Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Explainer: India, Iran, and the IAEA

I've been trying to understand how India's vote against Iran at the IAEA on September 25 led the Indian left to call a general strike in India four days later. I supported India's vote against Iran, and I was shocked to see the Left parties calling a strike as a response. What could the justification possibly be?

The issues are complicated and interlocking, so let's break them into three parts.

1. Iran and the IAEA

As I read it, the IAEA's September 25 vote was a kind of warning to Iran from the UN. Here is Fox News:

The watchdog agency's 35-nation board approved the resolution, which could lead to Iran's referral to the Security Council for violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty unless Tehran eases suspicions about its atomic program.

The Security Council could impose sanctions if it determines that Iran violated the treaty, but that is unlikely since China and Russia, which wield Security Council vetoes, oppose those efforts.

The vote was 22 in favor of the resolution, 12 abstaining, and one opposed. So India's vote wasn't, strictly speaking, essential for the success of the resolution (Pakistan, China, and Russia were among the abstainers). A second resolution will likely be floored in November, at which time Iran -- unless it does something dramatic about its nuclear energy program -- is probably going to be "referred" to the UN Security Council.

That said, it seems pretty clear that no sanctions (or, for that matter, military action) will be imposed on Iran by the Security Council because of opposition from veto-wielding powers. So in some sense this vote is symbolic, though I can imagine how in Iran this might look like the beginning stages of the next U.S. invasion in the middle east. (Seymour Hersh notwithstanding, I don't think anyone is seriously talking about that now.)

One could legitimately question whether the UN should be in the business of stopping sovereign nations from developing civilian nuclear energy, which is what Iran says it is doing. But that question leads to two obvious responses. One is, if that is indeed all Iran is doing, why not invite UN inspectors in to see? Secondly, given that Iran is a net energy exporter and an oil-rich nation, why is it in fact so determined to develop nuclear energy? It seems fishy; you don't have to be Paul Wolfowitz to doubt Iran's motives here.

2. The Congress Party and the Bush Administration

Before the September 25 vote, the U.S. exerted a fair amount of pressure on India to vote against Iran on the matter of the UN Security Council referral. Early on, the government indicated that it would not vote against Iran, but at the last minute changed its mind.

There is even some talk that India allowed its vote to be bought in a quid pro quo arrangement with the U.S. It may be true -- certainly some Indian newspapers are reporting it that way (see Kuldip Nayer in the Deccan Herald) -- though at this point I haven't seen any direct reference to what specifically India hoped to gain by voting against Iran. A new arms deal? An economic package? It's not been made clear. There is some indication that the U.S. Congress is going to go forward with a bill soon (see this blog), but the contents of the bill haven't been specified yet.

One could argue that Iran might be even more important than the U.S. to India, because Iran is one of India's principal suppliers of oil and natural gas. By voting against Iran, India jeopardized that strategic relationship (fortunately, Iran has signaled that it has no intention to cut off energy supplies following India's vote.)

3. The Indian Left

I find it odd that Indian Communist leaders have registered their disappointment with the government's vote with references to the Non-Aligned Movement. Here is Gurudeb Dasgupta, a Secretary for the CPI, in an interview with the Hindustan Times:

It was the previous Congress government’s endeavour to brand India a non-aligned country. By voting at the IAEA on the Iran issue, the same Congress has now abandoned its foreign policy and had diluted its faith in NAM. In fact, all this has happened under US pressure. Like Iraq, the US wants to grab Iran’s oil wells. If China, Russia and Pakistan could abstain from voting, why could India not follow suit. We would continue with our protest on the issue.

Isn't it odd that the left is still talking about the non-aligned movement fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union? It seems to me they are using very old rhetoric, and to some extent reacting in a knee-jerk way: one shouldn't agree with the U.S., just because they are the U.S. and we don't like them. People like Dasgupta aren't considering the possibility that India's vote might have actually been a principled one: it's in everyone's best interests to discourage Iran's nuclear weapons program.

The Left parties in the UPA government are currently very powerful, but the most strident criticism of the Manmohan Singh government has come from Communist factions that did not join the current coalition. As I understand it, it was those parties outside the government who called a successful general strike to protest the anti-Iran vote on September 29. The strike shut down airports as well as many public sector industries, and hit especially hard in West Bengal (where the Communists are especially powerful). Here is the Hindustan Times article:

Industrial and commercial activities as also air services were affected in large parts of the country on Thursday as the day-long strike by Left trade unions crippled work in public sector banks and insurance companies and government undertakings to protest the UPA government's economic policies. The impact of the strike was the maximum in the Left-ruled West Bengal where life almost came to a standstill with public transport, including train services, remaining paralysed.

Only two flights - one each from Delhi and Mumbai - landed at Netaji Subhaschandra Bose international airport which was the worst-hit by the Airport Authority of India employees' protest against privatisation of Delhi and Mumbai airports.

Not a pretty picture: such events are bad for India's economy, as well as its image abroad.

The governing UPA coalition is still holding together, but with rising oil prices and extremely limited economic reforms, I think both sides are pretty frustrated with the arrangement.

We'll see whether this internal pressure will be enough to cause India to change its vote on the Iran/nuclear vote in November. I have a feeling it will.


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12:12 PM  
Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

You mis-represent the left position on both counts a little bit.

The Indian left's position on Iran is that it wasn't that the general UN feeling is that Iran is rushing headlong into building nuclear weapons. We cannot honestly be opposed to the discriminatory NPT and CTBT and also refer Iran to the UN Security Council. The Indian Left was also very vociferous in the NDA government's testing of nuclear weapons. Their point is that we should be working towards complete disarmament, not some "realpolitik" goal of just letting those we can "trust" have the nuclear technology and no one else.

Their protesting on the UPA's liberalization stems from the government's disregarding the minimum common program (MCP) and proceeding with liberalization when they had agreed to slow it down when forming the coalition. The left's view is that if some change needs to be made to the MCP it should include all partners of the coalition. They are looking for guarantees against the selling off of the "crown jewels" to multi-national corporation who have not demonstrated any corporate responsibility what so ever.

1:56 PM  
vk said...

I think it is a shakedown and an attempt by the commies to further extend their leverage over this government. They are also not in favour of better relations with the US (not to mention the fact that some of them are probably still being paid by foreign countries-Mr Prakash Karat made a very quick trip to Beijing just before he went around organizing strikes in Honda factories in India). They have successfully blackmailed this govt in the past. They ought to be shot.

2:06 PM  
Amardeep said...


That's a good point about India's earlier position on the NPT. I was critical of the testing at the time as well. But this is a different government, so does what happened in 1998 really matter?

At any rate, I do think complete disarmament is a noble goal, but sadly the world seems to be going in the other direction... Shouldn't India learn to play along?

As for reforms and the CMP. I might have missed it, but it's seemed to me that very few reforms have actually been put in place, and that liberalization and privatization measures have slowed considerably since the Congress came into power last year -- largely because of the protests of the Left. Did I miss something?

And VK, thanks for the comment. I didn't know about Karat's recent trip to Beijing... hm.

2:57 PM  
vk said...

The argument about the discriminatory nature of the NPT does not apply entirely in the case of Iran. Iran willingly signed the NPT and very recently ratified it. So it accepted the discriminatory part of the regime as well. In this narrow sense, it could be in violation of its obligations.

Personally, I disagree with a lot of US policy towards Iran. I believe that Iran is probably the most progressive society in the Middle East and has the potential to move towards a more truly liberal and functioning democracy, and a catalyst for progress in the entire region. Keeping it in isolation as has been done only strengthens existing reactionary forces in Iran. I think a lot of this has very much to do with the US establishments' antipathy towards the Iranian revolution due to the events of 1979-84 and its additional entanglement with Saudi Arabia which is a major rival of Iran.

However, I think that India's vote against Iran is justified for several reasons:
1. India needs energy in very large amounts, and its ability to buy Uranium and civilian technology (less importantly) through legitimate channels is of great value. Without an agreement with the US, this is not possible due to the NSG's monopoly in these matters.

2. Indian support for countries in the Middle East in the past has been reciprocated with them directly opposing Indian national security interests (these countries include Iran), so they should not expect Indian support to be taken for granted.

3. Iran will sell India Oil & Gas nevertheless and probably make quite a killing off its deals with India.

4. Most importantly, the present Iranian government made Indian support practically impossible after Mr Ahmedjinad's speech to the U.N in New York where he offered access to weapons technology to other Islamic countries. This sort of open defiance of proliferation concerns is against Indian interests.

There are crucial areas where reforms have been practically stopped by the communists-Public sector disinvestment and labour policy. In addition the GoI has practically gifted them continued control of states like WB and Kerala through its
jobs guarantee scheme, which is probably the biggest gift that the political classes have made to themselves after the "farm loan forgiveness" melas of the 80's and 90's.

5:35 PM  
SloganMurugan said...

Commies, they are the permanent opposition India. They oppose anti-everything.

8:12 AM  
Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

This post has been removed by the author.

11:47 AM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks for adding your ideas and experiences to this discussion.

I would be curious to hear sometime (maybe on your blog? maybe as a guest blog here?) more about your student/activism days. My friend Pramod was active in student politics at a university in Patna back in the 1980s, and the stories he tells -- about the gangfights, riots, and strikes (not to mention ragging!) -- are pretty incredible.

Anyway, consider that an invitation: your take on campus politics in Indian universities.

12:25 PM  
Suvendra Nath Dutta said...


Thank you for the kind invitation.

You will notice I just removed my comment. I realized I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about it. It in fact got me thinking of what I'd say if some one did ask what I did. And I realized it was all just stupid. I did idiotic things like get rid of ragging, but the ragging was unbelievably mild and intellectual (sing a Sukumar Ray nonsense poem to the tune of a popular hindi song variety). I campaigned for a friend to defeat the naxalite candidate (the communists didn't exist in Presidency College then) for the student council, but the rest of Calcutta University was dominated by the communists so Presidency choosing a non-communist to its student council made no difference. And finally after our second year, I completely forgot politics and got back into Physics. A senior told us on our first day in Presi, "you do three things here, Prem, Politics and Physics, and you do them better than anyone else". But like all bengalees (when not in a mob of course) I did all of the above moderately, quietly, and mostly to no consequence.

12:43 PM  
Kumar said...

Mr. Dutta: "...I completely forgot politics and got back into Physics..."

I've no first-hand experience of Indian university life but my dad (who is also in the sciences and does have first-hand experience) absolutely loathes/loathed the political activists on his campus. From the stories he tells us, I have to say the less 'politics' the better. From my perspective, you made the right choice.


6:13 PM  
yenyumyum said...

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2:40 PM  

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