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TOO LATE FOR HAVANA
- Menon was the right decision at the wrong time

The announcement last week that Shiv Shankar Menon would become the next foreign secretary on October 1 was the right decision at the wrong time. If only the decision had been finalized and announced at least a month earlier, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, would have been better served as he prepares to pack his bags on a delicate and difficult trip to Brazil and Cuba.

Following that announcement, the prime minister, who is also external affairs minister, has instructed that Menon ó and not the outgoing foreign secretary, Shyam Saran ó will travel to South America and be his chief aide at the non-aligned summit in Havana. Because Menonís appointment was formalized less than a fortnight before Singh leaves for South America, the foreign secretary-designate will now have to carry the baggage put together by someone else during his debut as head of the Indian Foreign Service. This not an issue to be dismissed with the argument that there will be continuity in the implementation of Indiaís external policies notwithstanding any change of guard in the IFS, or that foreign policy is not decided solely by the foreign secretary and that it is the product of a consensus among various agencies, mainly the Prime Ministerís Office and the ministry of external affairs .

The fact is that a new foreign secretary, especially someone as cerebral and diplomatically reflective as Menon, would have imparted fresh thinking to the briefs and talking points for Havana, if only he had the opportunity to do so. It is one of the worst kept secrets among foreign diplomats and the domestic civil service in New Delhi that for at least a year, South Block has been drifting and has often displayed intellectual bankruptcy in its dealings not only with many foreign governments, but also in domestic inter-ministerial interaction.

With Saranís time mostly taken up since July 18, 2005, by the challenging task of pushing through the nuclear deal between India and the United States of America, a host of issues deserving minute attention from an emerging power such as India have been neglected or, in some cases, badly mismanaged. Civil servants ó barring the few who have strong views ó have a tendency to swim with the tide, and the IFS is no exception.

Word has been out in New Delhi for some time that the political leadership ó and South Blockís leadership ó both want the Indo-US nuclear deal to go through, come what may. Until the prime ministerís clarifications and assertions in parliament last month, most IFS officers, therefore, preferred to play it safe even if they have been eloquent in private about the potential dangers and pitfalls in the deal with Washington. In private, many of them have also been concerned about the obsession in New Delhi with America and the lack of interest within South Block in Indiaís relations with many other key areas of the world.

Take Indo-Iranian relations, for instance. The popular view in New Delhi is that Iran is on the mat with its nuclear programme having been referred to the United Nations Security Council and the US pushing for UN sanctions as the next stage in its campaign against Tehran. But viewed from Washington and New York, the opposite is true. It is hard not to admire the way Iranís diplomats, who had their backs to the wall less than a year ago, have fought their way back to a position of advantage in their conflict of ideas with the Americans.

A year after India voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, it is a very different Tehran that New Delhi has to deal with. But on Indiaís diplomatic radar, there is little appreciation or acknowledgement of this sea change. Without a shadow of doubt, Iran has been the biggest beneficiary of the recent conflict in Lebanon. It has already reaped a rich harvest from the ham-handed way the White House has conducted its war on terror.

If there was adequate recognition of this change within the Indian government, it would have treated very differently last monthís visit to New Delhi by Mehdi Safari, Iranís deputy foreign minister for Asia. Safariís chief interlocutor on the Indian side was Rajiv Sikri, one of the MEAís two secretaries and not the foreign secretary, although Safari did get to meet Saran.

For at least two decades, the MEA has considered Iran important enough for successive foreign secretaries to directly handle that country. Not any more. Safariís visit ought to have been given more importance on Raisina Hill, not merely because he was already the deputy governor of Iranís Bushehr province when Saran was no more than a first secretary at Indiaís permanent mission to the UN in Geneva, but also because Safari was travelling to New Delhi about a month after Iranís foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, cancelled his visit a few hours before he was to board a plane for India.

There was a time when foreign ministers from all corners of the world used to make a beeline for India whenever there was a major crisis in some corner of the globe. They still make a beeline, but now they come more with an eye on some lucrative contract for their country, not to find solutions to any problem, which is usually the reason why they go to Beijing, Moscow or Paris. Then, it should not come as a surprise that Iran is unwilling to sell liquefied natural gas to India on terms which it contracted last year. That unwillingness stems from a realization in Tehran that India needs Iran much more than the other way round. Unfortunately, that reality is yet to dawn on decisive segments of the Indian government and on sections of the strategic community.

For more than 30 years, it has been the sustained endeavour of successive governments in India to build bridges with Tehran, not only because Iran is a source of oil and gas, but also because of that countryís strategic location in Indiaís extended backyard. Indeed, it was Indira Gandhi who initiated moves to ditch a Cold War mindset in Indo-Iranian relations even as the Cold War was raging. Although the Shah of Iran supported Pakistan during the 1971 war with Bangladesh, in just over a year, Indira Gandhi sent Sardar Swaran Singh, then the external affairs minister, to Tehran in an effort to mend fences that reflected the importance she attached to Iran. The Shah quickly reciprocated by sending his foreign minister, Abbas Ali Khalatbari, to New Delhi. Months later, Indira Gandhi herself travelled to Tehran. A historic change in Indo-Iranian relations was taking place, but unsurprisingly, Morarji Desai, as prime minister, could not read the writing on the wall. Foolishly, even as the Iranian monarchy was crumbling, India hosted the Shah and Shabano on a state visit. It took a long while for India to get over the fallout of this huge diplomatic blunder, but P.V. Narasimha Rao successfully built bridges with the Islamic regime in Tehran during his prime ministership.

Because the diplomatic, economic and strategic benefits of this turnaround were obvious to everyone, Raoís successors kept up the relationship. Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to build on it. Manmohan Singh was ill served by those who did not give him the options to make up for Indiaís vote in Vienna in dealing with Tehran.

Now, Iran is quietly resurgent, diplomatically and politically. Ironically, US policy has got rid of two of Iranís worst enemies, both of which would have kept Tehran in check: Saddam Husseinís Baathist regime in Baghdad and the extremist, Sunni set up of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even the Gulf sheikhdoms which have no love lost for Shiite Iran are now in a mood to accommodate Tehran because they know that geography cannot be changed. When the prime minister goes to Havana in a few days, he will see for himself that Tehran is neither isolated nor without support as the Americans would have us believe. Hopefully, the incoming foreign secretaryís experience of Iran and Afghanistan gained in Islamabad will make Singh realize the need to change course on Iran better late than never.

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