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An Inevitable Confrontation

November 11, 2010

President Barack Obama on his recent trip to India remarked that India will have to take cognizance of international opinion when dealing with such states as Burma and Iran. He took this opportunity to remind India that with increased stature on the world stage come responsibilities too. While Burma has been a contentious issue for long, India has learnt that keeping aloof from its eastern neighbor was neither in India’s interest nor was this helpful in any way in promoting democracy. India learnt the hard way that giving China a free hand in Burma was detrimental to India’s interest. India started a policy of engagement.

While Obama may have mentioned both Burma and Iran in the same breath, the US president was alluding to Indian position on Iran more forcefully that to Burma. It is Iran that is the sticking point. It is the Iranian nuclear program that has raised the hackles of the West and they are in a quandary as to what to do about this development in the Middle East that is a source of worry to the world. A nuclear Iran is in no one’s interest. The bad news is that the nuclear plant in Bushehr has gone critical. From the information available it appears that the A.Q. Khan network was the source of technology for Iran. This in effect means that it is the Chinese design that is being used by the Iranians to build their nuclear plants. It is also clear that it is the Chinese who have helped Tehran with fuel also. Reports suggest the presence of some Russian scientists also in Iran. Russia had offered to enrich the fuel so that Iran does not attempt to enrich uranium to weapons grade. Iran had declared that they have enriched uranium to 20%. A weapon’s grade uranium needs to be enriched to at least 80%.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has their inspectors in Iran and they are trying to figure out the Iranian plans. Hillary Clinton has said that she is more concerned about the nuclear plants in Natanz and the secret nuclear installation in Qom. Bushehr has not seen much of a reaction from the west.

From the utterances of Mahmud Ahmedinijad it can be said that he is swaying from one end of the spectrum to another. Sometimes he is almost sanctimonious and gives solemn pledges that Iran will never go in for nuclear weapons and that Iran had the right to use ‘clean nuclear technology’ for their energy needs. At other times he sounds defiant and almost threatens the west with the argument that Iran has the right to look after its security concerns.

A nuclear Iran is in no one’s interest. Iran will be a threat to not only Israel but also to other countries in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE and others. It is not only Israel that is vocal about the Iranian question, Saudi Arabia and other Sunnite Arab nations are equally concerned.

Tel Aviv is looking towards its closest ally and friend United States for solutions. It is in this context that Obama had mentioned the need for India to act responsibly on international issues.  India has her own compulsions. Iran is a foil to Pakistan and a check on a nuclear Pakistan. Iranians have traditionally been friends of India. India is developing the Chahbahar port in Iran to counter Gwadar in Pakistan that the Chinese are developing. It will be strategically suicidal for India to cut off from Tehran.

There is however another reason why the west is really miffed with Tehran. Their nuclear ambitions are of course one reason for West’s discomfiture. The other is the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline that is on the anvil. Were this gas pipeline to end at Pakistan things would have still been tolerable. The recent report of Chinese incursions into the Northern Areas has made the situation almost untenable. Iran is trying to cozy up to China and Pakistan is more than willing to play along with Beijing in their strategic initiatives. Initially there was a proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Now it seems that not only are the Chinese building a railroad from Gwadar to Xinjiang through the Karakoram they also plan to build a gas pipeline so as to tap the lucrative Iranian gas. This in effect is a win-win situation for both Iran and China as while the Iranians will get nuclear technology they can sell gas to both Pakistan and China and increase sources of revenue. The Chinese interest in such a gas pipeline is also because of security concerns at the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca. A land route via Pakistan will ensure energy security through its satellite state that is more than willing to do Beijing’s bidding. This has not gone down too well with the West as they had Trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline which is proposed from Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan and on to India. The presence of west in Afghanistan is as much for fructifying the gas pipeline as it is about security issues. This move by Pakistan has meant that Islamabad’s relations with Washington have become frosty. Obama’s charm mantra in India was to woo India as a friend and an ally to counter China and to use India as a stick against Islamabad. India taking a cue from Washington withdrew from the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline and India’s loss was China’s gain. It is true that the project is massive and a daunting one but China finds this hugely beneficial as Chinese presence in Pakistan will give them strategic depth. A worried Washington has used all means to try and wean away Islamabad from this but now it seems it is too late.

From Washington’s point of view Iran is a source of bother which they can well do without. The security concerns of not only Israel but also Saudi Arabia and such traditional friends as Jordan have made the west concerned about Tehran’s intentions. Proliferation was another point that Obama raised in the passing in his speeches in India. I am sure he must have talked extensively about the Iranian question with Manmohan Singh and his team. Suffice to say that west wants India to distance itself from Tehran. Further sanctions have been slapped on Tehran but they do not seem to be working. From the west’s point of view a strike and a regime change in Tehran will be hugely beneficial. If the west wants to address security issues of the Middle East a benign Tehran is a must. If they want to resurrect the proposed TAP then again the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline will have to stop. Looking at the situation from any angle it is clear that the West is moving towards a confrontation with Tehran. Of course it will be in the garb of promoting democracy and fighting radicalism. Obama’s assertion in Jakarta that West was not at war with Islam was again to project the US in secular light. A footing in strategically important Iran will be hugely beneficial for West’s interests in the region. A pro-West regime in Tehran will be a respite for the west that has been tolerating the Iranian clergy at the helm for too long.

Last but not the least, Obama has been cornered. The recent mid-term results have seen the map of US turn red. The president will have to do something radically different to change public opinion in his favor. He is trying to resurrect the economy as fast as he can and the recent purchase of $600 billion of government bonds is to flood the market so as to create jobs. Obama will have to move fast if he wants to change his political fortunes. The key to any political success for a beleaguered president may lie in taking bold decisions. While Obama may face problems with his health care plan and his Af-Pak policy he can be sure that any move in the Middle East will find bi-partisan support. Were he to take decisive action in the Middle East he would in effect take the wind out of the sails of Republican agenda in the 2012 elections. The Iran question will be so tempting that it will be hard for the president to resist. Expect Obama to shrill the pitch on the Iran question in the months to come.


One Comment leave one →
  1. November 16, 2010 4:32 am


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