A few days ago, the Ayatollah crossed a line.
In an open call to action, Ayatollah Syed Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, declared that "no virtue is better than rescuing nations from the demonic clutches of hegemonic powers, and no vice is worse than depending on and serving hegemonic powers." The nations that, according to the Ayatollah, needed rescuing were first Palestine, but also Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Kashmir. By including Kashmir in that list, he breached the defensive perimeter of India's foreign policy.
See, the Indian politician -- as opposed to the Indian strategic analyst -- doesn't care much on what other countries say and do in other countries. India's political leaders are seldom consumed by the strategic implications of Iran's nuclear shenanigans, its support for Hezbollah and other terrorist groups and even its longstanding confrontation of the United States. When it comes to foreign affairs, you are likely to find them thinking and acting on the logic of what doesn't kill us this afternoon doesn't concern us at all. But when someone like the Supreme Leader of Iran encourages the Muslim Ummah to rescue the Kashmiri people from India's "demonic clutches", they sit up.
So New Delhi decided to call in Iran's acting Ambassador and give him an extremely polite earful over tea and Good Day biscuits. In Diplomatese, this is called a "serving a demarche". And because the Ayatollah's comment was the third time in recent months that senior Iranian officials had poked India in the eye, New Delhi also refused to support Iran in a pointless UN vote over human rights. In an action that was more polite than extreme, New Delhi...abstained. In Diplomatese, this is called "a carefully calibrated response".
Waiting for three strikes before responding is being Very, Very, Nice, and is a good approach. Results from game theory simulations show that being nice before delivering tit-for-tat is one of the best ways to convince someone of the wisdom of co-operation. It's unclear if the carefully calibrated approach registered on the Ayatollah -- and I would have preferred a deliberately over-the-top response -- but as far as theory goes, this was the correct type of response.
That said, our Iran strategy itself remains unable to free itself entirely from the shadow of the 30-year-old Iran-US confrontation. India and Iran share common interests, not least over Afghanistan. Actually, so does the United States. It speaks to Washington's strategic dogma that almost ten years into the Afghan war, the United States still relies on supply routes through Pakistan. That not only means al-Faida for the military-jihadi complex, it allows General Ashfaq Kayani to squeeze the US & NATO war effort at will. (Yeah, we know, it's the Pakistan Taliban that burn NATO supply trucks). The United States did find an alternative route through Central Asia and Russia, but being long and expensive, it can only be supplementary. Washington wears a blindfold that prevents it from seeing the merits of supplying its troops through Iran.
Sure, there are a thousand reasons why this will dismissed as an unrealistic pipe dream. But when the only way you can supply your troops is by paying your enemy's friends to truck them for you, it's time for you to jettison dogmas and abandon failed approaches. For a time it appeared that the Obama administration might do just that. But those in Iran who'd lose out from improved ties with the United States -- Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad -- didn't allow that to happen. It's back now to nuclear hide-and-seek, endless negotiations, admonitions, military threats and sanctions that are unlikely to prevent Iran from developing its own nuclear weapons.
For over two years now, I have argued that it is in India's interests to lubricate a rapprochement between the United States and Iran. We have good relations with both and there are realists in both Washington and Tehran who see the merits of improving relations. It might be too much for a "Nixon-in-China" type of policy reversal, but it is possible for the two to take baby steps and try co-operating in areas of interests. As K Subrahmanyam has argued, "there does not appear to be an intermediary to facilitate an Iran-West dialogue which can lead to the resolution of the [nuclear] issue. In a sense, India is in a position to play that role."
Why should India bother? Not only because such attempts at international statesmanship are in our interests, but because not doing so will increasingly impose unpleasant decisions on New Delhi: support the US on ineffective UN sanctions and invite retaliation from Iran, or support Iran and create unnecessary suspicions in Washington. There is a limit to how long we can keep abstaining, especially when New Delhi's longstanding wish to be on the UN Security Council comes true. Either way, as long as the US and Iran remain bitter antagonists, Iranian politics will empower people like Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Ahmedinejad. Who can say that the Ayatollah's mention of Kashmir was and will always be limited to rhetoric, not least when exporting the Islamic revolution is state policy?
On the other hand, India stands to gain if US-Iran relations enter into a positive trajectory. Our relations with the Arab states south of the Persian Gulf suffer from a lack of leverage. That leverage can come if Iran returns to the international mainstream. India, Iran and Russia have an important stake in ensuring Afghanistan doesn't fall into the hands of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. So does the United States. There will certainly be quarters in Tehran that are committed to Islamist separatism in Kashmir, but their power will weaken when the Islamic Republic has more at stake in maintaining good relations with India.
What about that nasty business of Iran's nuclear programme? The geopolitical costs of stopping the Iranians from building a nuclear weapon are so huge that no one, not even the Israeli government, wants to pick up the tab. It makes a lot of sense, therefore, to manage the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran. For that it is necessary to engage Iran as it is, and not live under the fanciful notion that an externally-driven regime change is somehow around the corner.
For the United States and Israel as much for India, it's not about getting rid of the Ayatollah. It's about ensuring that he doesn't cross the line.
Nitin Pai is founder & fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. He blogs at The Acorn and is active on Twitter too.