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Afghan-Pakistan thaw faces acid test

These are early days to be conclusive that the Peshawar school attack by Pakistan Taliban on Tuesday would be turned into a game changer by Pakistan’s civil and military leaderships to work together to crush the militant groups.

Be that as it may, what comes under the limelight in immediate terms is the alchemy of the Afghan-Pakistan relationship, which would have crucial bearing on the effectiveness of continued Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan.

The departure of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai from the political arena led to some improvement in the Afghan-Pakistan relations. Under President Ashraf Ghani Kabul has made overtures to Islamabad in the recent months – and vice versa.

Simply put, the air in Afghan-Pakistani relations has been clearing , albeit slowly and steadily. Now, the Peshawar attack puts to acid test these nascent positive signs.

The Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif rushed to Kabul on Wednesday, accompanied by the head of the ISI Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, for talks with Ghani on the security situation along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and specifically to seek Kabul’s cooperation in tracking down the Pakistani Taliban leader Fazlullah who is allegedly located inside Afghanistan.

The crisply worded statement from Rawalpindi on Gen. Sharif’s Kabul visit mentioned that “Vital elements of intelligence were shared… with regard to Peshawar incident” and Ghani assured Gen. Sharif that “Afghan soil will not be allowed for terrorist activities against Pakistan and any signature found in this regard will be immediately eliminated.”

It said Gen. Sharif also assured Ghani of “full support… in all spheres including joint efforts against terrorists” as well as “complete support in eliminating terrorist in his area of responsibility.”

The Afghan media reports on the meeting quoted Ghani as saying that the time was ripe for taking decisive action against militancy; both Afghanistan and Pakistan should earnestly decide to eradicate terror; and that Kabul is willing “to act independently and jointly against terrorist groups.”

There is nothing very new in what Ghani reportedly said. However, interestingly, according to one Afghan report, Ghani seemed to have compared the Peshawar attack to the incidents in Yahya Khel district of Paktika province and Estiqlal high school in Kabul where innocent children and youths were targeted.

It is highly improbable that Kabul will accept any ‘hot pursuit’ operations by the Pakistani military on Afghan soil. Equally, it is to be expected that Kabul will watch closely whether there is a genuine paradigm shift in the Pakistani thinking, translating as reciprocal willingness on the part of the Pakistani military to cooperate in curbing the terrorist strikes by the Afghan Taliban groups as well.

The suspicions regarding Pakistani intentions are far too deeply rooted in the Afghan mindset and even Ghani, who is relatively favorably disposed toward Pakistan, cannot be impervious to that. In fact, Ghani himself is currently grappling with a surge in (Afghan) Taliban attacks.

Ghani is yet to complete the revamping (or ‘purge’) of the Afghan intelligence, which under Karzai was packed with operatives who were very hostile toward the Pakistani military. The Pakistani military suspected that these elements within the Afghan intelligence have consorted with the Indian security agencies and secretly promoted the Pakistani Taliban groups.

Therefore, the remarks by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah while speaking in Kabul yesterday (following Gen. Sharif’s rushed visit)  assume significance. He seemed to suggest that Kabul’s approach should be riveted on an attitude of ‘all-or-nothing’ – that is to say, Kabul should not accept the Pakistani military’s differentiation between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban.

Suffice it to say, the backlog of trust deficit is so very formidable that the incipient signs of improvement in Afghan-Pakistani relations in the recent period risk getting blighted prematurely following the Peshawar school attack.

The Pakistani military will surely view Ghani’s response as the touchstone of his sincerity to cooperate and his ability to ‘deliver’, while the Afghan president would genuinely have his limitations, given the inchoate nature of the national unity government in Kabul.

To be sure, Washington faces a huge politico-military challenge here. In political terms, it no doubt hopes to ensure that the nascent Afghan-Pakistani ‘thaw’ in the recent period stays on course and even gathers momentum.

At the same time, the US also intends to encourage (from behind the scene) the Pakistani military leadership to continue with the operations in North Waziristan and even intensify them in the coming weeks and months (the efficacy of which will, however, largely depend on coordinated actions on the Afghan side of the border.)

On its part, Pakistan will expect Washington to lean on Ghani to cooperate in smashing up the Pakistani Taliban. The Afghans on the other hand do not have the confidence that the US will be able to get the Pakistani military to reciprocate by reining in the Afghan Taliban groups.

In fact, the Afghans have had a dismal experience in this regard, which often accounted for Karzai’s embittered remarks regarding the US policies. Most certainly, Karzai had a point insofar as the US policy to ‘incentivize’ the Pakistani military by providing financial aid and weapons – amounting to an estimated $18 billion through past decade – has not so far had the desired outcome. In reality, the Pakistani generals walked away laughing with a sense of triumphalism.

But having said that, what is the alternative course available for the Obama administration to influence the Pakistani military? The Islamic State introduces ever new compulsions for the US to remain engaged with Pakistan, which is a big Sunni Muslim state in turmoil buffeted by ‘Islamism’ (which also happens to be a nuclear power with a highly strategic geographic location.) This is one thing.

Second, while the US’ inducements to the Pakistani military might not have worked in the past – or, only worked up to a limited extent and episodically – the US threats and coercive methods invariably proved counter-productive and only helped to send the Pakistani generals’ back up.

At the end of the day, it has been a tragicomic tale of the tail wagging the dog – most of time so far, at least.

The unprecedented fortnight-long visit by Gen Sharif to the US recently seemed to give the impression that the American side views him in a far more favorable light in comparison with his distinguished predecessor Gen. Ashfaq Kayani who proved to be a tough interlocutor with an enigmatic mind that the Americans never quite fathomed.

How Gen. Sharif goes about in the downstream of the Peshawar attack will, therefore, be a litmus test of the US’ assessments of him as the general they can do business with in Rawalpindi.

Significantly, Gen. Sharif’s only meeting in Kabul other than with Ghani yesterday was with US General John Campbell, who heads the NATO forces in Afghanistan. It brings the US right on to the forecourt of the delicately poised Afghan-Pakistani ties.

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Modi revisits Pakistan narrative

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phone call to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to convey his deep condolences for the loss of lives in the Peshawar school attack yesterday constitutes a profoundly meaningful mark of solidarity. Modi has shown statesmanship of the highest order by holding Sharif’s hands.

On the other hand, Modi’s unprecedented decision that schools all over India shall observe two minutes of silence today in memory of the victims of the brutal terrorist attack in Pakistan also sends a complex message within the country itself.

Actually, we are seeing a facet of Modi’s political personality that was not supposed to exist, according to common folklore. Taken together, therefore, Modi made an overture to Pakistan thoughtfully and with foresight.

Conceivably, the terrorist attack in Peshawar could turn out to be the tipping point for Pakistan to get its act together, finally, in clamping down on terrorist groups.

It is in India’s interest to encourage Pakistan to decisively move in that direction. India should not only work with other countries – especially, the United States, China, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan – in a team spirit in this regard but also solicit their sustained and constructive engagement with Pakistan in the interests of regional security and stability.

Indeed, evidence is piling by the day that the Islamic State is slouching toward the region. Modi would know that in today’s world there is nothing like ‘absolute security’ for India.

The point is, India and Pakistan are sailing in the same boat and many in our country do not yet realize it or refuse to countenance the very thought. Ironically, it has been left to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz to examine with understanding the extremely complicated security environment through which Pakistan has had to navigate its regional policies.

To be sure, Modi has punctuated the Indian narrative, which has been increasingly revisionist of late as regards what India can and cannot (or should not) do vis-à-vis Pakistan.

His intervention opens a new window of opportunity to resume the dialogue track. Of course, there are diehard elements in both countries who may not want to see that happening, and, therefore, the opportunity should be seized quickly.

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A (mild) thaw in US-Russia ties

On Friday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution regarding the new non-combat, training, advisory and assistance mission that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] proposes to undertake in Afghanistan from next year.

Russia had consistently demanded that the NATO mission in Afghanistan ought to have a UN SC mandate. For Moscow, a big principle is involved here insofar as the UN Charter and international law should guide all such interventions and the western alliance should comply with the established practice.

Moscow suspects that there has been an invidious project to project the NATO as a global security organization that may work outside the UN Charter.

Evidently, the US relented and Russia and the United States found themselves on the same page. This is happening when Russian-American relations are at a low point.

But then, Afghanistan is far too important a topic for international security that lends itself to polemic. The UN SC resolution requires NATO to report back periodically to New York its work in progress, enables Russia to review such reports and opinionate on the score card and, in turn, it ensures Moscow’s cooperation in making available the Northern Distribution Network for the NATO powers to ferry supplies for the alliance’s forces in Afghanistan.

The Indian pundits must be surprised how such bonhomie could exist between Washington and Moscow at the UN SC on the very same day (Friday) in New York when the US state department mildly censored Delhi for doing ‘business’ with Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India.

Plainly put, that’s how the international system works, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi not only understood it perfectly well but has also been prescient about the imperatives of a Russian-American working relationship sooner rather than later, and of course the transitory nature of the current chill in Russia’s relations with the West.

Modi, therefore, acted wisely by going to such extraordinary length to assert India’s independent foreign policies and to uphold its national interests. With a foresight rare in Indian diplomacy, Modi acted to revive and strengthen the India-Russia “strategic privileged partnership”.

Coming back to the UN SC resolution on Friday, all indications are that it might not be a mere flash in the pan — an isolated instance of Russian-American working relationship.

The early reports on the meeting between the US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, rather unusual for a Sunday, at the American Embassy Residence in Rome suggest that an urgent need has arisen for the Obama administration to seek the Kremlin’s cooperation in the Middle East crisis.

The fact of the matter is that the Sydney café siege underscores beyond any doubt that the dalliances between the US’ regional allies and the extremist Islamist groups in Syria have spun out of control.

A Daily Mail report identifies that the Shahada flag displayed in the Sydney café belongs to Jabhat al Nusra, an extremist group operating in Syria, which, ironically enough, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel had fostered or patronized at various times.

The Lavrov-Kerry meeting on Sunday presumably focused on the Middle East situation. The DebkaFile, a news agency with links to Israeli intelligence, estimates that the Obama administration may be sensing by now that the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria is actually a factor of stability in the prevailing critical situation and this in turn would put the US and Russia “on the same side, a step toward mending the fences between them after the profound rupture over Ukraine.”

Be that as it may, the upshot of all this could be that the Russian plan to convene a meeting of the Syrian parties in Moscow may be gaining traction, after all, and Washington may be lending support to it from behind the scene.

The underlying factor favoring these positive trends is also to be noted in terms of the cooling of tensions over Ukraine. The ceasefire that came into effect on Thursday in eastern Ukraine is holding and Moscow is nudging Kiev and the separatists to implement the Minsk accord and commence discussion regarding a federated country.

True, the US Congress has notionally passed a resolution on tougher sanctions against Russia, but it is highly unlikely that in the emergent situation in international security, Obama will want to alienate Russia further by imposing more sanctions. Obama also would know that Europe is not willing to impose more sanctions against Russia, either. The Europeans, all in all, see the move by the US Congress as a shadow play in American domestic politics.

A thaw in the frosty ties between the US and Russia at this point needs to be understood in terms of the failed American policies on Syria as a result of which the West’s security is in jeopardy. The hostage crisis in Sydney becomes a defining moment. Read a candid analysis here on the failed policy of ‘regime change’ in Syria.

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Iran hemmed in by Western presence

A little over a week since formalizing the establishment of a military base east of Suez in Bahrain, London has announced that British troops after returning to Iraq after a five-year interlude. The British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon disclosed the plan in an exclusive weekend interview with the Telegraph newspaper.

The issue is sensitive in the British opinion, and, unsurprisingly, Fallon underplayed the news, saying the deployment will be in “the very low hundreds”, that the UK force will be training Iraqi army and the Kurdish militia to fight the Islamic State [IS] and that a small “force protection” deployment of combat-ready soldiers is also expected to be sent to defend the military training teams.

Fallon resorted to some quibbling with words since Britain’s Iraq war wounds are not yet healed. Yet, the Daily Mail reported that a force up to 100 British Paras is being sent “to join the battle” against the IS and that the generals in White Hall are pretty much pleased that Britain is back in business in Mesopotamia.

What can be said beyond doubt is that the establishment of the British base in Bahrain and the deployment in Iraq emanate out of close coordination between London and Washington. An FT analysis pondered that Britain is steeping in so that the US can pay more attention to its ‘pivot’ strategy in Asia.

For sure, we could be witnessing the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The point is, Germany also announced on Thursday that it is sending about a hundred military personnel to Iraq and that “other [western] nations will participate, including Italy, the Netherlands and some Scandinavian nations.”

Again, the Pentagon announced on Friday a plausible timeline for a Syria plan within which 5000 rebels will be trained and equipped to fight the IS in Iraq and Syria.

One big question will be, Is it a “mission creep” that would eventually morph into a deployment under the flag of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]? But a second big question is, which is not unrelated and is more in focus will be, How the Western deployments mesh with Iran’s role in Iraq and Syria?

The US is doing some tight-rope walking. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel most certainly took his Israeli counterpart Moshe Ya’alon into confidence in a phone call on Friday. The readout said the fight against the IS and a range of related issued figured and both sides stressed the “strength of the US-Israeli security relationship.”

Indeed, Iran, too, is riding many horses simultaneously and which one is going to surge time only will show. For one thing, the Iranian role in fighting the IS has become quite significant. In fact, the right-wing pro-Israeli ‘regional experts’ in the US think tank circuit, here, and the Gulf Arab commentators, here, have begun sounding alarm bells by voicing wild apprehensions that Iran is ‘dominating’ Iraq and the Obama administration is to be blamed for that.

Of course, Tehran is openly acknowledging its role in Iraq and is in turn being assertive about it of late.

All indictions are that Tehran realizes that a strong Western commitment to fight the IS is in Iran’s interest. Iran and the US are consulting each other on the IS threat. On the other hand, Iran still lacks the trust and confidence as regards the US’ intentions behind its renewed intervention in Iraq.

In political terms, pending an accord on the nuclear issue, Iran cannot afford to be explicit about cooperating and coordinating with the US in the fight against the IS.

Traditionally, Iran’s approach in such delicate situations will be to engage even more actively on the plane of ‘public diplomacy’. It hosted a major Track II conference last week in Tehran with delegates from 40 countries to discuss the IS threat.

Apart from the sustained contacts with the western countries, which is a regular feature of Iranian diplomacy, the nuclear negotiations as such have provided a convenient forum, sequestered from public view, for exchange of views with the US on regional issues such as Iraq.

The American and Iranian diplomats will be spending a lot of time together again next week. Last Tuesday, Tehran hosted a foreign-minister level meeting with Iraq and Syria. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is expected to visit Tehran on coming Wednesday.

Interestingly, Tehran has taken in its stride the establishment of the British base in Bahrain — although, Iran and Imperial Britain had a difficult history of confrontation. Suffice it to say, it cannot be lost on Tehran that while the naval base could enhance Britain’s capability to undertake operations against the IS, London has made it clear that the UK will use its increased regional presence to cooperate with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors on security, which cannot but factor in their profound disquiet over the surge in Iran’s regional influence.

A penetrating interview by the RT with Iran’s interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli (who visited Moscow last week) brings out that Tehran faces acute contradictions in the regional environment even as its is poised to integrate with the West very shortly. Fazli was in denial mood, predictably, with the quick-witted RT interviewer pursuing him relentlessly.

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Iran nuclear deal within grasp

The US-Iranian negotiations for a nuclear deal are slated to resume on Monday amidst growing optimism that this could be the end of the year-long endgame under way, and an accord is in sight, finally. The US secretary of state John Kerry recently said that the effort will be to reach an accord even before the extended deadline of end-June.

The target is to reach a political agreement by March 1, 2015 and a comprehensive agreement by July 1. To be sure, if there was any disappointment that the deal couldn’t be struck yet after intense talks began an year ago, that has dispelled. The mood in Tehran bazaar is “bullish”, according to New York Times, sensing that a deal with the US is in the works.

The main reason for this growing optimism is that the two sides have a good idea by now of each other’s ‘red lines’ and also the grey area where give-and-take is possible. In sum, there is no more a need for brinkmanship or grandstanding.

A first-hand American account captured the increasingly relaxed mood: “At a human level it’s very interesting to watch the evolution of these talks. Slightly more than a year ago, it was impossible to imagine that the parties [US and Iranian diplomats] would mingle with each other in such a relaxed manner and would call each other “Hey Bob” and “Hey Abbas”. They bump into each other at the breakfast buffet and joke about the watery scrambled eggs or the giant chocolate croissants. Obviously the Iranians avoid pork and alcohol, but they share everything else. There may not be trust at the political level but there now is significant trust at a personal level. They’ve spent so many hours with each other that now they are intimately familiar with one another’s body language and mood. In the last days in Vienna, even the U.S. and Iranian foreign ministers were meeting alone, as they no longer felt the need for the EU mediator.”

The respective ‘red lines’ are: a) Iran insists on the right to industrial-scale nuclear enrichment and wants sanctions to be lifted and not merely suspended; b) the US wants the ‘breakout time’ (time needed for Iran to develop one nuclear weapon) to be not less than a year and is eager to retain in some measure the leverage of sanctions to ensure Iran’s commitment to any deal.

Besides, new salients have appeared. For sure, the US and Iran are already working together (without acknowledging so) to ease regional tensions in the Middle East, which in turn instills mutual confidence at the negotiating table.

Second, the US’ ‘partners’ within the P5+1 (European allies, Russia and China) are eager to settle the Iran nuclear issue and move on with Iran’s full integration with the international community.

Third, steadily, an Iranian domestic consensus has formed as regards the imperative need to resolve the nuclear issue. Fourth, there is, possibly, a certain easing of Israeli opposition to an Iran deal (that is, any deal that allows Iran’s enrichment program to continue in any form).

Five, and most important, a breakdown of the talks becomes in reality a ‘non-option’. On the one hand, Europeans and Russia and China have had enough of Iran’s sanctions, while on the other hand, the US (and Israel) simply lacks the capacity to stage a military attack against Iran with impunity.

Finally, at least for the present, the Obama administration is not allowing itself to be held hostage by the US’ Gulf Arab allies – Saudi Arabia, in particular – and has not embarked on a direct confrontation with the Syrian regime (which would upset the apple cart.) See  an excellent round-up of the overall state of play by the International Crisis Group’s Iran Senior Analyst Ali Vaez.

Some of this may have begun rubbing on the US Congress, which, according to conventional wisdom, is under the Israeli thumb and/or is itching to somehow deny President Barack Obama a historic foreign-policy legacy.

At any rate, there are incipient signs that the Congress is opting for a pragmatic approach and sidestepping the route of imposing any more sanctions to pressure Iran. The Congress is strengthening its oversight by legislating that there ought to be formalized reporting and information sharing by the Administration regarding the negotiations but, interestingly, not insisting an immediate ‘up-or-down’ vote in the Congress following the negotiation of an accord with Iran.

Equally, there is a groundswell of circumspection among lawmakers regarding new sanctions that would have curtailed the US diplomats’ ability to strike a nuclear deal. At any rate, the 113th Congress is winding up without passing new Iran sanctions. Therefore, in diplomatic terms, as an AP report assessed last week, the US diplomats would have “a short window to negotiate unimpeded by Congress.”

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Time is right for US to help Ukraine

There is delightful irony that the US state department has advised the Indian leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that it is not the right time for “business as usual” with Russia.

The US spokesperson Marie Harf reportedly said at a briefing in Washington on Friday, “We’ve seen press reporting on India concluding business, nuclear and defence deals with Russia, but not confirmation of those agreements or specifics of what those agreements would entail. Our view remains that it’s not time for business as usual with Russia.”

Ironically, even as Harf spoke, reports appeared that Ukraine’s economy is nearing bankruptcy and an urgent need may arise for Kiev to begin negotiations to restructure its debts.

The irony is that it is Russia among the donor countries that has by far lent most money to salvage the Ukrainian economy in the last couple of years. The total Russian commitment of funds to Ukraine comes to around $32 billion.

Such is the crisis facing the US-backed Ukrainian government that European Union ministers are considering petitioning Russia to roll over its $3 billion loan to Ukraine last year, despite EU (and US) sanctions against Moscow.

Ukraine’s reserves have fallen below $10 billion, its lowest point in a decade according to the Wall Street Journal. Ukraine immediately needs an urgent bailout of $15 billion from international donors. The shortfall comes after the GDP contracted by close to 10 percent. The country is in deep trouble.

Where does Russia come in? At the end of last year, Russia bought $3 billion worth Ukrainian Treasury bonds with the proviso that the total volume of that country’s state-guaranteed debt should not exceed 60 percent of its annual GDP. If that ceiling is breached, Moscow can legally demand urgent repayments. Well, according to a debt sustainability analysis by the Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Ukraine’s baseline debt-to-GDP ratio is creeping toward 90 percent of the GDP.

Suffice it to say, it has to be “business as usual” for Europe with Russia. And the Obama administration, which is gratuitously advising the Modi government over India’s relations with Russia, will simply look away.

The alternative for Obama is to help Ukraine pay off its debts to Russia. Will he do that? No way. When it comes to money, Washington is very stingy. President Barack Obama has been extremely miserly in helping the Ukrainian regime that took over following the US-sponsored coup last February.

When the Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko went on a state visit to Washington in September, Obama spread the red carpet and the visitor even addressed a joint session of the US Congress. But at the end of the day, Poroshenko returned home with the pocket money of $53 million that Obama gave.

Actually, the US’ “support” for Ukraine is laughable and it speaks volumes about Obama’s style of diplomacy — lavish in stirring rhetoric. The actual help given by the Obama administration to Ukraine in money comes to $291 million. Yes, $291 million during the whole of this year since the ‘regime change’ in Ukraine in February following the US-sponsored overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich. Cheapskates?

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Run, Obama, run

The US President Barack Obama is unbeatable among world statesmen when it comes to saying sweet nothings with passionate intensity. It’s something of his trademark in international diplomacy. His great erudition and command of language helps him. Obama’s forthcoming visit to India next month may see him scaling new heights in rhetoric.

The benchmark he last set was that the US-India relationship is a “defining partnership of the 21st century.” How he is going to better that resonant rhetoric will be fun to watch.

But there is going to be a bigger challenge facing Obama than coming up with seductive rhetoric. The point is, his visit is going to be compared with the visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

By all accounts, Putin’s visit was a big success. The Indian officials reportedly mentioned to the media that the deals signed in diverse areas – oil exploration, infrastructure, nuclear energy, defence and diamonds – could be worth anywhere around $100 billion.

Now, even if only half of that figure becomes the sum total of the business outcome of Putin’s visit in money terms, it surely signifies something phenomenal – namely, that Indian diplomacy is coming of age and knows what to look for in high-level visits.

Traditionally, high-level visits were treated by Delhi as big protocol events. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi is introducing purposiveness and accountability to the Indian diplomacy. The Indian pundits had better get used to the new yardstick to assess the dynamic of India’s bilateral ties with foreign countries.

This brings us back to Obama’s visit. Expectations are rising against the backdrop of Putin’s visit. As I wrote earlier, Will Obama come bearing gifts?

No, not gifts of even bigger dollops of dizzying rhetoric, but in terms of solid outcome that can be assessed in money terms – plainly put, an outcome that meets the needs of aspirational India and Modi’s development agenda alike. We would like to know, for example, how many jobs Obama can help create — in India.

The Indian pundits and think tankers are very good at preparing America’s wish list during the high-level exchanges. For a change, shouldn’t they ponder about the business and investment the US can provide for Modi’s India?

If nothing else, elementary patriotism would demand from them some such homework.

To be sure, Obama needs to run a lot faster to catch up with his peer group in Japan, China and Russia to match what they offered India during their interaction with Modi in recent months.

Of course, Obama’s meeting with Modi in the White House in late September was an occasion to get acquainted. But now that the process is over, Mr. President, we need to look for ‘deliverables’.

And they should be tangible ‘deliverables’ that are quantifiable in money terms. India under Modi is steadily getting used to the idea that getting rich is a desirable objective for the country.

However, alas, so far the indications are not good. Obama is merely treading the trodden path of flattering the Indian leadership – lavishly praising Modi every now and then and encouraging him to jump still higher and clear the ever-rising bar of the cascading US expectations over India’s so-called ‘reforms’ that would generate more American exports to the Indian market and create more jobs in America.

But then, Modi knows even without Obama complimenting him that he is indeed ‘a man of action’. In fact, Modi takes pride in being a man of action. Read his election speeches.

Alas, Obama’s trademark rhetoric may prove insufficient to breathe new life into US-Indian relations. Putin’s visit underscored that Modi has set a new road map for India’s diplomacy.

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Saudi oil and the Shi’ite crescent

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s dramatic description of the recent decline in oil price as due to ‘Muslim treachery’ calls attention to Saudi Arabia’s motives. At a cabinet meeting in Tehran on Wednesday, he said, “The fall of crude prices is not merely an economic issue, rather it is the result of certain states’ political plot and planning.

“The decrease in oil price is a plot against the regional people and Muslims which merely serves the interests of some other countries. Certainly, people will react to such schemes and the countries which have hatched this plot should know that they have just increased the Muslim world’s hatred for themselves,” Rouhani added.

The many interpretations and conspiracy theories in vogue currently on the issue of the drop in oil price in the world market broadly fall into three categories. One, the phenomenon of oil price is attributable to the demand-supply situation prevailing in the world market – that is, a glut in supply has resulted due to increased production and fall in demand (due to slowing demand in China, Japan and Europe), and the plunge in oil price ensued.

Two, this is an invidious political plot hatched by the US and Saudi Arabia to weaken the Russian and Iranian economies. Three, what is happening is partly political and partly economic.

The second thesis is the most alluring, of course. Who wouldn’t like a conspiracy theory? However, the Russians and the Iranians themselves do not think that President Barack Obama has hatched a plot against them.

Moscow, despite its problems with Obama, sees through issues rationally and calmly and is disinclined to see his shadow behind every bush – that is, even despite Washington’s determination to fight Russia on the beaches, in the air and in the hills.

The Russian news agency Sputnik, in fact, just featured an incisive analysis to explain that the US shale gas industry is actually skating on thin ice if the current decline in oil price persists and, in turn, this may eventually bring the roof down on the American economy if the current ‘shale bubble’ meets the fate of the dotcom bubble and real estate bubble.

The Russian commentary just stopped short of making the point that the US and Russia have shared interests here – although, it is improbable that anyone in Washington is in a mood to listen to the sage Russian expert advice.

Interestingly, Rouhani too kept Uncle Sam out of the matter.  But, unlike the Russians who have been confabulating with the Saudis on the oil price issue to find common ground, he points the finger at Riyadh (without naming it explicitly) for deliberately hurting the Iranian economy.

There was a time when Iran would have most certainly brought in the ‘Great Satan’ somewhere into all this but then, times have changed. The US-Iranian engagement has gained traction. (On the crucial Afghan issue, Rouhani has been openly endorsing the US-backed national unity government in Kabul.) and it is entirely conceivable that while eating together or sipping tea in the corridor on the sidelines of their meetings, American and Iranian diplomats have exchanged notes on what is happening on the world oil market.

Besides, Tehran exudes cautious optimism that the 7-month extension of the nuclear negotiations could be leading to a resolution of the problem. In a report this week, the International Crisis Group broadly concurs with such an estimation, too – “Obstacles notwithstanding, there is a credible path to an agreement… Now that the fog has receded, the parties should move ahead quickly.”

Rouhani couldn’t have been propagandistic when he hit at a Saudi plot against Iran. The point is, he has been a long-time advocate of a Iran-Saudi rapproachment. Evidently, his patience is wearing thin that there are no signs of a change of thinking toward Iran in the Saudi calculus, which is still permeated by a strong antipathy bordering on hostility toward the prospect of Iran’s imminent integration with the international community.

Indeed, the Saudi-Iranian tango over oil price is not a new development. Books, in fact, have been written on the subject. (The Oil Kings: How the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East By Andrew Scott Cooper.)

A pivotal moment came when the Saudis replaced Iran (following the Islamic Revolution in 1978) as the principal power broker in the OPEC. It still becomes a debatable point, though, as to how far the US-backed Saudi ascendancy in the OPEC in the post-1973 period might actually have been contributory factor in the overthrow of the Shah of Iran (who was critically dependent on oil revenue for the massive urbanization program to transform and ‘modernize’ Iran.)

Suffice it to say, it is an entrenched belief in Riyadh that the Iranian regime’s popular legitimacy and social base is directly linked to its ability to provide a certain level of economic prosperity to the country.

In the prevailing regional milieu, there is the added factor that the Saudis are extremely worried about Iran’s surge as regional power and Tehran’s possible replacement of Riyadh as a key interlocutor for the US in the latter’s regional strategies. The Saudis are also rooted in the belief that Tehran is providing covert support to the Shi’ite empowerment in the region in such crucial theatres as Bahrain and Yemen, which have direct bearing on Saudi Arabia’s political economy.

Having said that, the big question is how much of a lethal blow the Saudis could be inflicting on the Iranian economy by keeping the oil prices low?

The fact of the matter is that Tehran anticipates a prolonged period when oil prices may remain low and is ably adjusting to the new reality. The Iranian budget which has been presented in the Majlis in Tehran last week suggests that the economy can absorb the body blow from the Saudis. Some indicators:

  • Despite a 28 percent decline in the base crude oil price, the budget projects only an 8% decline in oil and gas export revenues.
  • The defence and security expenditure increases by 32 percent ($12.6 billion).
  • Infrastructure expenditure will increase by 25 percent.
  • The economy has succeeded in reducing its dependence on oil income to somewhere around one-third of all income. Tax revenues and proceeds of privatization amply compensate for the shortfall in oil income, as non-oil exports have done well and are expected to register a 20% growth in the coming year. (See an analysis on the subject, here.)

Put differently, Tehran knows that time is working in its favor and the sanctions regime is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Ironically, the Western sanctions may have helped Iran to emerge as the only petrodollar state in the region with a diverse industrial base and indigenous military capabilities to safeguard its national security.

All in all, Saudis are immensely experienced in oil politics and their calculus would have several templates and most of them are interlocking. There is no denying that the global oil production is changing and the diminishing importance of the traditional producers is a cause of genuine concern.

Nonetheless, the Saudis have been explicit about their hostility toward Iran. The Financial Times reported this week the vignette of a private conversation between the US secretary of state John Kerry and a “senior Saudi official” and where the latter remarked, “ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] is our [Saudi] response to your [US] support for the Da’wa [Tehran-aligned ruling party of Iraq].” Read the FT commentary here.

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Who is afraid of IS defeat?

The outgoing US defence secretary Chuck Hagel who visited Baghdad on Tuesday profusely complimented the Iraqi government for gaining momentum in the fight against the Islamic State. It comes at a time when the American pundits think otherwise.

True, the IS juggernaut has virtually ground to a halt in Iraq since its June offensive. The Iraqi and Kurdish forces – helped in no small measure by the Iranians (and, some say, the Hezbollah) – have made gains, including securing Mosul dam. (By the way, there are reports that Baghdad is preparing to liberate Mosul from the IS.) There is reason to believe that the IS has been put on the defensive, struggling to hold what they gained.

Hagel, naturally, attributed all this to the help from the US-led coalition forces. But the Iraqis also seem to be getting their act together, finally. Baghdad has made it clear that with more training, advice, logistic support, heavy weaponry and air power, it is confident of its ability to turn the tide decisively against the IS.

All this must come as something of an embarrassment for the folks in Washington, especially President Barack Obama. Plainly put, Hagel lost his job for the wrong reasons.

The US’ main problem, actually, has not been an inept defence secretary who was insufficiently war-like, but its allies and their lobbies in the Washington establishment – principally, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

All these three Middle Eatsern countries see the IS through the prism of geopolitics and not as a manifestation of international terrorism. That is the crux of the matter. And Obama can do precious little to discipline them.

All three are fixated on the ‘regime change’ in Syria; Israel and Saudi Arabia also see the IS’ seamless potential to hurt Iran’s national security and its regional interests.

Turkey is on the verge of getting the Obama administration to accept its demand for imposing a ‘no-fly zone’ in northern Syria and has made this conditional on giving access to the Incirlik air base for US aircraft to carry out bombing raids in Iraq and Syria. Simply put, overthrowing the Syrian regime is PM Recep Erdogan’s priority — and, not vanquishing the IS.

It is in this context that the Israeli air strikes on the outskirts of Damascus need to be viewed. Conceivably, Israel has tested the Syrian air defence systems around Damascus on behalf of the US (and Turkey).

The point is, Syria has a well-trained air force and the neutralization of the Syrian air defence systems is an absolute pre-requisite for the imposition of the ‘no-fly zone’ in Syria and the induction of Turkish Special Forces into Syria.

Turkey has been repeatedly exposed for aiding and abetting the IS, while Israel has not so far come into the limelight. But that may change since the Syrian pot is once again boiling.

In fact, Israel has been indicted in a report this week by the UN Observer Mission on the Golan Heights for its strong cooperation with extremist groups, including the Syrian al-Qaeda group known as Jabhat al-Nusra.

Ironically, the UN observers have reported to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in their report that they’ve been forced to retreat from some of their positions so that they would be limited in their ability to observe the intercourse between the Israeli soldiers and the Syrian extremist groups.

Meanwhile, a top Kremlin aide in Moscow has openly alleged that Israeli intelligence too might have provided training to the IS. The US vice-president Joe Biden has earlier spoken in a controversial speech about the Turkish intelligence’s nefarious role in creating the IS.

It is entirely conceivable that Turkey, israel and Saudi Arabia are acting in tandem. All three countries will be loathe to see the IS degraded to this extent and so fast before the geopolitical objectives have been realized.

Unsurprisingly, their lobbies in the Washington beltway are frantic. At what point the Obama administration may buckle under the pressure of these formidable lobbies is anybody’s guess.

Significantly, the Obama administration is currently laying the groundwork with the Congress for a new authorization on the use of force against the IS, which would not “pre-emptively bind the hands of the commander-in-chief [President Obama]… in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are difficult to foresee” — to quote from Secretary of State John Kerry’s plea to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee not to expressly prohibit the deployment of US troops in Syria.

It stands to reason that Iran, Iraq and Syria are well aware of the underhand dealings between the US’ regional allies on the one hand and the IS on the other. On Tuesday, Tehran hosted a foreign-minister level meeting of the three countries, which aimed at not only strengthening the fight against the IS but also signal that the Iran-Baghdad-Damascus axis still remains a force to reckon with in regional politics.

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Putin pins hopes on Modi era

The Kremlin has released the transcript of the Russian president’s customary interview with the Indian national news agency PTI on the eve of the annual summit with the Indian leadership. This year’s interview is important from different angles – ‘regime change’ in India, the spectre of a new Cold War haunting the world order and ensuing realignments in regional and international politics and so on.

President Vladimir Putin spoke in his characteristic – almost trademark – ‘working style’, devoid of airy rhetoric. The interview was down-to-earth in its realism and practical content. But then, Putin practices politics as the art of the possible, and he is famous for his result-oriented approach to interaction with foreign statesmen.

Yet, he is known to be a great friend of India. Putin is none-too-pleased with the current state of the Russian-Indian relationship.

The grim reality is that trade declined last year and is just about touching $10 billion. The two main pillars of the relationship – defence and nuclear cooperation – are badly in need of strengthening.

The dysfunctional nature of the previous United Progressive Alliance [UPA] regime in its second term apart, the plain truth is that the Manmohan Singh government preferred the United States as the top source for arms procurements during the past 3-year period, relegating Russia to the second place.

No doubt, it was a strategic statement on India’s part, especially as it came as the culmination of a decade of UPA rule through which the Indian-Russian relationship steadily, inexorably atrophied.

Suffice it to say, Manmohan Singh subjected the India-Russia relationship to a sustained spell of benign neglect through a decade from which it today becomes a challenging task to recover.

His all-consuming passion for the United States left him with little enthusiasm or energy for Russia. The surest sign of this has been the weak Indian diplomatic representation in Moscow. No dynamism was possible in diplomacy; nor was it expected by Delhi.

The staccato tone of Putin’s interview, bereft of emotions, still captures poignantly a sense of hope and expectation that things may improve under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – “a reputable leader, who has already made a significant personal contribution to the promotion of the Russian-Indian cooperation”.

Interestingly, Putin singled out Atalji for his personal contribution to the Indo-Russian partnership – as well as by “the previous government formed by the Indian National Congress.”

Putin underlined that he will give “particular importance to the development of military and technical cooperation” in the direction of forging “close technological and industrial cooperation.” He anticipates “a completely different kind of transformation” from the “traditional producer-consumer mode to joint development and production of advanced weapon systems.”

Indeed, what emerges is that Modi’s ‘Make in India’ project attracts Russia.

Putin hardly discussed world politics. He will be aware that Washington is putting pressure on the Modi government to go slow in expanding relations with Russia. The wheel has come full circle.

There was a time when Washington used to pressure the government of Boris Yeltsin not to give cryogenic engines to India as that might enable India to take a leap forward in its space technology. Now the US wants India not to engage with Russia.

How far this dog-in-the-manger approach on the US’s part — in its self-interest, of course — will restrain Modi becomes a point of great interest this week as Putin arrives in Delhi on Thursday.

The US state department spokeswoman indulged in some megaphone diplomacy with the Modi government last Friday, putting the latter on notice that this is not a good time to do business with Putin’s Russia. Curiously, no one in South Block showed the gumption to give a rebuff to such a rude, unsolicited intrusion into India’s foreign policies.

To be sure, Washington feels encouraged to repeat the pressure tactic during the Manmohan Singh era when it brilliantly succeeded in snuffing out the India-Iran strategic partnership. Manmohan Singh simply caved in to the US pressure. But Modi is made of sterner stuff, hopefully. Read Putin’s interview here.

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