NEW DELHI: The US wants India to persuade Iran to return to the negotiating table on its nuclear programme, the first time it has openly asked New Delhi to intercede with Tehran.
Speaking to TOI ahead of his meetings with national security advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon and foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai in the US-India strategic security dialogue here, deputy secretary in the US State Department, William Burns, said, “We feel a great sense of urgency, an urgency widely shared in the international community. There is a great deal at stake here, given Iran’s failure thus far to comply with its international obligations the danger of increased tension, nuclear arms race in a region that already has more than its share of instability and which plays a very important role in the health of the global economy.” He said the US hopes India would reinforce this message to the Iranian leadership.
Despite almost crippling sanctions against Iran’s energy and finance sectors, all indications are that Tehran’s nuclear programme continues apace. Burns said the tough sanctions were necessary to bring Iran back to talks, insisting that diplomacy remained the US’ preferred option. Unspoken is the fact that sanctions also serve to keep Israel’s military option from taking off, which could trigger something far bigger than a regional conflict.
Burns said, “US and India share an important strategic goal and that is to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon and does not create those risks. We believe it’s absolutely essential that Iran meet its international obligations and engage seriously in the diplomatic process of the 5+1 mechanism.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his conversation with the Iranian Supreme Leader on the sidelines of the recent NAM summit, had officially said India expected Iran to comply with its NPT obligations. The US believes India carries a lot of clout with the Iranian leadership, and wants to help to get Tehran back on the negotiating table. Unfortunately, that’s not what Indians believe, and that is a significant gap between India and the US.
In private conversations, the US has told India they believe there is a real risk of military confrontation over this issue. The dual track of pressure and engagement has hurt Iranian economy, while its currency was in free fall last week, triggering the first protests against the government. Burns said, “We will work with our international partners to step up economic pressure, political isolation, not as an end in itself but as a means to ensure Iran engages seriously and meets its international obligations. Already, those sanctions have had a considerable impact. Iranian economy is down nearly 50% and there is a 50% drop in Iran’s currency and oil sales. We are very serious about our concerns on this issue, and America is not alone in those concerns. I think they are widely shared in the international community. The sooner Iran engages seriously better for all of us.”
But this is easier said than done. Iran last met the P5+1 in July: their demand that Tehran should stop production of fissile material, close Fordow nuclear site and ship nuclear material out of the country found no takers at home. In return, Iran offered to temporarily halt enrichment in lieu of full lifting of sanctions. This was a non-starter.
Meanwhile, Iran is completing the facility in Fordow, stockpiling higher enriched uranium, which international inspectors found the 16th cascade of centrifuges in the Natanz facility is in place. A negotiated set of “modalities” between Iran and IAEA is still elusive. A first bilateral meeting between the US and Iran held in Geneva also came a cropper.
On the other hand, Iran says they could get to a settlement with the West, if there was a recognition of Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear programme under the NPT. Western officials say Iran is already in violation of its commitments under the NPT. During a visit here this week, the Iranian deputy foreign minister Seyyed Abbas Araghchi told journalists the longer the delay the more advanced their nuclear programme would be.
In this game of chicken, Israel is the wild card entry. The Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu dramatically displayed the red lines that Iran could not cross at the UN General Assembly a couple of weeks ago, setting off alarm bells that a military strike may yet happen. This would be bad news for everybody but mostly for the US which would have to assist Israel, in which case it would be another Islamic nation versus US.
In the region, Gulf Arab states from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, Bahrain etc have all expressed apprehension about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which theoretically puts them on the same page as the Israelis. But if Israel attacks Iran, this could make Shia majority nation a target of support by the Islamic world against Israel since Tehran’s nuclear programme is intricately woven with its geopolitical ambitions.
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