US must handle Iran crisis better
US handling of Iran is wrong on many counts. Iran's nuclear programme, its missile development and its regional role are not bilateral issues between the US and Iran alone. The regional dimension of the issues involving Iran apart, their international dimension is no less important.
The US should not be taking unilateral decisions on Iran because they adversely affect the interests of numerous countries who do not share the US view on its differences with Iran. This does not mean they endorse Iranian policies or its clerical regime, or are unaware of reasons for opposition to Iranian policies in the region. But then, they have to take into account the nature of other regimes in the region and their policies, including US policies.
Iran is the region's most populous country, more advanced scientifically and technologically than others, and surpassing in educational levels (93 per cent of its adult population is literate and women outnumber men two to one in universities). It has a relatively more representative government in comparison with neighbouring countries. It has legitimate regional aspirations, just as other major countries in the region such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia also have.
If Iran is accused of promoting terrorism, the Wahabbis and Salafists of Saudi Arabia and the extremist ideologies they have spawned have outdone it by creating a network of terrorism world-wide, with suicide bombers wreaking havoc in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Philippines and Europe itself, be it in France, Great Britain or Germany. The mayhem in Sri Lanka is the latest devastating instance of this mindless Sunni terrorism. By comparison, the Iranian hand in terrorism as projected by the US and Israel is much less, even if terrorism of any scale is reprehensible. Shia-inspired terrorism is not a global problem as Sunni-inspired terrorism is.
We have seen how regime change policies have caused immense dislocation and misery in the region. The immigration problem that has disrupted European politics is the direct result of Libya's destruction as well as the externally fuelled Syrian conflict for which Iran alone is not culpable. America is attempting a regime change in Iran by throttling it financially. We have seen in other instances how after effecting a regime change the US and its allies have not been able to control the consequences. The US gave up nation building in Iraq, cannot control the violence in Libya, and has contemplated exiting a broken Syria. The Taliban were evicted by the US through military action and ironically America is now negotiating with the Taliban to allow it to withdraw from Afghanistan without the appearance of defeat. What then is the end-game in Iran? Destabilise it, bring about a regime change through external pressure and then when the consequences will become uncontrollable, walk away from the mess? Why no lessons have been learnt from all the earlier regime changes is baffling.
The Israel factor
Israel's security is no doubt very important. The issue is how to balance its security interests with those of others in the region. Changing the map in West Asia to primarily ensure Israel's security may not provide a long term solution. Israel has to address the Palestinian question in a way that does not expose it to permanent tensions. The answer to this conundrum is not simple. Already the acceptance of Israel as a legitimate part of the region has reached unprecedented levels, with even countries like Saudi Arabia collaborating with it. Iran is a powerful holdout no doubt. Why it is so hostile to Israel, knowing the cost it is paying for this bellicosity, is not easily comprehensible. Perhaps this is a reflection of the enduring differences between it and the US from the time of the Shah's fall and the hostage crisis. More US engagement of Iran may have helped matters but Israel and the Jewish lobby in the US have opposed this ferociously.
The Iran nuclear accord was a great diplomatic success for both sides - the Iranians and the P5+1. The Iranians conceded a lot but internal politics in the US has led to the deal's derailment. The Europeans are no fools in wanting to salvage the nuclear deal. Trump's own attitude to the North Korean nuclear issue is so different from the one towards Iran that it begs many questions. Both Iran and North Korea were NPT members. North Korea has walked out but Iran has not. North Korea has produced nuclear weapons and delivery systems to even reach US territory, which Iran has not done. Yet, Kim Jong un is engaged at summit level and even lionised, even when his defiance continues. What sense should one make out of all this?
Iran is itself energy rich and forms part of a region critical for global energy supplies. India is highly dependent for its energy supplies on this region. Demanding that India reduce its supplies from Iran to zero is forcing us to join the US in sanctioning Iran. Our ties with Iran would be damaged as also our image as a country with an independent foreign policy if we complied. Our concern, and that of US allies too, is the cost of defying US sanctions. US domestic law is being enforced on us as if it were international law. The last thing that India and the world needs is self-centred US muscle flexing in this volatile region.
The writer is a former Foreign Secretary.