Friday, April 14, 2006

Observations about a nuclearized Middle East.

I feel the time has come to start talking about the likely shape of a nuclearized Middle East.

I begin briefly with my views about Iran. The revolutionary fervor that was injected into Iran by Imam Khomeni's revolution is now waning. Though observers like B. Raman have talked about the rising discontent among student groups and others have spoken about the manner in which women are circumventing the Islamic codes, the decline in the values instilled by the Ayatollah is most precipitous among the very men of who have been tasked with securing the citadel itself - corruption in the guardians is reaching dizzying heights. This weakening of moral fibre and conformity among the guardians of the revolution has prompted a reformation. This reformation is spearheaded by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi. Ayatollah Yazdi's "new gospel" will attempt to re-engineer Iran as profoundly as Ayatollah Khomeni's wilayat-e-faqih did. As the spiritual torch passes from Khomeniities to Yazdiites, political and economic turbulence manifests in its wake. Like the Khomeniites before them, the Yazdiites will rely on a confrontation with the US to propel themselves to the seat of power in Tehran. In addition to seeking to control Iran, the Yazdiites are (like all rulers in Iran's history) looking to position themselves as credible threats to other regional powers. The nuclear issue provides the Yazdiites, a method of least exertion, to seek out a confrontation they desire. There are other methods as well - most notably sectarian pressure in Iraq and denying shipping access to the Persian Gulf, but making a racket about Nuclear matters is path of minimum work. The Iranian nuclear quest must rely on non-US and non-local sources - countries like Pakistan are an ideal fit for this sort of thing.

Having spoken about Iran, it is prudent to talk of Saudi Arabia first. If Iran uses the nuclear issue to confront the West, the Saudis who also aspire for regional leadership and are the current global leadership of Islam, will have to follow in suit. Unless Saudi Arabia matches Iran in the nuclear arena it will lose its place as the leader of the Islamic world. An additional constraint is that in this particular matter the Saudis cannot rely on the US to bail them out. If it appears that the US has supported Saudi Arabia's nuclear quest, then the Saudis will look like American puppets. This will cause them to completely lose all respect domestically. The Saudi quest for nuclear status must therefore follow a path independent of the US, perhaps via other states like Pakistan. Assuming that the Iranian violation of the NPT legitimizes the Saudi violation, in order to retain its leadership of the Islamic world and the Middle East region, the Saudis must qualify their nuclear status vis-a-vis a number of others. Will Saudi Arabia commit to No-First Use? Will Saudi Arabia use nuclear weapons against Israel? Will Saudi Arabia use nuclear weapons against an Islamic population? etc... etc... These are difficult questions that the Saudis will have to publicly answer. Lacking the single point focus of the Iranian nuclear quest, the enormous influence of Wahabbi extremists in the country and given that Saudi Arabia has the world's largest proven stocks of oil, the Saudis will have to have a more nuanced policy on nuclear affairs. They are currently not in a position to articulate such a policy. Their reticence to talk openly will only feed suspicions about their intentions.

I now turn my attention towards Israel. The Israelis are a de-facto nuclear power. The presence of nuclear arsenals in Saudi Arabia and Iran will pose a credible and visible threat to Israel. Israel lacks strategic depth, all its population centers are small and have low survivability. They have very few water sources which if contaminated would make life in Israel impossible. Even if Israel's nuclear status also becomes visible, it is unlikely to mitigate the threat posed by the lack of depth. In order to ensure that their deterrent is credible, Israel will have to showcase its guarenteed second strike capabilities.

An overt nuclearization in Israel will spark a similar drives in Egypt and Syria. A host of smaller Arab states will clamor for similar capabilities or seek to form alliances with either Iran or Saudia Arabia for a nuclear umbrella.

The Pakistanis have for long claimed that they (not the Saudis) are the real protectors of Islam but no one takes them seriously. A nuclear standoff in the Middle East favors their rise to prominence as no country in the Middle East is capable of carrying out a nuclearization without Pakistani assistance. Iran's dependence is likely to minimize over time but the rest simply do not have what it takes to get free of Pakistan's stranglehold. A nuclear standoff in the Middle East will be choreographed by the Pakistanis through clandestine technology transfers and careful manipulation of strategic policy in the target states. Given their special relationship with China, it is possible that the Pakistanis will routinely posture in support of Chinese policy in the region.

Now I come to Washington's approach to these issues. The US has huge investments in energy industries in the Middle East. In addition to this a lucrative trade in finished products and services also exists between the US and the Middle East. Given the dependence on oil, the US has to keep all conflicts in the Middle East under control. In order to ensure that the trade in oil with the Middle East remains profitable for US companies, the US has to ensure that Middle Eastern populations remain receptive to American products and brands. This puts the US in a cultural conflict with the conservative forces in Islam. Iran's leadership after 1979 has defined a state of confrontation between the US and Islam and over the years this philosophy has spread to other countries threatening the US in tangible ways. So keeping Iran and the Islamist way of thinking under control is the central feature of US policy in the Middle East. The US would also like energy trade with Iran. Such a trade could form a part of the system of leverage vis-a-vis the Iranian leadership - a deal with the right Yazdiite could seal a strong bond between the Iranians and the US. At the present time President Bush's public policy of aggressive behavior with Iran is largely a way of keeping America prepared for an Iranian driven confrontation that will soon follow. It is not in America's interests to see Iran go nuclear without Saudi Arabia and Israel being adequately prepared. Delaying Iranian nuclearization assumes a high priority with the US. Additionally from the point of view of control over proliferation, the US desires that Syria and Egypt be retarded to the greatest extent possible. This will allow US energy interests the most amount of time to establish themselves in Iraq and to minmize their footprint in Saudi Arabia.

India's position on these affairs is not something I wish to comment on at the present time. India has already indicated that it does not want Iran to renege on its commitments to the NPT. Saudi nuclearization is recessed as of now, until more information becomes available about this, it is impossible to construct a meaningful comment on this. Broadly speaking, the constants in India's engagement with the Middle East have been:
  1. Continuation of cultural ties with all countries in the region.
  2. Stability of energy supply and related trade with select countries e.g. Iraq, Iran, Bahrain etc...
  3. Concerns about the safety of migrant workers in Gulf states.
  4. Concerns about the safety of Hajj pilgrims and visitors to Karbala and Najaf.
  5. Access to Central Asia through Iran.
  6. Ensuring that India's 200 million Muslims are not forgotten in the rough and tumble of Middle Eastern Islamic politics.

Doubtlessly these will play a major role in deteremining how India acts in the event that the Middle East is nuclearized.


At 11:39 PM, Blogger paurna said...

"Ensuring that India's 200 million Muslims are not forgotten in the rough and tumble of Middle Eastern Islamic politics."

what exactly do indian muslims have to with the happenings in the middle east?cud u please elaborate?

At 11:30 PM, Blogger mukunda said...

Hi maverick,
1)Interesting comments concerning the developments in Iran. Your commentary places all the onus on Iran, simoultaneoulsly leaving American administration unscathed. All along we have been believing that it is the American admin. who are intent on having a showdown, your commentary effectively reverses that.

2) Our policy should be such that prevents Iran from heading for a showdown with USA or vice-versa. Oil from Iran is far more important than nuke deal with USA.But at the same time we cannot ignore the sole superpower. It will be beneficial if Iran & USA are played against each other, milking both of them in the process. One did not notice the visit of Iranian Vice-Foreign minister or Vice-PM to india just before or after the visit of G.W.Bush. We are moving in the right direction. This is clearly remeniscient of the old days of Raj when British used to open the left door for a mughal whereas as keeping the other door open for a Hindu king. Similarily this should be our policy , mercifully it has been all the time. Remember both USA & Iran will not deliver fuel supply to us without driving a tough bargain. Hence we also should do that same with both the nations.

3) Regarding the nuke deal, it is more & more apparent that the present dispensation is more alligned towards amplifying the fissures between the US president & US congress on one hand , on the other hand between the current US administration & other nation opposed to the nuclear deal led by china.

At 1:22 PM, Blogger maverick said...


200 Million Indian Muslims see the Holy Harams as a place immense spiritual value. Whoever protects the Holy Harams of Mecca and Madina guarentees the faithful access to the Kaaba Sharif and aab-e-zam aam. Such a person is regarded as the effective protector of all Islamic values.

The rulers of the middle east however tend to place their personal political causes over the immediate needs of the greater body of the faith. Some unscrupulous rulers in the past have gone so far as to deny Indian muslims access and thus commit an unpardonable crime against the followers of Islam in India.

In the past this kind of behavior by a middle eastern ruler against India's muslims has provoked the strongest of responses. It is difficult to imagine that the Government of India will do anything different in the present day.

It may also be recalled that when Saud's first Ikhwan first took over the Holy Harams and deposed the Sharif of Mecca (the Hashemite), they laid waste to the holy cities and polluted the grand mosques. They burned several copies of the Koran and killed and tortured pilgrims there. This kind of behavior provoked their expulsion and for some time an Indian delegation led a neutral committee that adminstered the shrines.

Whatever the middle eastern rulers do in their local politics must not impinge on the sanctity of the Holy Harams or limit an Indian muslim's ability to access the shrine.

This holds also for the Shrines of Najaf, and Karbala Sharif.

In a similar fashion Indian Muslims have strong ties to several leading Islamic educational institutions in the Middle East. Should those ties be hampered in any way, I imagine there will be considerable anger in India.

In addition to this, a vast number of Indians and persons with Indian origins are economically involved in the Middle East. A vast number of these people are also muslims and have ties to the land there - families that extend across national boundaries. Many of these families are responsible for indo-centric transnational trade and some of them control parts of the financial sector in the Middle East. Their interests are never too far from India's view of the Middle East.


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