The persistent view among historians that that irony is a great means by which to understand historic developments and interpret them to make decisions that are somewhat useful in present day circumstances has come to pass as an astounding truth in recent days. At first sight the events that led up to the Indian turnaround appear to be both the result of heavy handed diplomacy leading to a rebalancing of power that has is aimed at setting the scene for the months ahead and should not be underestimated as a product of intense pressurizing by Washington on the back of months of undisguised long term bridge building.
The facts, in this case, speak only barely louder than words. India's External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh has not one but two happy meetings with the Iranian top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani a few days ahead of the boardmeeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) pledging to support Iran in its efforts to build its heavily controversial nuclear program. A very complex deal regarding the 1,609-kilometer (1,000 miles) natural gas pipeline from the Iranian port of Assaluyeh to the Indian state of Rajasthan, through Pakistan is hailed as a hallmark development signifiying the importance of the two countries' bilateral ties. And then, only days later, India sides with the US and the EU in voting for reporting Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear plans later this year.
The dramatic turnaround came after a diplomatic row erupted over comments made on the Iran-India relationship by US policy makers, most notably to Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the United States Congress' House International Relations Committee. 'They (India) will pay a heavy price for a total disregard of US concerns vis-à-vis Iran. It just will not fly in this body and they need to be told that in plain English, not in diplomatic English…', he said. He was referring to last July's nuclear deal between the US and India that grants New Delhi access to civilian nuclear energy cooperation in return for non proliferation pledges. The shrug with which the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh initially brushed aside Lantos' remarks was what makes the sea change remarkable. Saying that the government of India is not unduly worried over the aggressive sound bytes emanating from the United States Capitol, the Indian PM hardly prepared his country for the events that followed in this wake. What's more, the Indians ever since their July deal with the US have publicly been screaming ever since that they were not going to be a plaything of Washington.
Indian government officials tried to make their U turn credible by advertising it as India's first foray into showcasing responsible handling of its nuclear program. "This became a test case for our credentials as a responsible nuclear power," a senior Indian government official told Reuters. "How could we tell the world that we are opposed to proliferation, so give us atomic energy, and then support Iran, especially when we knew the IAEA vote would go through even without us. So why risk alienating a nation with which it has over USD70 billion worth of energy contracts, you wonder.
The comment that the vote had nothing to do with the India-US nuclear deal was as empty as it was repeated by the Indian policymakers. The Indian press did not buy it for one second. "Any Indian waffling on the Iran vote would have cost India the [nuclear] agreement [with th US] crafted with so much difficulty and upon whom India's future energy requirements rest," Express India writes. "India decided that a bird in hand is worth two in the bush," Manoj Joshi, editor of a daily newspaper, was quoted by the Express. "While the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline remains to be negotiated, the Indo-US nuclear agreement is poised delicately in the US Congress," he said.
Question now is, what is going to emerge from this in the future? The Indians do not have a permanent seat on the UN security Council and were also not involved in drawing up the statement, yet they have offered to be more closely involved in the talks, collaborating with the Europeans. It remains to be seen what comes of this. Much though the Indians tell the rest of the world that its pipeline deal with Iran is not going to be impacted, it is hardly imaginable that the Iranians are going to be grateful for this kind of backstabbing.
But it is unlikely that it will lead to a termination of the 2003 agreement that gives India access to Iranian airfields to bomb Pakistan. On the other hand, Washington hasn't hid its discontent over the pipeline either toward India. And its relations with Pakistan are also geared to fit in the wider scheme of things. It appears that the tightrope dance that New Delhi is performing so delicately, will continue in months to come, even though the balance is tilted somewhat in favor of the power with the most on offer; the US. A former Indian foreign secretary who goes by the single name Shashan, made some noise that might sound eery to Iranian ears, saying that "Like the energy seller has a choice to sell to one or the other country, even a buyer can have a choice to buy from one or the other."
For the time being this comment highlights that the US drive to get the Indians on board amounts to a strategy that is broadcasting the message that economics is playing the decisive part here. The political consultancy Power and Interest News Report (PINR) does not believe that any tension that the Indian choice might cause in the Indian-Iran relations are going to be all that significant. "Because India was not behind drafting the resolution, and has shown little outspoken regard for punishing Iran due to its nuclear program, Tehran views India in a different light as it does the U.S. and the E.U.-3", the consultancy writes. The Iranians don't have that many friends and are unlikely to be able to afford to alienate the Indians. What's more, the Indian statement that it wants to prevent a confrontation is somewhat in line with what the Iranians are said to be lobbying for with the Europeans too. Who they know are not going to budge on their stance. An Iranian diplomat was quoted by the Hindustan Times saying the Indian decision would not impinge on the warming ties between the two countries: "We sincerely hope that it won't affect our ties."
What the Iranians really don't want is to lose out economically. "Tehran's hope is that major European energy companies will lobby their governments and ask for a less confrontational foreign policy when it comes to dealing with Tehran", writes PINR. Over the last months, the issue of Iran's nuclear aspirations has been dogged by each party's clear cut opinion on the matter and it has been difficult to get clear just how damaging the economics part of the game is. This is why it hasn't publicly been too much of an impact on the debate. US policymaker Lantos' comments however have shown just how things stack up. He was highly succesful at demonizing the role of the Indians, saying that they worked counterproductive toward what America as well as Britain, France and Germany were aiming for. He threatened that if New Delhi did not support Washington in its efforts to alienate Iran, "the goodwill [would] dissipate." Meaning the technology transfer from the US to India.
The Indian sea change has been largely ignored by the international press, but it might be a major victory for the US camp because it shows that it is possible to drive a wedge between countries that are friends with Iran because they are dependent on the country's energy, including Russia, China and Pakistan, on what is clearly economic reasoning; India dumps Iran because nuclear energy ultimately will prove cheaper. The irony of this situation is that in international politics the scramble for energy has overtaken the need for undoubted accountability in becoming a credible partner.
The July decision by the US Bush administration to promise India its support wasn't altogether seen decidedly as a success. But it is likely that any positive role by the Indians -who according to some might have been selling their souls to the devil- will help muster up support for the technology transfer to India when it is decided on by Congress later on.
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer for www.contentclix.com. She writes about international events regularly.