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The US-Iran confrontation continues anew

By Harsh V Pant
February 17, 2010 14:43 IST
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It is imperative that India starts re-assessing its options and think clearly as to what India can do to preserve the balance of power in the Gulf region, writes Harsh V Pant.

Ratcheting up the rhetoric substantially, US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, has suggested that Iran is gravitating towards a military dictatorship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps supplanting the Parliament, the President and even the Supreme Leader.

After extending his hand of friendship and getting spurned by the Iranian mullahs, Barack Obama is now quietly back to where George W Bush was when he left office. America's Iran policy is once again getting militarised after Obama's Iran policy seems to have gone nowhere. Rather than latching on to Obama's friendly overtures as the US had hoped for, the Iranian theocracy is now at its jingoistic best.

The 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, which toppled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979 was celebrated with a serious crackdown on anti-government protestors one the one hand and by declaring Iran a nuclear state. The opposition leaders had called upon their supporters to take to the streets on February 11 to protest against the fraudulent presidential elections of last year. The authorities in Iran have been coming down heavily on their opponents, jailing a large number and executing a few to send a message.

The Obama administration, of course, has nothing to say on the domestic developments in Iran. It had hoped that by keeping quiet on the internal political troubles in Tehran, it would be able to get Iranian cooperation on the nuclear question. But Iran has rejected all western overtures on the nuclear issue and things are rapidly coming to a boil.

Despite its protestations to the contrary, Iran appears particularly intent on maintaining an independent capability to enrich uranium and seems to have decided to test how far it can push the West. Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has informed the agency of the plan to begin enriching its stockpile to 20 percent purity, after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personally ordered his atomic scientists to begin the process.

It remains far from clear that Iran has the capability to enrich fuel to the level ordered by the Iranian President, who is apparently seeking to increase pressure on the West to reopen negotiations on providing fuel for the medical reactor on terms more favourable to Tehran.

Until now, Iran has never enriched significant quantities of fuel beyond the level needed in ordinary nuclear reactors, part of its argument that its program is for peaceful purposes. But any effort to produce 20 percent enriched uranium would put the country in a position to produce highly enriched uranium -- at the 90 percent level used for weapons -- in a comparatively short time.

The US is seeking global consensus for sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, so far without much success. China and Russia continue to hold out on their support. They have no real incentive to cooperate with the West on this issue. Clinton has gone to the extent of publicly warning Beijing of significant trouble if Iran's nuclear programme is not tackled by the international community immediately. But China's oil interests in Iran remain significant, preventing it from supporting additional sanctions on Tehran.

Beijing has argued that pressure for tighter sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme could block chances of a diplomatic settlement to the dispute. The United States Treasury Department has imposed unilateral sanctions against a corps commander and four companies linked to the organisation.

In case sanctions do not work out, the US is ratcheting up military pressure on Iran and its policy now seems to be gearing up for a possible military challenge in the Gulf. It is speeding up the deployment of anti-missile defenses in the Gulf not only to put pressure on Iran but also to ward off a growing perception in the region that Iran is rapidly emerging as the most powerful entity in the regional balance of power.

Several countries in the Gulf including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait are talking these defence systems from the US. This is part of a larger arms build up in the region whereby the US has sold more than $25 billion worth of arms. The US is helping Saudis to triple the size of their 10,000 strong protection force, conducting large scale joint exercises with Arab militaries and sharing extensive intelligence on Iran. Though this military build-up began under Bush, the Obama administration has expanded it to include the deployment of Aegis ships equipped with missile interceptors to help defend Europe and US forces against Iranian rockets.

The US wants to demonstrate its resolve to Tehran as well as allay concerns among its Gulf allies that it will be there to support them in case Iran becomes aggressive. The credibility of the US had suffered when Obama had seemed to be reaching out to Iran early in his term at the expense of traditional American allies in the region.

Now the US is trying to rectify those perceptions. There is of course another element in the US thinking and it is to reassure Israel that America will take steps necessary to counter Iran and that Tel Aviv should desist from undertaking any unilateral military strike.

For the US, a lot is at stake in the evolving strategic environment in the Middle East. Seven years after the US invaded Iraq, in part to transform the Middle East, Iran is ascendant while many see an America in retreat and the Arab states awash in sectarian currents that many blame the US for exacerbating.

Iran, meanwhile, has deepened its relationship with Palestinian Islamic groups, assuming a financial role once filled by Gulf Arab states. In Lebanon and Iraq, Iran is fighting proxy battles against the US with funds, arms, and ideology. Reminiscent of the heady days of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran is today exerting a power and influence in the strategic vacuum created by the overthrow of Iranian foes in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Facing these realities, the US is back to good old fashioned balance of power politics in the region. Across the region, the Shia-Sunni divide is increasing at a menacing rate, with the potential to destabilise the entire region. The rise of Iran is seen as symptomatic of the Shia resurgence, to the discomfiture of Sunni regimes in the region. As a consequence, the US is hoping that Iran's rise will provide a single, agreed enemy that can serve as the organizing point of reference of policies throughout the region. 

Manmohan Singh's visit to Saudi Arabia next month couldn't have come at a more delicate moment. India has significant stakes in the strategic stability in the Gulf. The crisis between the US and Iran is not going to get resolved merely because India wants a peaceful resolution of the Iranian problem.

Therefore, it is imperative that India starts re-assessing its options and think clearly as to what India can do to preserve the balance of power in the region so crucial for Indian interests.

The writer teaches at King's College, London and is presently a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Harsh V Pant