The India-US-Iran interplay evolves

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Sep 17 2005, 05:30am hrs
For those in India bored stiff by the repetitive nature of our squabble with Pakistan or amused by our ethereal approach to Security Council membership, there is a far more tangible and challenging diplomatic assignment to ponder.

This is our emerging relationship with Iran, especially the proposal to build a natural gas pipeline to help feed our huge energy requirements. The US is strongly opposed to the pipeline and to our cosying up with what is still a renegade nation. Over the last two years, the US has been trying hard to isolate Iran, both economically and diplomatically, over its nuclear programme. As a recent New York Times article titled India Balks at Confronting Iran, Straining Its Friendship With US put it, the Bush administration now want India to choose whether to partner with Iran over natural gas or the West over civilian nuclear technology.

This brewing crisis combines a number of issues. First, both India and the US, indeed much of the world, are scrambling to lock up energy sources, from wherever possible. Seventy percent of global oil supply comes from fields discovered before 1970 and almost all are in decline. Even with new discoveries coming online, it is predicted that worldwide oil production will drop by a million barrels a day each year from now on. With global energy consumption doubling in 50 years, we will run out of oil between 40 and 100 years hence. Coal is expected to last for another 500 years but it is far too polluting. And so, what was once a strategic issue, discussed in esoteric circles, is fast becoming more immediate and one of pure survival. None more so than for the US. As Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute says in his book, The Anatomy of Resource Wars, to an extent unrivaled by any other nation on earth, the United States is addicted to oil. Representing 5% of global population, the US uses a quarter of worlds oil.

More worrying is that US dependence on imported oil is set to climb to 65% by 2020. Over the last 50 years, the US had centered much of its foreign, military and aid policies to thwart communism and maintain domination over world oil. The former aim has been achieved but the latter is still tenuous. The imperative of maintaining the American lifestyle unhindered travel, suburban sprawls and endless private cars is why the old balance of power game is back. Only now, it is enmeshed with the response to 9/11, thus easier to mask. In fact, as Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia prove, US foreign policy is being shaped foremost by the need to secure energy supplies and only latterly, if at all, by the pursuit of democracy or human rights. (As an interesting sidebar, newspapers from 2003 widely reported that the first telephone call the new Georgian president made after ousting Eduard Shevernadze was to British Petroleum, assuring them that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline would be OK.). That is why the US is keen to ensure a clientilist relationship with Persian Gulf nations and why Madeliene Albright even offered a hand of friendship to Iran.

Only, it was rebuffed. Iran is proud of its history and very clear on wanting to be the supreme arbiter and cultural influence in the region. It recently proposed the creation of a euro-denominated oil cartel, in effect downgrade the US dollar in global appeal. The chances of success, as many experts have said, is remote, but it points to the extent Iran will go to weaken US influence. There is also deep historical baggage on both sides, starting from the CIA-led revolution against Mossadegh in 1953 and culminating in the hijacking of the US embassy in 1979. The last one still rankles very deeply in US public consciousness. According to Kenneth Pollack, an old CIA hand who has recently written the book The Persian Puzzle, bad blood of the last three decades is still the overriding factor in Iran-US relations. Pollack add that Iran is is not a reckless regime like Saddam Husseins was. It is nasty, aggressive, and ruthless, but also very pragmatic. The US has far less credible deterrence against Iran than before the Iraq war, being thinly spread both militarily and diplomatically.

The irony is that the questionable doctrine of unilateral preemption in Iraq has made a more acceptable unilateral preemption in Iran all the more infeasible. For all these reasons, plus the Israel factor, the worst possible scenario for the US would be for Iran to proceed unhampered and develop a nuclear weapon. That is why it is so persistent, and so serious, about ensuring Irans economic and technological isolation. And why India has to carefully assess whether it can walk the tightrope. When push comes to shove, will India allow what is essentially a hydrocarbon contract to suborn its larger aim of becoming a responsible regional power allied with the West

The writer is editor, India Focus