In the same Boat

The position of the Indian  government in the US dispute with Iran is revealing, since it shows how the government is willing to acquiesce to the demands of the United States, even if these demands are damaging for India's economic interests. This attitude-of subordinating domestic economic interests to imperialism-has been maintained steadily by both the UPA and the NDA governments.

The Indian government gave a clear diplomatic signal when it voted in favour of the US resolution in the IAEA board of governors in September 2005 to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. From an immediate perspective, it is widely believed that the Indian government's vote was a quid pro quo as part of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Therefore, the Indian government's position was not only hypocritical, it was also indefensible within any independent foreign policy frame.

The hypocrisy lies in the obvious fact that the Indo-US nuclear deal was meant to legitimise India's status as a de facto nuclear-weapons power, and simultaneously allow the Indian government to pursue a large expansion of its civilian programme. It was absurd, even by the standards of international diplomacy, for the Indian government to declare, precisely at this time, that it felt that the much smaller Iranian nuclear programme "gave rise to questions that are within the Security Council, as the organ bearing the main responsibility for the maintenance of internal peace and security."

Moreover, it should have been clear to any neutral observer that the Indo-US nuclear deal held very few tangible benefits for the country, even within its own terms. Indeed, it is remarkable that fourteen years after the deal was signed, it has not led to a single new purchase of nuclear reactors-except for the expansion at Kudankulam that the government may have pursued anyway under an older understanding with Russia.
Under US pressure, India also stepped out of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, and it slowed its investment in the Chabahar port that it had agreed to develop in Iran, although both of these held significant commercial opportunities for Indian businesses.

The Modi government came to power in the middle of the temporary US rapprochement with Iran. So it resumed its cooperation with Iran on Chabahar and signed a deal promising direct Indian investments of $500 million in the port's infrastructure in 2016." However, with the advent of the Trump administration, the Modi government dutifully reversed course. Most recently, when the US ended its "oil waiver" for India, the Modi government stopped the import of Iranian oil, even though as late as June 2018, Iran was the second largest supplier of oil to India providing about 13 per cent of its imports.

Although there are various attitudes within the Iranian ruling elite on how to deal with the West, the Trump administration's escalation has left the Iranian government with absolutely no room to manoeuvre. Even before the current rise in tensions regarding Hommuz tanker crisis, US policies had put Rouhani's government in an untenable position. Its critics contend that by negotiating with the US in good faith, and making multiple concessions on the nuclear front, Rouhani's government has sacrificed Iranian interests in a failed attempt to obtain better relations with the West. And, in an extraordinary speech, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently publicly distanced himself from the nuclear deal and reminded his audience that he had communicated his reservations to Rouhani during the deal's negotiations." So the Iranian government has no option, in the near future, except to resist Washington's dictates.

On the other hand, Trump's belligerent policies are harmful for longer-term US imperial interests. Astute upholders of US imperialism, including establishment democrats like Hillary Clinton and the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, understand this very well. They would prefer a strategy where the US government either continues dialogue with Iran in an attempt to co-opt its elites, or at least builds an alliance of imperialist powers before declaring war. In May 2018, Clinton tweeted that "Pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal is a big mistake... Anyone who thinks bombing is the answer is woefully misinformed." More recently Pelosi explained that Trump should "De-escalate, de-escalate, de-escalate. Take a deep breath and de-escalate." These urgent appeals to avoid military action do not represent any genuine desire for peace. Rather, there are clear military and economic reasons that make war with Iran a risky proposition for the United States.

On the military front, the United States is overstretched and cannot afford to enter into full-scale hostilities with Iran. By some estimates, the US government has spent almost $6 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and on related spending. Moreover these wars-which have devastated those countries have also had a non-negligible ill in terms of lives lost, within the United States. Counting both official US military personnel and US contractors, almost 15,000 American fighters have already died number in these wars. It is true that this number is only a small fraction of the total number of armed US personnel, and that the rate of US casualties is not sufficient to lead to large-scale domestic opposition of the sort that was seen during the Vietnam war. However, disabled and traumatised "Veterans" of these wars have started to impinge on the broader public consciousness and make an appearance in popular US culture. The constituency of people directly affected by these wars is large enough that Trump found it politically expedient to appeal to them in the 2016 elections.

Iran would pose a far more serious challenge to the US military than either Iraq or Afghanistan. One reason is, of course, that the Iranian military is a formidable force, unlike the Iraqi army, which had been weakened by years of sanctions and a prior war. But one of Iran's main strengths is political. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States ruthlessly exploited deep internal fissures within those societies. But it has been unable to find any foothold within Iran. Whatever the divisions within the Iranian polity, there is absolutely no support for US backed regime change.

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Vol. 52, No. 11, Sep 15 - 21, 2019