Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime. After 9/11, the US and NATO stepped in and disrupted the natural geopolitical dynamics of the region.

Once external powers withdraw Afghanistan the natural geopolitics will again kick into action: with the China-Saudi-Pakistan triad seeking dominance over the landlocked country against the interests of India, Iran and Russia. The United States has the power to set the future trajectory by choosing sides. The tragedy of the last decade is the sheer inability or unwillingness (complicity or incompetence?) of the United States to appreciate the intrinsic geopolitics of the region. It would have done much better for itself and for Afghanistan if it had recognised how the fundamental interests of the region’s powers were stacked up, and aligned itself accordingly.

The single most important reason for this, perhaps, was the dysfunctional relationship between Iran. There still is no love lost between Washington and Tehran. Worse, even as China consolidates its alliance with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the United States seeks to split India and Iran. For its part, India has shown no appetite for bringing about a rapprochement between the United States and Tehran.

This must change, and 2011 has opened a window for India, Iran and the United States to attempt to increase co-operation over Afghanistan. Writing in the Washington Post, a well-connected Saudi commentator has declared a US-Saudi split. The Pakistani establishment is checking how much support it will receive from China before deciding how much to part ways with the United States. Before the killing of Osama bin Laden upset the scoreboard, General Kayani and Prime Minister Gilani had asked Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, to cut his links with the United States. In the current circumstances China doesn’t have to do anything bold: it just needs to wait.

In contrast, even after Abbottabad, the United States remains wedded to a failed strategy of pretending that the Pakistani military establishment is its ally. This only strengthens the position of the China-Saudi-Pakistan triad, and weakens its own. New Delhi is unlikely to be persuaded that it enjoys a genuinely strategic relationship with the United States as long as the latter continues to scaffold Pakistan. Tehran has many reasons to be opposed to the United States. A good part of that is ideological. What gets less attention is the fact that the realists in Tehran have reason to be wary of the United States because they see Washington as the protector of both Israel and, more importantly, the Sunni bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. There are some differences between New Delhi and Tehran, but nothing that can’t be resolved if Washington were to change course. Russia enjoys good relations with both Iran and India, and is likely to prefer such a re-arrangement of relations.

If realism prevails in Washington, New Delhi and Tehran, their diplomats will be galvanised into working out how the three could co-operate, albeit in a limited context, over Afghanistan. It may be that nearly three decades of estrangement has left the tribal world of Washington policymaking with few advocates of making up with Iran. That’s why India has a role—it must muster up the imagination and diplomatic chutzpah to attempt this project.

It is frustrating to see resigned minds give up before even trying.

Related Links: Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement (from this blog’s archives) and Neil Padukone’s issue brief at CLAWS.


(…in the Aman ki Asha newspapers)

Chidanand Rajghatta’s report in the Times of India on the Pakistan’s fast growing nuclear arsenal quotes me:

Some analysts scoffed at reports of expanding Pakistani nuclear arsenal, which has been making the rounds since Lavoie’s assertion, suggesting it was aimed at extracting a nuclear deal for Pakistan similar to the one India has arrived at with the U.S and the international nuclear club.

“If Pakistan is stockpiling nukes, it’s the west that needs to be scared. India cannot be scared more than it has been since 1985 (when Pakistan first weaponized),” said Nitin Pai, who edits Pragati, the Indian National Interest Review, and is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution. “We stopped counting after Pakistan’s first one.” Most Indian analysts believe Washington has generally winked at Pakistan’s egregious nuclear build-up because of other strategic concerns.

The United States, which according to these critics indirectly funds and underwrites Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program (because the country generates no revenues beyond its bare survival) continues to be blasé in public about Islamabad’s growing arsenal, even though it is coming at the expense of a proposed international treaty to stop production of fissile material. Pakistan has blocked progress on the so-called Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty in Geneva and remains the lone hold-out, despite living on American hand-outs, as it accelerates expansion of its arsenal. [TOI]

Here is a previous post that explains why Pakistan is running an arms race, but a Middle Eastern one.

On a different note, Rizwan Asghar cites my post on Robert Blackwill’s proposal to partition Afghanistan, in Pakistan’s The News.

Afghan literature has always expressed love for all communities – i.e., Pakhtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks alike. If Iraq, with equally distinct and strong linguistic and sectarian divisions, could not be divided, Afghanistan is least expected to go that way. Indian journalist Nitin Pai has recently said that “despite ethnic heterogeneity, foreign invasions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan state, the people of Afghanistan have a strong sense of nationhood. So, while partitioning the country might have its attractions for geopolitical strategists, it is unlikely that the Afghan people will countenance such a project.” [The News]

Up Persian creek without a strategy

India must get its act together on Iran…quickly

The apparent lack of policy co-ordination within the Indian government over Iran is really worrying.

We are referring to the RBI’s decisions in recent days closing the Asian Clearing Union (ACU) mechanism to imports—beginning with oil and extending to other goods and services—from Iran. The move not only caught the industry by surprise. And it looks like it caught the relevant government ministries by surprise as well. Given that Iran is India’s second largest supplier of crude oil accounting for around 13 percent ($12 billion) of oil imports and the risk of a short-term supply shock sending oil prices higher, the lack of policy coordination amounts to dereliction of duty.

The lack of coordination reflects a deeper malaise—the UPA government’s inability to evolve a coherent policy on Iran, with the result that New Delhi is forever in reactive mode. [See: Will the Ayatollah step behind the line?] The overall failure of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government to communicate with the public—witness how they botched up the India-US nuclear deal—means that no political leader explains why the government is doing whatever it is doing, and why difficult decisions have to be made. The latter would still be acceptable if the government executed in a competent fashion—like in the case of the nuclear deal—but intolerable where execution is poor.

In this case, there is no evidence that the relevant cabinet committees ever discussed the implications of RBI’s move and took the necessary measures to manage the fallout. The RBI’s independence doesn’t preclude coordination in matters like this. A competent government would have reassured the markets and the public that although RBI’s measures against imports from Iran would put 13% of India’s supply of crude at risk, it has alternative plans to protect the Indian economy. Instead we were left working out the implications of terse press releases issued by the central bank.

What might those alternative plans be? These could involve arrangements to import Iranian oil through other currencies (or the Indian rupee), assurances from other suppliers (read Saudi Arabia) that they will make up the shortfall or both. Given Saudi interests in keeping the lid on Iran’s nuclear programme, New Delhi could have extracted the latter as the price of tightening the financial screws on Iran. Indeed, not extracting such a price is a good opportunity squandered.

India must get its act together on Iran. First, it is in India’s interests to ensure that Iranian oil and gas continue to provide the economy with the supply diversity that an oil-importing country needs. If this objective is inconsistent with playing responsible global citizen then so be it.

Second, given that Iran shares an interest in preventing Afghanistan from falling under the sway of a Saudi-Pakistani-Taliban nexus, India needs to continue to engage Iran.

Third, while a nuclear-armed Iran may or may not be entirely in India’s interests, it is far better to manage the consequences thereof than to countenance the use of military force in a futile attempt to stop it.

Finally, while international sanctions are unlikely to prevent a determined Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, it is geopolitically costly to stay out of the Western consensus. Unless sanctions prohibit India from purchasing Iranian oil and gas, it is better for India to be part of the sanctions regime.

Reconciling these objectives is not easy, but not impossible either. The big prize in foreign policy, however, is for India to assiduously work to bridge the divide between the United States and Iran. This—more than securing a permanent seat at the UN Security Council—is a project that is worthy of a rising global power. This task of international statesmanship requires a real leadership at South Block and the PMO. Till that time we can have day-to-day issue management, not strategy.

The new year begins with a question mark on oil imports from Iran. The larger question mark though is whether the UPA government will now realise that it finds itself in a jam over Iran because it has no ideas of its own.

Those masterly Persians

Lula and Erdogan have cleared Tehran’s clouds

In approximately one year two men will have red faces. That’s when the world will know that Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were suckered by the leaders of Iran.

It took Iran around 8 months to double its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU), half of which it has now agreed to swap for 20% enriched uranium under a deal brokered by the Brazilian and Turkish leaders. That still leaves it with 1200 kg of LEU, an unrestrained capacity to continue working its centrifuges and, possibly, clandestine facilities where it can produce weapons-grade uranium. In other words, Iran can get as close to building a nuclear bomb as it wishes to. Further, to the extent that that deal takes the international pressure off Iran it gives Tehran the time it needs to get closer to its self-defined finish line.

There’s more.

For now, Brazil and Turkey have avoided getting into a difficult position having to vote against Iran at the UN Security Council where they are currently non-permanent members. Since it was the Obama administration once floated the proposal for such a swap, the United States will find it hard to oppose it now, despite the facts having changed substantially since last October when it first mooted the idea. China will heave a sigh of relief too, since it too will not need to support tougher sanctions against Tehran. Everyone—other than the United States—wins. For now.

As we know from the North Korean story, what Iran needs most is time and diplomatic space. That, thanks now to Messrs Lula and Erdogan, it has acquired.

After that, it will be fait accompli.