A session on global risks at the annual Delhi conference of the World Economic Forum (WEF) was jolted out of a discussion on demography and health this morning when Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India, warned that the country’s economic growth could be derailed by a looming crisis over Iran’s nuclear weaponry.
Delhi and Mumbai could become targets for a nuclear attack, he said.
“I’m not forecasting a war but we are going down that river by about four knots,” declared Blackwill, who became deputy national security adviser to Condoleezza Rice after he gave up his ambassador’s post in India in 2003. He now works as a consultant and is president of Barbour Griffiths and Rogers in Washington.
Speaking before news emerged in Washington that intelligence agencies now suggest Iran may have halted its nuclear weapons as early as 2003, he said that a U.S. attack would lead to “a long war……alienate the Islamic world…… and increase terrorism globally.” On the other hand, if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, it would “change the world.” Other Sunni states would acquire weapons and India would be “a prime target,” with the “risk of nuclear attacks on Delhi and Mumbai.”
India has of course been building up its own nuclear capability for 30 years, because it feels vulnerable in the long-term to a nuclear attack from China, and maybe in the shorter term from Pakistan. But Blackwill’s warning significantly widened the risk into the unknown.
“Within the next year or two, this president (of the United States) or the next president might face a decision to attack Iran’s military and nuclear facilities, with disastrous results, or acquiesce in Iran becoming a nuclear state,” he told the conference.
Later he said to me that there would be a “binary choice for the president to pull the trigger or acquiesce” in Iran’s nuclear arms capability, unless sanctions become “much stronger.”
That apocalyptic analysis from a former diplomat, who is well known in India for speaking his mind, usually in support of the country and its future, silenced most commentators at the conference. But Shamsher Mehta, director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said he would look differently at what was often regarded as a “clash of civilizations.”
Hinting that the United States and other western powers should handle Iran differently, he said that “India represents an opportunity for a confluence of civilizations”.
Mehta, who is a retired army general, was reflecting the fact that India does not want a possible nuclear energy deal that it is considering with the United States, to force it to give up decades of friendly relations with Iran. It also wants to complete an agreement with Iran on a gas pipeline, which the United States opposes.
Blackwill introduced the Iran issue by pointing out that India’s annual economic growth rate of 8-9% was vulnerable to the risk of rising oil prices. He referred to an Asian Development Bank report, which said that for every US$10 hike in oil prices, India’s growth rate would be cut by 1%. So if oil were to hit US$150 per barrel, India’s growth could plummet to a “disastrous” 3-4%.
He was speaking at a conference session on six areas of risk to India’s economic future. Apart from the Iran and oil, the most serious risks were linked with India’s large population and health prospects. A report at the conference pointed out that, while India had 18% of the world’s population, it had only 4% of its water resources – with deteriorating ground water supply systems and dangerously polluted rivers. HIV and AIDS plus tuberculosis killed large numbers of people, and malaria was more prevalent than in neighboring Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
For India, the difference between these health risks and the Iran risk is that it could do a lot on its own to improve water supplies and reduce the growth of killer diseases. But it is nowhere near doing enough, mainly because of corrupt fractured governance with responsibilities split between Delhi and individual states.
On Iran, it could also do a lot to temper growing aggression in the US, acting as an intermediary between Iran and the West and aiming at Mehta’s “confluence of civilizations.” Till now however, India has failed to rise to such diplomatic challenges, partly because it has neither the self confidence to speak out internationally, nor the diplomatic skills to mediate.
Critics in India who fear that the proposed nuclear deal would make the country a client state of the United States, would have less to worry about if India became visibly involved in Blackwill’s looming crisis and insisted that it should stay close to Iran in the next crucial year or two, as well as striking deals with the United States. The question is whether India could master such “confluence.”