Boston Globe, 13/11/2010
India's sound advice on Iran
Stephen Kinzer, the author of "Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future,'' teaches international relations at Boston University
THIS WEEK in New Delhi, President Obama went further than any of his predecessors toward embracing India as an ally, and most Indians are thrilled by this warm treatment. This does not mean, however, that the two countries will align all of their foreign policies. In some areas, India would like the United States to change its approach.
One key difference is over Iran. India has the wiser policy, and Obama should consider emulating it.
Despite some changes in atmospherics, Obama's approach to Iran has been remarkably similar to the one President George W. Bush took in his second term: don't bomb Iran, but continue to threaten that "all options are on the table''; steadily intensify economic sanctions, despite ample evidence that they weaken civil society and lavishly enrich the repressive Revolutionary Guard; insist on negotiations on the nuclear issue, but refuse to broaden the agenda to include issues that concern Iran.
India, like many other regional powers, takes the Iranian threat far less seriously than the United States does. It does not see Iran as an existential threat to anyone, but rather as just another thuggish country with resources, and wants to see it enticed back into the world's mainstream. India would like the United States to adopt a more accommodating policy toward Iran — and could even serve as the bridge that makes it possible.
One of Iran's other neighbors, Turkey, has already tried this approach. Turkish leaders have urged the United States to ratchet down its anti-Iran rhetoric, seek compromise instead of confrontation, and work to address Iran's concerns in an effort to draw it out of its isolation. The Obama administration has rejected this advice. Now it's India's turn to try.
There is a natural impulse to consider these countries as parts of different regions; Iran is mired in the strife-torn Middle East, while India dominates South Asia. This is a mistake. In fact, Iran and India were neighbors for millennia as they developed two of the world's richest cultures. The emergence of Pakistan in 1947 meant that India and Iran are no longer actual neighbors, but their shared history is so great that they feel as close as if they were still next door.
India imports oil and gas from Iran and is exploring the possibility of building a natural gas pipeline connecting the two countries — a project the United States opposes. Indian companies are negotiating for multi-billion-dollar oil exploration contracts in Iranian waters. In February, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao made a two-day trip to Tehran. A month later, in Washington, she said her government opposes sanctions on Iran that "cause difficulties to the ordinary man, woman, and child [and] would not be conducive to a resolution of this question."
While the intensifying confrontation between the United States and Iran disturbs India, an easing of tension would help stabilize both the Middle East and South Asia. It would certainly set off alarm bells, especially in Israel, where the idea of improved ties between Iran and the United States triggers instinctive panic. But Iran has so much to offer the United States strategically, beginning with its ability to help stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, that reconciliation makes good sense. Some in India want their country to press Washington to change its mind on this crucial question.
The United States now has two good friends, Turkey and India, that sit near Iran and want better US-Iran ties. Turkey has been unable to persuade the Obama administration that a change in Iran policy makes sense. Now that Obama has described ties between India and the United States as "the defining partnership of the 21st century," maybe he will be more willing to heed India's advice.