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Monday, Sep. 17, 2012

India's unfortunate tryst with the nonaligned

Special to The Japan Times

LONDON — The almost-derelict Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was once again in the limelight the last week of August, not because it had something significant to say or do in the global arena but primarily because the incoherence of the grouping as a whole was once again put on display for the outside world.

At a time when nonalignment is back in vogue in India as a guiding framework for Indian foreign policy, it is important to assess the recent NAM summit and the dearth of ideas that the grouping has come to represent.

Iran hosted the 16th summit of NAM, which was also the beginning of a three-year term for Tehran as the group's chair. The NAM's meeting in Tehran was the largest international gathering in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the Iranian regime used it to full effect.

As Iran faces international opprobrium and a multitude of sanctions, it wanted to establish that it was not as isolated as many might believe. And it succeeded, as the 120-odd nations of NAM, in the group's final declaration, expressed unanimous support for the controversial Iranian nuclear energy program and berated U.S.-led Western sanctions regime aimed at throttling the Iranian nuclear ambitions.

In a week during which a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency underscored once again Iran's attempt in recent months to rapidly accelerate its uranium enrichment capacity, it was extraordinary to see a large body of the international community taking Iran's defense of its nuclear ambitions at face value. The U.N. Security Council has been asking Iran to cease all uranium enrichment to allay suspicions that it is seeking the ability to make nuclear weapons.

In an attempt to force Iran's hand, the Security Council and the West have imposed stringent sanctions, though it has had little impact on Iranian behavior. The nuclear issue has become a symbol of Iranian nationalism and the political class in Iran have been using it to mobilize political support.

Yet, even as Iran was able to secure the backing of NAM for its nuclear program, no such support was forthcoming for Bashar Assad's government in Syria, Iran's main ally in west Asia.

Rebels backed by major powers in the Middle East, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have been battling the Assad regime, which is backed by Iran, for control of towns and cities across the country.

Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi, was categorical in his speech at the NAM meeting in decrying the Syrian government's attempt to brutally crush the rebellion, thereby reflecting broad Arab support for the insurgency in Syria.

A majority of NAM members had already voted to condemn the Syrian regime at the United Nations. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also ended up vitiating the climate for Tehran by asking Ayatollah Khamenei to release all political prisoners.

The NAM summit was merely an attempt by Iran to garner legitimacy for a regime that is becoming increasingly unpopular at home and isolated globally.

In this context, the Indian performance at the NAM summit was disturbing. The U.N. secretary general and the Egyptian president stood up for their convictions, but the Indian prime minister failed to even articulate a coherent position based on the imperatives of Indian national interest.

This was not really surprising as increasing Indian domestic political demands have imposed significant costs on the management of India's external relations.

India has very little in common with the majority of the members of NAM, and New Delhi is forced to extol the virtues of NAM primarily for domestic political compulsions. The world has changed, Indian foreign policy priorities have changed, and yet some of the best and brightest in the Indian foreign policy establishment want to resurrect nonalignment as Non-Alignment 2.0.

Despite what some might suggest, NAM was of limited utility to India even during the heyday of the Cold War. It became overtly hostile to the West as it lined up to support Moscow on issue after issue during the Cold War. For India, this much-touted Third World solidarity was of little use during major times of crises. Yet, New Delhi persists with its fascination with NAM even as the leaders of Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Sudan continue to add luster to the glowing credentials of NAM.

An organization that was founded to rail against the establishment now finds itself in a unique situation where some of its long-time members like India are being touted as the ones likely to shape the new global order. It is this contradiction that New Delhi will have to deal with in the coming years. Given its performance in Tehran, it is difficult to be confident of India's ability to transcend its attraction to nonalignment.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to Tehran with a 250-member delegation but had very little show for it in the end. After suggesting that a nuclear Iran is not in India's national interest, Singh seemed to go backward at the NAM summit, addressing the question of Iranian nuclear weapons.

On Syria, he continued to peddle the nonsensical idea of a Syrian-led solution. What Syrian-led solution can emerge in an environment where the ruling regime is fighting for its survival and has lost all credibility with the rebels?

Since the Tehran gathering, India has emerged as a weak, defensive power unable to articulate its vital interests and, therefore, in no way ready to shape the emerging global balance of power.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College London.

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