February 20, 2012

Talk to America

A second Indo-US strategic dialogue would address misgivings on Iran and the nuclear deal, says N.V.Subramanian.


20 February 2012: On the lines of the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbot talks, India must initiate a second high-level strategic engagement of the United States. The subjects for discussion, among other things, have to be India's controversial oil imports from Iran and the stuck Indo-US nuclear deal. Whilst finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has much on his plate, he remains the best person to lead the dialogue from the Indian side. Foreign minister S.M.Krishna is a political lightweight and would not bring to the dialogue the degree of seriousness and clout that Mukherjee would.

Critics would question the need for such talks. After all, the circumstances that necessitated a strategic dialogue with the United States after the May 1998 Pokhran II test widely differ from the conditions obtaining now, with India's unique nuclear-power status outside the NPT regime accepted by the big powers. To boot, the US signed a civilian nuclear agreement with India, removing, principally, the constraints on this country to import reactor fuel. India has also emerged an economic driving force as the balance of world power increasingly shifts to Asia. Indeed, the argument against a US-India dialogue would be that there is nothing this country needs from America any longer apart from, perhaps, its market, high technology, FDI and goodwill.

But in a different way, the situation for India today is the same as it was in the late 1990s. Then, it was a middle power trying to make it to the high table. Today, India has enviable heft but is clearly lost in the course of making the orbital jump to the biggest league. It is not that the major nuclear and non-nuclear powers are absolutely clear about the paths to take in this confused multipolar world, with some of them led by the US floundering in Afghanistan and West Asia, and those like China and Russia desperately trying to bring clarity to their dealings with rogue states like Iran without becoming too closely identified with the West. India's only option would be to think for itself and create imaginative trajectories in its projection and pursuit of national interest. But for a variety of reasons, that has not come about.

The biggest problem confronting India is its continued Iranian oil imports. Whilst India has reduced its Iranian dependencies, they still constitute 12 per cent of oil imports. In a piece in The Diplomat online magazine, Nicholas Burns, one of the key negotiators of the India-US nuclear deal, says, "India's decision to walk out of step with the international community on Iran isn't just a slap in the face for the US -- it raises questions about its ability to lead." Burns adds, "With its unhelpfulness on Iran and stonewalling on implementation of the landmark US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement…the Indian government is now actively impeding the construction of the strategic relations it says it wants with the United States."
Voices such as those of Burns carry weight in the United States. Certainly, the US is not the power it was, having considerably declined in the post-Cold War world. But it is still a hyperpower, the only superpower, and its economy is showing surprising resilience. Because it is a country of immigrants, the rise and fall cycle associated with previous great powers may not automatically attach to the United States. It may eventually decline to second-rate status, but that possibility remains far away. Engagement with the United States, therefore, continues to be as important as before -- and, perhaps, more, because there is no comparable or even second-line democratic great power within competitive range.

The two issues most clearly privileged for discussion with America have to be the Indo-US nuclear deal and the Iran controversy. The US is upset because India's nuclear liability law increases the burden on American firms keen to export reactors to this country, whilst government-to-government contracts for Russian and French plants neutralize its effects somewhat. But the liability law cannot be amended now. The Americans have to take their chances whilst ensuring that the best and safest reactors are sent here. India cannot do more. The UPA government does not have a parliamentary majority to swing the changes the Americans want. Pranab Mukherjee would be able to convince the United States to make the best of the presented opportunity. In return, India may have to drop its insistence on getting ENR technologies from the US which it doesn't need.

On Iran, the negotiations will be trickier. Above all, India needs time and the patience of the big powers to wean from Iranian oil. Pranab Mukherjee would be able to explain that India's opposition to Iran's nuke quest already satisfies three-quarters of the Western demand. But it cannot give a carte blanche for the waging of war against the Shia state. That would have to have UN approval. The chief thrust of Mukherjee ought to be that India has no intent to defy the world or "slap the US in the face" on the Iran issue, but that it would have to calibrate its extraction from Iran's oil economy without hurting growth.

The United States feels the need for someone to explain India's position and predicaments. In that sense, any high-level dialogue with the US would be akin to that between Jaswant Singh and Talbot. There, without conceding much, India got the upper hand. Its imperative to have a deterrent was recognized and accepted. Something similar related to the nuclear deal and Iran must be attempted soon.
N.V.Subramanian is Editor, www.NewsInsight.net, and writes internationally on strategic affairs.

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