India cannot befriend Iran at the cost of its relations with other Arab Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia.

The NAM Summit in Tehran, which concluded on August 31, drew attention to two major issues. The first was the growing confrontation between Iran, on the one hand, and the US, its European partners and Israel, on the other. The summit also highlighted the growing sectarian Shia-Sunni tensions within the Islamic world.

However, India has manoeuvred well in keeping out of the sectarian rivalries of the Islamic world. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was graciously received in Tehran by Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While Western banking and insurance sanctions are going to make oil purchases from Iran increasingly difficult, New Delhi should consult more closely with China on the measures it has taken to continue Iranian oil imports. Iran will have to be persuaded to import more from India and expand cooperation on projects such as the development of the Chabahar Port.

Iran remains an important partner for India’s access to Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caspian ports of Russia. Moreover, Iraq has a vast untapped reserves of oil for export and for opportunities for oil exploration.

But all this cannot be undertaken at the cost of our relations with the Arab Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, where over 5 million Indians reside. Iran will have to be left in no doubt that its rhetoric on “wiping out Israel” is only escalating regional tensions and that it will have to credibly satisfy the International Atomic Energy Agency about its nuclear ambitions.

Shia-Sunni divide

The Shia-Sunni fissures in the Islamic world are widening. Only one of Iran’s Sunni Gulf Arab neighbours, Qatar, which has strongly backed calls for regime change in Shia-dominated Syria, sent its head of State to the Tehran Summit. Other Sunni Gulf Arab States sent their foreign ministers; Saudi Arabia pointedly sent its Deputy Foreign Minister.

The Iranians were shocked when Egypt’s new President Ahmed Morsi, who is distancing himself from Hosni Mubarak’s close embrace of the Americans, lashed out at the Syrian regime, labelling it as “oppressive” and calling for support for the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition. Moreover, Iranian attempts to undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by inviting the Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh to the Summit were thwarted.

Story of NAM

The emergence of “non-alignment” as a mantra for dealing with countries emerging from colonial rule was conceptualised in the Bandung Afro-Asian Conference, hosted by Indonesian President Sukarno in 1955. Given their shared experience of the inequities of colonial rule, the NAM inevitably assumed a leftist and anti-Western orientation. India had adopted such a posture earlier, when it condemned the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, but remained silent when the Soviet Union militarily crushed an anti-Communist revolt in Hungary in 1956. The Soviet Union had steadfastly backed India in the UN on the Kashmir issue, while the Americans had forged a military alliance with Pakistan. The founding members of the NAM, however, lived to see their dreams shattered. A year after the Belgrade Summit, India was invaded by China. It found that none of its “non-aligned” friends were willing to back it.

Nehru died a deeply disillusioned man in 1964, after having been forced to appeal to Washington for military assistance. Sukarno’s flirtations with the Communist Party of Indonesia led to a military coup and his overthrow. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah was also deposed by a military coup in 1966, while on a visit to Vietnam and China. He died in exile. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser escalated his rhetoric against Israel and undertook large-scale military manoeuvres on the Egypt-Israel border.

This provoked a pre-emptive Israeli attack, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Egyptians in 1967. Nasser’s death in 1970 heralded the emergence of a new regime under Anwar Sadat, which made peace with Israel. Egypt became America’s most loyal ally in the Arab world.

Tito’s Yugoslavia disintegrated soon after his death. Membership of the NAM, however, increased primarily because newly independent States saw substantial benefits from joining the grouping. The NAM was a forum where they could take cover behind numbers, while backing policies that irritated the Western world, and forging a united front on issues such as climate change, global economic inequities and nuclear disarmament.

The credibility of the NAM suffered when Cuba assumed its presidency in 1979 and labelled the Soviet Union as a “natural ally” of the movement. A measure of balance was restored when India assumed the leadership at the New Delhi Summit in 1983.

The NAM did not die a natural death as many expected after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, as issues of development, environment and nuclear disarmament remained the focus. Moreover, the threat of intervention and invasion by western powers evoked worldwide concern.

Interestingly, with the emergence of doctrines such as the Responsibility to Protect, the Western powers have developed a growing appetite for “regime change,” to get rid of Governments they find unacceptable, while selectively using alleged human rights violations or alleged possession of nuclear weapons as a fig leaf for military intervention.

(This article was published on September 12, 2012)
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