US-Iran stand-off: How India can de-escalate tension

Updated: July 1, 2019 7:03:20 AM

American President Donald Trump says he does not want war; that he is not looking for a regime change, but only a tighter nuclear agreement.

India, US-Iran stand-off, US, IRan, Nietzschean aphorism, opinionAmerican President Donald Trump says he does not want war; that he is not looking for a regime change, but only a tighter nuclear agreement.

The most basic form of human stupidity is forgetting what we are trying to accomplish.” This Nietzschean aphorism finds sharp affirmation in the behaviour of the leaders of US and Iran today. Both have forgotten what they are trying to achieve, but both are engaged in verbal, economic and physical jousting that is generating sparks that could light up a regional bonfire. India would be severely impacted in such an event. Our leaders face a policy dilemma. Should they use their “soft” power to try and snuff out the sparks, but risk possibly an embarrassing rebuff? Or should they stay on the sidelines in the hope that disaster will not prevail? It is my view that the Indian government should do the former. It should deploy the “quiet” power of diplomacy to pre-empt the consequences of human stupidity.

The signals emanating from Washington DC and Tehran are confusing and blurred. They suggest that the leaders in these two cities have lost sight of their vital objectives.

American President Donald Trump says he does not want war; that he is not looking for a regime change, but only a tighter nuclear agreement. He says his objective is to ensure Iran will never acquire the capability to develop nuclear weapons. But he also tweeted the word “obliterate” to define the range of options that remain on his table; the US National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have stated that war is an option, and their preferred outcome is, indeed, a regime change.

The Iranians are also conveying mixed messages. Their elected leadership wants to exercise “strategic moderation” and remain compliant with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They are hopeful that with the support of the Germans and the French, the crisis can be settled through negotiation. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on the other hand, wants the government to breach the uranium stockpile limits agreed to in the JCPOA (the 2015 Iran nuclear deal) and to enrich uranium to 20% purity (which is just one step away from weapon-grade material). They also want to signal, through direct and indirect action, that they will not be bullied by the Americans. The Ayatollahs generally keep their cards close to their chest, but given the Iranian economy is in free fall—GDP fell by 4% last year and an additional 6% this year, inflation is running at 30%, food is in short supply, the currency is on skids, and unemployment is at record highs—they, too, are inclined to play the US “Satanic” card to divert public attention away from the domestic crisis.

There is an explanation for this political amnesia. The leaders are wrestling to reconcile their international priorities with their domestic constituencies. The problem is that, in the process, they are pushing the region towards large-scale conflict. And that is why their actions fit so neatly into the Nietzschean mould of stupidity.

Students of military history will not be surprised by this drift towards war. Trump is, alas, no such scholar. Had he been so, he might have remembered the forewarning contained in the unfinished magnum opus of the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, ‘Vom Kriege’ (On War), that “three quarters of the factors on which war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” He may have noted the mind-boggling confirmation of this observation in the memoirs of the former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who wrote that “President Johnson authorised the bombing (of North Vietnam) in response to what he thought had been a second attack that had NOT occurred.” The “attack” referenced was on the American destroyer USS Maddox by North Vietnamese patrol boats on August 4, 1964, in the international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. In fact, two days earlier, destroyer USS Maddox had been attacked by the North Vietnamese. The report of a second attack inflamed the US Congress, who then passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was a de facto declaration of war against the North Vietnamese. It was later established that the report of a second attack was erroneous. This is difficult to believe, but this means that the US went to war in Vietnam on the basis of erroneous intelligence.

The US-Iran stand-off is wrapped in a “fog of uncertainty.” No one really knows what will happen, but what we do know—based on our reading of von Clausewitz and our understanding of history—is that it could take no more than a false report, a miscalculation or simply an accident for the entire region to conflagrate into violent conflict.

India would be severely impacted in such an event. It imports 65% of its crude oil from the region. Conflict would disrupt its oil supply lines and harden oil prices. Moreover, there are approximately 8 million nationals living and working in the area. Many of them would need to be evacuated. This would present a major logistics challenge. But most worrying and beyond these immediate ramifications is that India and Indians would feel the tremors of the aftermath of such a conflict for a long time.

The question, therefore, for India is: Should it allow history to repeat itself? Or should it make an effort to stave off disaster beyond the opportunistic bilateral discussions that it has already had with Pompeo and Trump. In my view, it should take that extra step. This is not simply to safeguard its economic interests. It is also because India is strongly placed to arrest this dangerous drift. The country has long-standing historical and cultural links with the Middle East and, in particular, Iran. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has enhanced international stature because of his massive electoral victory and strong personal relations with his counterparts in the region. And foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is a superb and world-class diplomat. Together, this makes for a rare combination of “soft”, “smart” and “quiet” power. India should deploy this combination towards one objective. To persuade Iran to revert to its original position of remaining within the framework of the JCPOA, and to deny the hardliners on the American side the raison d’etre for escalation.

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