Iran, shaken and stirred

India should do business with whoever is in power

Why, many readers ask, has this blog been silent on the extraordinary events in Iran. Vacations and workloads aside, shouldn’t we be discussing the biggest stirring in Iran in three decades?

Yes we should. For whatever might be the immediate political outcome of the May-June 2009 presidential election and its aftermath the nature of Iranian politics has already changed, perhaps profoundly so. The Grand Ayatollah is no longer untouchable. The balance-of-power within the Iranian regime has shifted and has become more broadbased. The distribution of political power from the one to the few, and from the few to the many is good for Iranians. It is also good for most of the rest of the world, including for India. This is true regardless of who becomes president and who political prisoner No 1.

Don’t expect major changes in Iranian government policy—especially foreign affairs. Iran is an old civilisation, has a strong society and a distinct nation-state. Its interests are unlikely to change just because a new political leader or faction comes to power. That might have happened if the upheaval is on the scale of the 1979 Islamic revolution—in 2009, Rafsanjani-Mousavi are ideologically indistinguishable from Khamenei-Ahmedinejad. Salil Tripathi, hardly a hard-nosed realist, writes:

Many have felt tempted to cast the rivalry of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi as one between darkness and light, falsehood and truth, fundamentalism and pragmatism, orthodoxy and reform, evil and good. Such Manichean distinctions are pointless. If a week is a long time in politics, three decades make an eternity. Given his bombastic rhetoric, it is easy to see Ahmadinejad as the villain, or the ruler of the land of chup and Mousavi as the hero, or the leader of the gupwalas, to borrow from the sharp distinction Rushdie made in his first post-fatwa novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. But they are cut from the same cloth. Mousavi is hardly the harbinger of light. As Iran’s prime minister from 1981 to 1989, not only was he (and remains) a supporter of Khomeini’s brand of Islamic revolution, but he also presided over a country where teenage boys were sent to the battlefront against Iraq with plastic keys, and told that those keys would open the doors of heaven once they attained martyrdom, as Marjane Satrapi’s stark graphic novel and film, Persepolis, reminds us. [Mint]

Leave aside Mr Mousavi’s past as a conservative and a supporter of nuclearisation, people can change their minds (political leaders more so). There is little that Mr Mousavi has said before and after the elections to mark him out to be a deliverer of profound change. While his cause might have galvanised long-suppressed political emotions into a popular movement, it is unlikely to even lead to his ascent to political power. (Yes, it’s too early to tell, so this estimate is a hazardous one)

What should India do? The government of India shouldn’t take sides in this business, it’s for the Iranians to settle. Once the dust settles, business continues with whoever is the winner. Here’s an old cheat sheet to provide further guidance.

That does not mean that Indian citizens or civil society groups should follow suit: one advantage of being a democracy is that different parts of the political spectrum can engage different actors independent of the government. (Of course, all those parts of the political spectrum might be apathetic, which is yet another failing of India’s foreign affairs community.)

My op-ed in Mint: Pakistan’s nuclear expansion

A less self-centred perspective

In today’s Mint I argue that at the margin, more warheads do not provide more security for Pakistan vis-à-vis India. So, an analysis of Pakistan’s motives must consider alternative explanations.

Bruce Riedel, who chaired US President Barack Obama’s policy review for Afghanistan-Pakistan, points out in a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal that there have been “persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons.” And although they both deny a secret deal, “rumours of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb”.

British journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, citing former senior US and Pakistani officials, write that the Saudis wanted the “finished product, to stash away in an emergency, and Pakistan agreed to supply it in return for many hundreds of millions of dollars”. Pakistan also brokered the transfer of the nuclear-capable CSS-2 missiles from China to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s.

As Iran gets closer to building a nuclear arsenal, Saudi Arabia—the Iranian Shia theocracy’s geopolitical and ideological rival—is likely to seek a nuclear balance across the Persian Gulf. Using Pakistan to hold its arsenal in trust allows Saudi Arabia to stay clear of violating its non-proliferation commitments.

Now, even if Pakistan’s own insecurities with respect to its eastern neighbour are kept out of the calculation, Iran’s nuclearization suggests that Pakistan will have to build additional capacity for its Saudi Arabian partner. In other words, Pakistan is in a nuclear arms race all right—but it’s probably a West Asian one. [Mint]

Nuclear umbrellas in East Asia and the Middle East

China must act forcefully to stop North Korea and Pakistan from expanding their nuclear arsenals

The Obama administration tasted its first—and crunching—diplomatic defeat at the hands of the North Korean regime last week. After threatening to interdict North Korean ships, just about the only action the US government will take in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests is that the US navy will effectively merely tail those ships around, not stop, board or seize them.

Washington might be helpless in stopping North Korea from expanding its nuclear arsenal or periodically threaten its neighbours, but it can protect South Korea (and quite likely Japan) under the US nuclear umbrella. Yesterday, Mr Obama signaled just that. According to Yonsei University’s Chung Min Lee “This sent a strong signal to North Korea. The move should also allay concerns in some quarters that South Korea and Japan may need to pursue their own nuclear options.” Unfortunately, even this is insufficient to create a stable nuclear balance based on mutual deterrence.

The missing factor is China. Continue reading “Nuclear umbrellas in East Asia and the Middle East”

Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear weapons capacity?

Rather, who is it cranking up for?

Consider the following:

—There have been, as Bruce Riedel points out in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons.” And although they both deny a secret deal “rumours of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb.”

—After 9/11, the United States took steps to ‘secure’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which included transfer of technology to prevent their unauthorised use. The Acorn has previously argued that this suggests that Pakistan is likely to protect its nuclear autonomy by creating a second, more secret, and perhaps less secure arsenal. In a recent Times of India report, Chidanand Rajghatta points to a briefing document by the US Congressional Research Service which says that Pakistan has developed a “second strike capability”, and infers implications for the India-Pakistan nuclear balance. While the inferences are debatable, it supports the second arsenal hypothesis.

—A country in the middle of a long political and economic crisis, financial bankruptcy, several insurgencies and a war within its own borders, and clearly dependent on the international community for life support, is not only increasing its stockpile of fissile material for nuclear weapons, but also expanding its capacity to produce more. And until November 26th, 2008, Pakistan was still engaged in a ‘peace process’ with India.

—Given the subcontinental nuclear equation, it doesn’t matter to India if Pakistan has 60 warheads or 120, and whether or not it has a “second strike capacity”. Why has India built no new plutonium reprocessing plants—relatively simple projects that don’t need a lot of money and for which competent indigenous technology exists—in the last decade? The Pakistanis are not entirely oblivious to this, and recognise that the marginal utility of the additional capacity to produce nuclear weapons is very low. In other words, there’s little additional security to be had vis-a-vis India for the kind of investments they are making.

So why is Pakistan adding capacity?

Here’s a hypothesis: the additional capacity is partly meant for Saudi Arabia’s proxy arsenal that Pakistan manages in trust. It is linked to a Saudi-Iran nuclear balance and linked to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons capacity. The additional capacity is also meant to strengthen the “second arsenal”, because Pakistan fears that the first one is compromised either by US supervision, snatch plans or both.

What does this imply?

First, that there is a new nuclear arms race—not in the subcontinent, but between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan acting as the latter’s bomb factory.

Second, that because the US has been unable to fully ‘secure’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, it has caused Pakistan to build more warheads/capacity that has increased nuclear risks to yet unquantified levels.

Afghans, however, think highly of India

But India has to live up to its popularity

So here are some results from a survey conducted by ABC News between late December 2008 and early January 2009: “a random national sample” of 1534 adult Afghans across the 34 provinces were asked a number of questions in face-to-face interviews. India, it turns out, is big in Afghanistan. Almost three in four Afghans had a favourable impression of India, making it the most popular country in Afghanistan, bar none.

Big in Afghanistan
Big in Afghanistan

When asked for their opinion of the role countries were playing in Afghanistan at this time, India still comes out on top. Although the United States has the highest proportion of positive ratings (44%) it also has a large proportion of negative rating (36%). India ranks slightly lower (41%) in terms of positive perceptions, but only 10% of the Afghans polled thought it was playing a negative role. This is explicable, because Indian troops are not engaged in counter-insurgency operations, unlike the Americans.

The favourable perception of India outweighs the positive opinion of the role it is playing in Afghanistan. Some of that might be due to distance, and as the surveyors suggest, due to sympathy for fellow sufferers of Pakistani machinations. But India’s role is helping maintain India’s popularity. Still there is an equal proportion of Afghans (42%) who are neutral about India’s role. This gap probably suggests to them that India could do better. As indeed, it could.

Related Links: Holding steady; the road that India built; contributing to Afghanistan’s development; and concerning pomegranates

Why lose sleep over a few thousand tribesmen

The Talibanisation of Pakistan does not necessarily need the Taliban to take over

Over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole argues that fears of the Taliban taking over Pakistan are overblown (via Chapati Mystery):

The Pakistani Taliban are not going to take over the Pakistani government. That worry doesn’t keep me up at night. They are small, and operate in a rugged, remote area of the country. They can set off bombs and be a destabilizing force. But a few thousand tribesmen can’t take over a country of 165 million with a large urban middle class that has a highly organized and professional army. [Juan Cole]

Coming from a professor of history, no less, that is a shocking statement. A few thousand violent individuals can well take over a country if the general population is supine and the security apparatus sympathetic. So how many violent individuals did it take on October 12, 1999 when General Musharraf seized power? Next door in Iran, Wikipedia tells us, “the final collapse of the Pahlavi dynasty occurred shortly after on February 11 (1979) when Iran’s military declared itself “neutral” after guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting.”

The political crisis triggered by the Supreme Court’s disqualification of the Sharif brothers does threaten to destabilise Pakistan further. Though unlikely at this point, it might even result in yet another military coup. This does not make the threat of a ‘Taliban takeover’ any less serious. That’s because ‘Taliban takeover’ does not necessarily mean a regime that places Baitullah Mehsud or a similar character in power. It could well place the army chief or even a politician at the helm, leave the civil bureaucracy largely intact, but replace the tattered 1973 constitution with the sharia. It won’t take long for the assorted jihadi groups in Pakistan’s cities and the countryside to start moral policing and dispense Taliban justice. The few thousand tribesmen are not alone—there are several tens of thousands of jihadis and jihadi sympathisers who can be mobilised for consolidating the revolution. Don’t forget their organisational capabilities were recognised to be superior to that of the Pakistani government in the aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2005.

To be sure, it is possible that developments in recent weeks have caused excessive panic in Washington. As Matthew Yglesias points out “Pakistan’s been a troubled place for a long time and Americans shouldn’t confuse a rapid increase in our level of interest in Pakistan’s troubles with a rapid escalation in the scale of the troubles.” It is possible that the military-jihadi complex wants to signal by actions what Musharraf did with words (“after me, the Taliban”). Even so, it is undeniable that Pakistan has never quite rolled back the first creeping then marching fundamentalism that has affected the state and society…since 1947. This at once creates militants with an agenda to overturn the political order, and also legitimises their cause in the minds of the people. A revolution is not only possible, it can be swift. Wikipedia also says that the Iranian revolution was “unique for the surprise it created throughout the world.” There’s no excuse to be surprised another time.

The reality of radical Islam

…is that it doesn’t accept compromises

It is one thing for the United States to attempt to recycle a strategy that worked in Iraq and consider applying it in Afghanistan. As Joshua Foust argued in the July 2008 issue of Pragati, that model is unlikely to yield comparable results in Afghanistan because of differences in socio-economic structure, historical paths and geo-political neighbourhoods. While we hope that it listens to good sense, you can’t deny the Obama administration a chance to learn by making big mistakes.

But it is entirely another thing to provide a kind of intellectual cover for what is essentially an exercise in wishful pragmatism by advancing an argument—as Fareed Zakaria has done—that the world should learn to live with radical Islam, because “not all (radical Islamists) advocate global jihad, host terrorists or launch operations against the outside world—in fact, most do not.” Actually, this argument is invalidated by his very next sentence—when Mr Zakaria argues that “no Afghan Taliban has participated at any significant level in a global terrorist attack over the past 10 years—including 9/11.” It is breathtaking to see a person of Mr Zakaria’s intelligence engage in such poor sophistry: by his logic, even Osama bin Laden has not participated in any significant terrorist attack over the last decade either.

The fundamental mistake Mr Zakaria makes is to conflate Islam and radical Islam. He is right when he argues that emphasising “the variety of groups, movements and motives within (the Muslim) world strengthens the case that this is not a battle between Islam and the West.” But the sentence is illogical—for if there are a variety of groups, movements and motives then there can be a battle between the West and some of them. And there is. It exists regardless of whether the West wants it or not—because radical Islam defines itself by that battle. How then can the rest—and this includes moderate Muslim societies—learn to live with it?

Mr Zakaria points to the fact that radical Islamic parties are currently on the wane in Nigeria—one solitary example that is an exception to the norm—to build a case that this will invariably be the case elsewhere in the world. It’s hard to believe that radical Islamic parties (as opposed to moderate Islamic parties operating in institutional democracies) will relinquish power once they are voted out of office. To believe this would be to ignore the observed fact that radical Islamists define political success in being able to set-up a revolutionary state like Iran, the Mullah Omar-led Afghanistan or Pakistan’s Swat. It’s almost always a one-way street. What about Nigeria? Well, it isn’t over and time will tell.

That’s not all. Mr Zakaria suggests that the world can live with most radical Islamists as the latter do not pose an external threat to their neighbours and to the West. Well a case can be made that what radical Islamists do within their borders—in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Sudan (a word missing from Mr Zakaria’s essay)—is itself a threat to international security. But it is hard to find a radical Islamist state that does not have an external agenda. So what caused Mullah Omar’s Taliban to host al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups? Why does Iran support Hizbollah? Why did Pashtuns and Pakistani Punjabis fight the jihad in India, Iraq and elsewhere?

Pick a radical Islamist organisation. It is likely to have one or both goals—territorial and religious-ideological. It is the mixing of the two that makes compromise impossible.

Mr Zakaria’s arguments are dangerous because they undermine the very internal opposition to radical Islam within the Muslim world that he claims the West should work with. Once the United States begins to negotiate with the ‘good’ Taliban, the moderate Afghans will be done for. So why is it that the surviving moderate Awami National Party (ANP) leaders can’t venture out of their homes in Swat? Because the Pakistani government struck a deal with the Taliban. Those who are opposed to the radical Islamist agenda should do the opposite. It is understandable why the Pakistani government won’t do the correct thing, but why should the United States bolster its strategic adversary?

The truth is that you can’t stop worrying and learn to live with radical Islam. It has to be countered and contained, and ultimately defeated. The tactical exigencies of the war in Af-Pak, important as they are, should not be allowed to cloud our understanding of the big picture. While it is important to prove Mr bin Laden wrong when he “constantly argues that all these different groups are part of the same global movement”, it is important to do so without doing Mr bin Laden’s job for him.

Related Post: Why India must export its Islam

An all-American dogma the size of Iran

The solution is staring at Barack Obama’s face—if he has the audacity to grasp it

It is good to hear General Petraeus acknowledge that Iran “had common interests with the United States and other nations in a secure Afghanistan.” Although he hinted that such interests might make talks with Iran feasible, he said he would leave the topic to diplomats and policy makers.

“I don’t want to get completely going down that road because it’s a very hot topic,” General Petraeus told a conference…Nonetheless, he said, “there are some common objectives and no one I think would disagree.”

Like the United States, Iran is concerned about the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and the resurgence of extremists there, he said. “It doesn’t want to see Sunni extremists or certainly ultrafundamentalist extremists running Afghanistan any more than other folks do,” he said, while acknowledging that the United States and Iran have “some pretty substantial points of conflict out there as well.” [NYT]

And the most substantial point of conflict is Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Yet, it may well be that the best way to convince Iran to temper its quest for nuclear weapons might well be for the United States to engage it politically. After all, hostility with the United States and Israel is one key reason why Iran seeks those weapons (the Saudi Arabia-Pakistan nuclear nexus is another).

In fact, it is amazing how the US foreign policy establishment is thinking up options and throwing up names for special envoys without questioning whether the holy cow, or rather the holy taboo, of not engaging Iran is a position that has run its course (if it was ever tenable in the first place). If intellectual blinkers and dogma prevent US policymakers from considering the merits of engaging Iran, what prevents countries like India that would benefit from a US-Iran rapprochement from lubricating it? There is a need for strong, credible voices to support the likes of General Petraeus in helping the United States break the ice with Iran.

Aside: The word “ultrafundamentalist” now enters the lexicon thanks to General Petraeus. As for “ultrafundamentalist extremists”, now, there’s way too much redundancy built into that phrase.

Why not just put the IPI pipeline to rest?

It’s a bad idea to interlock India’s energy supplies with Pakistan. Period.

It was a stupid idea right from the start. Of course, it looks a lot more stupid now. Swaminathan Aiyar points out why the IPI gas pipeline project should now be officially declared dead. But you don’t have to read Mr Aiyar’s article at all if you had been reading The Acorn during the halcyon days of the ‘peace process’ when it was unfashionable to point out that ideas such as “creating mutual dependencies” with Pakistan are masochistic and that the risk premium will junk the business case in any case.

After explaining why involving Pakistan in a gas purchase deal with Iran is such a bad idea, Mr Aiyar inexplicably proposes a shallow undersea pipeline with a different architecture. It might be better than the overland pipeline but it still carries the risk of a Pakistan hurting itself to hurt India.

It makes far more sense to invest in LNG. This calls for investing in the technology, processing and domestic distribution infrastructure required to handle the imports. This calls for developing a maritime strategy that ensures that India’s LNG supply routes are secure, around the world. And it calls for foreign policy that ensures that LNG becomes the predominant way to ship the world’s natural gas, and the global market becomes competitive.

Of course all this is tall order. But let’s face it—its better than letting Pakistan hold us by the…you know what.