India Sends Message to Washington from Tehran

Manmohan Singh’s presence at the Nonaligned Movement Summit was quite significant.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran attend the Nonaligned Movement Summit in Tehran, August 30
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran attend the Nonaligned Movement Summit in Tehran, August 30 (MEA)

The Nonaligned Movement has historically been seen as something of a talk fest — high on statements, missing in action and lacking in cohesion.

This week’s summit in Tehran, while mostly living up to the stereotype, was nevertheless important because of what was not said.

Of the 120 member states, only 29 sent their heads of government to Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad chose a reasonably befuddled topic as the theme of the summit — “Lasting peace through joint global governance” — as if either of those will ever materialize. But in spite of one expensive exercise in whispering sweet nothings, one message was being conveyed loud and clear — and that was to the United States by India.

India had a whole host of excuses to avoid attending this summit or at least downgrade its participation. For starters, Iran’s hand has now been definitively traced to a bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi earlier this year. India also has the largest Bahá’í population in the world, a faith that is viciously persecuted by the Iranian ayatollahs. Added to this is a very public American attempt to isolate Iran economically and diplomatically. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended the Nonaligned Movement Summit in person.

Singh’s speech in Tehran didn’t convey the significance of his presence. Terrorism, human rights and nuclear proliferation found only cursory mention in his address, almost as if they were esoteric concepts. The real message was not in the message but in the act.

In recent months, India has dramatically reduced its petroleum imports from Iran. Oil buys are down 40 percent as a result of the embargo against the Islamic republic which Western nations suspect is developing a nuclear weapons capacity. This has earned India considerable praise from Washington DC and a reprieve from the threat of Western sanctions.

In February, the Atlantic Sentinel predicted that India would not, in fact, join the Western boycott for domestic political reasons. And as it turns out, the “dramatic drop” in Indian oil imports is really more of a blip in response to the sanctions.

Almost on cue a day before the prime minister left for Iran, “government sources” told the Press Trust of India that the reduction in Iranian oil buys was a temporary phenomenon, a result of international insurance implementing Western sanctions.

Iran and India are trying to find ways to circumvent the boycott. Mostly this rests on allowing Iranian banks to open branches in India and finding alternatives to the SWIFT interbank code transfers which have been rescinded for Iran.

The massive power outages that paralyzed India last month, combined with rampant energy price driven inflation, give the government a powerful argument to resist American pressure. But India isn’t just dependent on Iranian oil imports; Iran is its only access to the battleground of Afghanistan, hence key to keeping Pakistan off balance. A nuclear Iran capable of playing mischief without fear of reprisal is viewed in New Delhi as “not undesirable” at all.

There were a few other messages from the Nonaligned Movement Summit that can be interpreted as minor victories for Iran. President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt violated the guiding principles of the movement — nonalignment — by roundly criticizing the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. However, he ignored the issue of Iranian support for Damascus. The fact that he turned up for the summit at all spoke volumes.

Similarly, Prime Minister Singh did not bring up the issue of February’s attack on the Israeli diplomat in Delhi. This is quite possibly because India has been the only country allowed to pursue its investigations into Iran — and subsequently drew a blank.

Iran resorted to theatrics to preempt any mention of the incident. Standing on red draped exhibition podia were the three shattered cars of each of the Iranian nuclear scientists who were presumably assassinated by Israeli intelligence.

The only real setback for Iran was United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s criticism of both President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for their statements on Israel. But on balance, the summit can be hailed as a foreign policy success by Tehran.