K.P.FABIAN | 11 JULY, 2019
India Needs A Strategy To Cut Through the Trump Vs Iran Confrontation
India Needs A Strategy To Cut Through the Trump Vs Iran Confrontation
The U.K. Ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, in a top secret telegram characterized the Trump White House as “uniquely dysfunctional”, with bitter disputes there amounting to “knife fights”; Trump himself as “inept, insecure, and incompetent’; and recorded the possibility that he might attack Iran.
For once those who claim that an Ambassador is sent abroad “to lie abroad for his country” have been disproved. The Ambassador tells the truth, but in private and that too only to his own government.
Trump’s unjustified abrogation of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, technically known as JCPOA (Joint Plan of Action) reminds one of Barbara Tuchman’s famous opening words in The March of Folly from Troy to Vietnam:
“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
Trump says that he would prevent Iran from making an atomic bomb. However, if he does not make a U-turn in policy, we might see Iran with a bomb within a year or so.
This crisis is unnecessary and is entirely the creation of Trump. As a candidate he had told his support base that he would dismantle the deal. As President he had the duty to get his National Security Council to examine the pros and cons of delivering on his election promise considering the national interest of U.S. He did not do that and just took an arbitrary decision.
The second point to note is that Iran made an erroneous judgment about the willingness and ability of the EU 3 (France, Germany, and U.K.) to stand up to an intimidating Trump. They have come recently up with a Single Payment Vehicle known as INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) to take care of trade with Iran in items not banned by U.S. on a barter basis.
Obviously, Iran is furious. INSTEX cannot support trade in oil, the main export of Iran, accounting for 60% of government revenue and 90% of export earnings.
EU 3 had all the time in the world to float a company exclusively to import oil from Iran and pay in Euro with Iran importing its needs from EU 3. By avoiding doing business with any U.S. company, the new company would have been immune from U.S. sanctions. But, the lamentable fact is that EU3 lacks vision, leadership, and courage in equal measure. They can be easily bullied by Trump and a tweet from him will make them shiver. Apart from the timidity of Paris and Berlin, the perfidiousness of London too might account for the failure of EU3.
There were six attacks on tankers, 4 in May and 2 in June. We do not know who was responsible, but Washington and its allies have accused Iran without providing proof.
The sensible proposal from the U.N. Secretary General for an international inquiry has not been followed up as U.S. opposes it. It is difficult not to speculate that we are witnessing a repeat of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ that did not happen, but was used as a pretext by President Lyndon Johnson to send troops to Vietnam, a war that U.S. lost at a cost of 58000 U.S. lives, and lest we forget, 3 million Vietnamese lives.
After Iran shot down a U.S. drone (RQ-4AGlobal Hawk, costing $220million) on June 20, Trump- against the advice of the Pentagon- sent a strike force to shower Tomahawk missiles on Iran. About ten minutes before the missiles were to be released, Trump called off the strike, claiming that he had second thoughts about killing 150 Iranians in retaliation for a drone when no American life was lost.
Trump’s trumped- up explanation is like a Swiss cheese full of holes. The military in U.S. and elsewhere always and invariably tells the political leadership of the likely collateral damage including casualties. A more likely explanation is that Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host, close to Trump, told him that he could forget about his re-election if he starts a war with Iran.
In short, given his transactional mindset, typical of a real estate tycoon, Trump will not attack Iran if he assesses that such an attack would cost him his re-election.
A frustrated Iran has started walking out of the deal. It has exceeded the limit of 300 kg of uranium it can keep as well as the limit of 3.67 % enrichment. The steps taken so far are merely symbolic. To make a bomb 1050 kg of uranium enriched to 90% is required. If Iran wants to go for it, it will have to ask the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to withdraw its inspectors.
Some pundits have concluded that there will be no war as both Iran and U.S. have said neither wants to start one. Such analysis is shallow.
World War 1 started not because anyone wanted to start it. It broke out primarily because of errors of judgment. Austria-Hungary was convinced that if it attacks Serbia, Russia would not intervene. Similarly, in Berlin the military leadership was convinced that U.K. will not intervene if neutral Belgium is attacked.
War, as the UNESCO’s charter reminds us, starts in the minds of men. In the present case, it is already there in the minds of John Bolton (National Security Adviser) and of Mike Pompeio (Secretary of State). They foolishly think that with sustained bombing Iran will surrender with alacrity and come to the negotiating table to sign on the dotted line.
The more likely development is that Iran through its proxies (the Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the armed Shia groups in Iraq) will target U.S. troops in the region and Israel.
U.S. will be compelled to bomb Iran’s military assets into smithereens.
Iran will let no tanker pass through the Straits of Hormoz, through which pass 17 million barrels of crude a day. A tanker crossing the strait must pass through the territorial waters of Iran. Oil prices will shoot up in U.S., not adding to Trump’s popularity, to put it mildly. If U.S. lives are lost in Iraq or elsewhere, Trump will be in deep trouble domestically.
What can be done to defuse the crisis?
It is a mistake to hold that what is needed is for Iran to agree to talk to Washington. Because, nothing but abject surrender will satisfy Trump. Iran will have to accept caps on its missiles, stop supporting its proxies, and leave Syria where it has invested heavily as without its timely support Basher al Assad would have fallen in 2011 itself. Hence, no Iranian government will agree to talk to Trump.
Whether Iran will agree to talk to EU3 and other co-signatories of the deal (China and Russia) is a different matter. But, why should U.S. agree to talks it cannot control?
There is a better way to cut this Gordian knot. The real problem is the existing unipolarity in international trade and finance. There is nothing in International Law which authorizes U.S. to forbid Country A not to trade with third Country B.
Trump is able to bully others for two reasons. A good part of international trade is mediated by the U.S. currency. Nothing should prevent the EU3, as pointed out earlier from floating a company or companies that will trade only with the rest of the world minus U.S.
The second and more important reason is that the mice are too timid to unite against the cat.
Now the question is: Who among the mice will bell the cat? Obviously, if India or any other country that summons an international conference of the major importers of oil from Iran to pass a resolution to defy U.S., it will attract Trump’s wrath.
Let us consider the following thought experiment:
One of the major importers of oil from Iran appoints a Sherpa who secretly visits other capitals of major importers with a draft declaration saying that the co-signatories will import oil from Iran; the other capitals also appoint a Sherpa each; the Sherpas work together secretly and submit an agreed text to capitals who will simultaneously come out with an identical declaration. This can be done in less than a week.
How will Trump respond? Can he hit back at India, China, Japan, and South Korea, all at once? No. Let us not forget that India is one of the biggest buyers of arms from U.S. and Trump is the most devoted salesman of the military- industrial complex.
Of course, the thought experiment should have been a top secret noting by the mandarins. But unless the CIA reads The Citizen, Trump will not know where this sacrilegious thought originated.
The discussion in India has been disappointing. One looks in vain for the 56- inch that can stand up for India.
India’s stake is obvious. First, India wants to emerge as a Great Power. To be seen as meekly yielding to U.S. will spoil India’s chances to emerge as a Great Power unless New Delhi holds the view that the U.S. has a nursery to breed Great Powers and all that matters is getting admission there and the rest will follow. Alas, Great Powers are not bred in a nursery.
Second, by not importing oil from Iran which gives a concessional pricing, a longer time for payment, and accepts Rupee, India stands to lose a lot financially. It is a pity that no investigative journalist has so far brought out an estimate of the loss.
Third, India runs the risk of losing its Chabahar project. The work has stalled, either due to U.S. pressure or the usual bureaucratic sloth, and Iran might ask India to get out. If that happens, Pakistan will be pleased as India will be dependent on Pakistan for access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. A Machiavellian Islamabad might even extend transit facility to Afghanistan to fool India, a facility that can be withdrawn at any time.
China too will be pleased with India’s exit from Chabahar, a competitor to Gwadar where China has invested heavily as part of its Belt and Road Initiative brazenly building on Indian territory under Pakistani occupation.
Last, but not the least, if major hostilities break out and the whole region gets destabilized India would need to evacuate the 8 million of its nationals from the region, an impossible task indeed. The reader who might recall the 1990-81 evacuation of 176,000 of our nationals from Kuwait and Iraq after Saddam Hussein foolishly went for a picnic to Kuwait will know all the attendant complications and implications.
The obvious conclusion is that India which has the highest stake should act with alacrity.
Ambassador K P Fabian was Counsellor in Iran, 1976-79.