by Vikram S Mehta
“The most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what one is trying to do.” This Nietzschean aphorism finds sharp affirmation in the behaviour of the leaders of the US and Iran today. Both have forgotten what they are trying to achieve but both are engaged in verbal, economic and physical jousting that is generating sparks that could light up a regional bonfire. India would be severely impacted in such an event. Our leaders face a policy dilemma. Should they use their “soft” power to try and snuff out the sparks but risk an embarrassing rebuff? Or should they stay on the sidelines in the hope that disaster will not prevail? It is my view that the Indian government should do the former. It should deploy the “quiet” power of diplomacy to pre-empt the consequences of human stupidity.
The signals emanating from Washington DC and Tehran are confusing and blurred. They suggest that the leaders in these two cities have lost sight of their vital objectives.
Donald Trump says he does not want war; that he is not looking for a regime change but only a tighter nuclear agreement. He says his objective is to ensure Iran will never acquire the capability to develop nuclear weapons. But he has also tweeted the word “obliterate” to define the range of options that remain on his table and his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have stated that war is an option. And that their preferred outcome is indeed regime change.
The Iranians are also conveying mixed messages. Their elected leadership wants to exercise “strategic moderation” and remain compliant with the JCPOA. They are hopeful that with the support of the Germans and the French, the crisis can be settled through negotiation. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on the other hand, wants the government to breach the uranium stockpile limits agreed to in the JCPOA (the 2015 Iran nuclear deal) and to enrich uranium to 20 per cent purity (which is just one step away from weapons grade material).They also want to signal through direct and indirect action that they will not be bullied by the Americans. The Ayatollahs generally keep their cards close to their chest but given that the Iranian economy is in free fall — the GDP fell by 4 per cent last year and an additional 6 per cent this year; inflation is running at 30 per cent; food is in short supply; the currency is on skids and unemployment is at record highs — they too are inclined to play the US “Satanic” card to divert public attention from the domestic crisis.
There is an explanation for this political amnesia. The leaders are wrestling to reconcile their international priorities with their domestic constituencies. The problem is that in the process, they are pushing the region towards large-scale conflict. And that is why their actions fit so neatly into the Nietzchean mould of stupidity.
Students of military history will not be surprised by this drift towards war. Trump is, alas, no such scholar. Had he been so, he might have remembered the forewarning contained in the unfinished magnum opus of the Prussian General Von Clausewitz , Vom Kriege (On War), that “three quarters of the factors on which war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty”. He may have noted the mind-boggling confirmation of this observation in the memoirs of the former Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, who wrote “President Johnson authorised the bombing (of North Vietnam ) in response to what he thought had been a second attack that had NOT occurred”. The “attack” referenced was on the US Destroyer USS Maddox by North Vietnamese patrol boats on August 4, 1964, in the international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days earlier, the Maddox had been attacked by the North Vietnamese. The report of a second attack inflamed the US Congress, which then passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution — a de facto declaration of war against the North Vietnamese. It was later established that the report of a second attack was erroneous. This is difficult to believe but this means that the US went to war in Vietnam on the basis of erroneous intelligence.
The US-Iran stand-off is wrapped in a “fog of uncertainty”. No one really knows what will happen but what we do know, based on our reading of Clausewitz and understanding of history, is that it could take no more than a false report, a miscalculation or simply an accident for the region to conflagrate into violent conflict.
India would be severely impacted in such an event. It imports 65 per cent of its crude oil from the region. Conflict would disrupt its oil supply lines and harden oil prices. Moreover, there are approximately eight million nationals living and working in the area. Many of them would need to be evacuated. This would present a major logistical challenge. But most worrying, and beyond these immediate ramifications, is that India and Indians would feel the tremors of the aftermath of such a conflict for a long time.
The question, then, for India is: Should it allow history to repeat itself? Or should it make an effort to stave off disaster beyond the opportunistic bilateral discussions with Pompeo and Trump. In my view it should take that extra step. This is not simply to safeguard its economic interests. It is also because it is strongly placed to arrest this dangerous drift. India has long-standing historical and cultural links with the Middle East and in particular with Iran. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has enhanced international stature because of his massive electoral victory and strong personal relations with his counterparts in the area. And Foreign Minister S Jaishankar is a superb and world-class diplomat. Together, this makes for a rare combination of “soft”, “smart” and “quiet” power. India should deploy this combination towards one objective. To persuade Iran to revert to its original position of remaining within the framework of the JCPOA and to deny the hardliners on the American side the raison d’etre for escalation.
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