The Persian puzzle

Last Updated: Sat, Jun 15, 2013 18:40 hrs

Finally, it looks like it's the beginning of the end of the era of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. With Friday's elections, many in West Asia and in the wider world would be hoping that Iran would turn a corner in its relationship with the external world. Mr Ahmadinejad had been raising hackles ever since his election eight years back, first by threatening to destroy Israel, then by a hard-line approach on the nuclear question, followed by a very pro-active revolutionary foreign policy in the region, and ultimately the decimation of the Iranian economy. It is now being hoped that a more pragmatic leader emerges and shapes the Iranian rapprochement with the world.

But Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ensured that only conservative regime loyalists were allowed to enter Friday's first round of elections and his supremacy over foreign-policy issues remains unchallenged. Reformists are hoping that relative moderate Hasan Rowhani would give them a shot at the presidency and so have fallen into step behind him. And as of this writing, it seems that Mr Rowhani, leading by a strong margin inititally, might just be able to secure an outright victory and avoid a two-person runoff next Friday. Though Saeed Jalili, Iran's nuclear negotiator, was the favourite of the Ayatollah, Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, had emerged as the frontrunner by portraying himself as someone who could rescue the country's economy from the recession brought on by sanctions. Scarred by the popular uprising of 2009, the Iranian authorities had kept a close tab on impromptu political rallies and have tried to choke off the Internet and foreign-based satellite TV channels such as the BBC and Voice of America.

Despite this, a potential win for Mr Rowhani would symbolise a deep yearning for change in Iran, though it would by no means be a major challenge to the Iranian establishment - a tight alliance of the ruling clerics and the ultra-powerful Revolutionary Guard - which will continue to hold all the effective power and set the agenda on all major decisions such as Iran's nuclear programme and its dealings with the West.

The nuclear question continues to dominate the thinking of the world outside Iran. The nuclear negotiations between the West and Tehran have been on hold for the past two months, with Iran continuing to enrich uranium and install a new generation of advanced centrifuges. Israel, for one, has made it clear that it has no reason to believe that a new government in Tehran will back away from a pursuit of nuclear weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested although Iran has not crossed what he has called a "red line" - producing enough enriched uranium to enable it to quickly build a nuclear bomb - the Iranian programme "is methodically moving forward." The Arab states in the region may not be as vocal, but their concerns are rising at a time when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems to be gaining ground in the civil war in his country with help of his allies - Russia, the Lebanon-based militant organisation Hezbollah and its sponsor Iran.

There seems to be a certain inevitability about the Iranian capability to assemble a crude nuclear device in the near future. And like other nuclear powers, this poses a dilemma for India as well. India's official position on the Iranian nuclear question has been relatively straightforward. Although India believes that Iran has the right to pursue civilian nuclear energy, it has insisted that Iran should clarify doubts raised by the IAEA regarding Iran's compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

India has long maintained that it does not see further nuclear proliferation as being in its interests. This position has as much to do with India's desire to project itself as a responsible nuclear state as with the real danger that further proliferation in its extended neighbourhood could endanger its security. India has continued to affirm its commitment to enforce sanctions against Iran as mandated since 2006 by the UN Security Council, when the first set of sanctions was imposed. However, much like Beijing and Moscow, New Delhi has argued that such sanctions should not hurt the Iranian populace and expressed disapproval of sanctions by individual countries that restrict investments by third countries in Iran's energy sector.

India shares with the West the belief that Iranian nuclear ambitions would destabilise the Middle East. The Indian prime minister is on record suggesting that a nuclear Iran is not in India's national interest. But New Delhi does not have the luxury of viewing Iranian nuclear ambitions only through the prism of Iran-Israel rivalry, a norm in the West. India, a country with a sizable Sunni and Shia population, has to consider this issue from a wider perspective where Iranian nuclear drive instigates Arab-Iran and Sunni-Shia rivalry. For Tehran, its nuclear ambitions are as much a counter to a two-front encirclement of Shias by Sunni Pakistan and Sunni Saudi Arabia as it is about ending Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region.

Apart from the nuclear question, India's ties with Iran have been under strain in recent months. There has been disquiet in India about Iran questioning the Nuclear Suppliers Group's decision to exempt New Delhi from export regulations of nuclear material and technology at the NPT review conference held in May. With Western sanctions making it difficult to ship oil, India's oil imports from Iran declined by over 26.6 per cent in the financial year ending March 2013, making Iran India's sixth-largest crude oil supplier behind Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Venezuela, Kuwait and the UAE.

As a result, New Delhi will be hoping that the internal power struggle within Iran, growing tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbours, and Iran's continued defiance of the global nuclear order would reach some sort of resolution after the latest elections in Iran. This is important if Indo-Iranian ties are to achieve a semblance of normalcy.

The writer teaches at King's College, London

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