| Ahmadinejad prays at the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran
As Albert Einstein famously put it, 'Politics is for the moment. An equation is for eternity.' So is peace. So are India's permanent interests. They transcend George W. Bush's current dyspepsia not over what Iran has done but over what it might do. It's like invading Iraq because though Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, Bush said he did.
But since both the United States of America and Iran bear directly on India's single most important permanent interest ' the security threat from Pakistan ' neither must be offended more than is unavoidable. The American ambassador's public attempt at what sounds suspiciously like blackmail complicates the task. The tocsin he sounded of Congressional rejection recalled a Senate chaplain saying, when asked if he prayed for the members, 'No, I look at the senators and pray for the country.' That might be said of the House of Representatives too. Dodgy Congressmen are an even more effective card up Bush's sleeve.
One course for India at next week's International Atomic Energy Agency meeting might be not to mince words about Iran's presumed intentions while also pointing out US neglect of Article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty committing all five acknowledged nuclear powers 'to make progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally with the ultimate end of eliminating those weapons'. Regarding the clause as binding, the International Court of Justice demands 'general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control'.
If universal disarmament is a utopian dream, so is the Big Five's eternal monopoly. India, Pakistan and Israel have already rejected that supremacist notion. Brazil, Argentina and South Africa nearly did. Japan can whenever it chooses. Even Einstein thought that the world would be safe only when the US shared the secret with a unified Europe, leading to a future world government. Exclusivity is discriminatory, as India argued time and again before Pokhran II. That made India's objection to Iran's national security adviser's complaint of the 'dual standard' implicit in India-US nuclear relations all the more illogical. There is a confusion here between principle and practice. India cannot suddenly switch sides and join the Big Five (who don't really accept India as one of them) without invoking Animal Farm at its most blatant.
The US position is even less principled. It did not object in 1974 when Shah Reza Pahlavi began building the Bushehr power station with German help. Objections began only when the Islamic regime revived it in 1992 with Russian assistance. What the Shah was allowed the ayatollahs were not. Similarly, German cooperation was more acceptable than Russian. All this has more to do with US political perceptions and its prerogatives as sole superpower than with any Iranian threat.
Washington has persistently rebuffed Iran's efforts to build bridges. In 1998, Mohammad Khatami, then the president, asked for 'a dialogue with the great people of the United States'. A conservative Iranian newspaper, Ghods (Jerusalem), also suggested that an interview by Bill Clinton to Iran's media would heal many wounds. Both conciliatory overtures were spurned. Instead, as Edward Said wrote, Iran was demonized with 'images of bearded clerics and mad suicidal bombers, of unrelenting mullahs, fanatical fundamentalists and kidnappers, remorselessly turbaned crowds who chant hatred of the United States.' There is a strategy behind the depiction. An unappetizing visual image recalling Osama bin Laden's highly publicized pictures feeds Western fear and hatred, and might make it easier for the US to deliver the coup de gr'ce when it thinks the time is ripe.
Like Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also plays into Western hands with his rhetoric. Though his comment about wiping Israel 'off the map' had been made by many Arab leaders many times, it was outrageous and merited instant reprimand even without a US president's special interest in Israel. It's this interest that makes the difference. Remember Harry Truman informing state department officials that he was tearing up Franklin D. Roosevelt's promise of a Palestinian homeland because he had 'to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism' but did 'not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among (his) constituents'.
Iranians suspect the US of trying to 'get' them ever since Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution and Jimmy Carter's botched hostage rescue attempt. They attribute it to the fact that Iran boasts 10 per cent of the world's proven oil reserves and 16 per cent of proven gas reserves. It didn't matter in the Shah's time since he was an American prot'g'. Afterwards, Iran became another plum to be picked like Iraq, west Asia's other oil producer who stood on national sovereignty. Tehran's nightmare was that the parallel would extend to Israel attacking Bushehr and other facilities (having reportedly built replicas in the Negev desert for target practice) as it did Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. Bush's pledge about 'finishing the job' in his second term reinforced the sense of persecution.
Lacking oil, North Korea, which, unlike Iraq or Iran, has the bomb, was spared threats. On the contrary, money and technology was lavished on this interloper in the exclusive nuclear club. The difference rankles in Tehran, where they also feel that their security concerns receive scant attention. Israel is one threat, the US another. Iraq is a former adversary. Though Abdul Qadeer Khan supplied Iran's centrifuge technology, Shia Iran's relations with Sunni Pakistan ' America's 'most favoured non-Nato ally' ' are uneasy. Earlier, the two Muslim nations squabbled for influence in Afghanistan. Now, Pakistan suspects Iran's hand in the Balochistan unrest while Iranians are nervous about the deep sea port and naval facilities that the Chinese are building for Pakistan at Gwadar.
Iran's lofty self-image compounds problems. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's reminder to the European Union that his was 'a great cultured nation' demonstrated that in this respect little has changed since the Shah proclaimed himself King of Kings, lineal descendant of Cyrus the Great who reigned 2,600 years ago. National dreams outlive rulers. Iraqi ambitions did not end with Osirak's destruction. Similarly, sanctions ' or more ' might deter Ahmadinejad but he is not for ever. Historians agree that Germany would not have been as belligerent in 1939 if the 1919 Peace of Versailles had been less harsh.
Apart from the multi-billion dollar natural gas pipeline of the future, India and Iran signed a strategic partnership deal in 2003. Iran is also committed to shipping India five million tons of liquid natural gas a year from 2009. But more important than any individual dividend is the restraining effect that an Indo-Iranian entente might have on Pakistani terrorism. Pakistan is also central to relations with the US, but Bush's latest comments confirm that it suits US realpolitik to pamper Pervez Musharraf and present the problem as its solution.
There remains the NPT. When the conference on disarmament opened in Geneva in 1968, Shimon Peres did not think the signatures were 'worth the peel on a garlic'. Next week in Vienna, when the US tries to hold Iran to its signature, India can try to hold the US to its. The difference is that while the NPT allows Iran to develop a nuclear fuel cycle under inspection, which, it says, is all it wants to do, periodic announcements about the dismantling of redundant or obsolete weapons do not indicate that the US is at all serious about its obligations under Article VI. Caught between the devil and the deep, India will have to decide which will be less obstructive while never forgetting the other's capacity to be unhelpful.