Shaping the neighbourhood

Issue 18 - Sep 2008
Nitin Pai

C Raja Mohan’s book, Crossing the Rubicon: The Shaping of India’s Foreign Policy remains one of the best introductions to the subject. In that, as well as his more recent Impossible Allies: Nuclear India, United States and the global order, Dr Raja Mohan’s mission is to “educate the reader in realpolitik and the enlightened national interest” making a powerful case for a realist foreign policy. He served as a member of the National Security Advisory Board (1998-2000) but most people perhaps best know him from his weekly newspaper columns, where he helps shape the national public discourse on India’s relations with the world.

Pragati spoke to Dr Raja Mohan on India and the emerging geopolitics of its neighbourhood.

A few weeks ago K Subrahmanyam argued that India should use its good relationships with both Iran and the United States to help them break the ice, because a rapprochement between the two is in India’s interests. Do you think that is possible and that India has the appetite for such a project?
The complex internal dynamics in Washington and Tehran, I believe, are too forbidding for any third party effort at mediation, let alone by India. We must remember that the US and Iran have had a relationship that has gone through many phases. The day they make up, they might not have much time for anyone else in the region. If you look back to the Reagan-era of the 1980s, the United States and Israel were reaching out to Iran directly. Now Barack Obama has stated that he would engage the Iranian leadership in a direct dialogue.

On our part, we should look beyond the current posturing in both Washington and New Delhi. Some in Washington believe the United States and Iran are forever enemies. Some in New Delhi might claim that Iran has always been a great partner for India. Neither is true. Quite often in the past Iran has been closer to Pakistan than to India. The history of our bilateral ties is pretty mixed. The only period when we had a measure of collaboration with Iran was when the Taliban was ruling Afghanistan, during 1996-2001. In that period we worked with Iran, Russia and the Central Asian Republics to bolster the opponents of the Taliban.

Looking at India’s interests in the Middle East as a whole, India’s stakes and interests are far higher with the Gulf Arabs rather than with the Persians. The Arabian peninsula is the principal source of imported energy for India, not Iran. India has close to 5 million workers on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. How many Indians are there in Iran? Less than 10,000 perhaps. The scale of engagement is vastly different.

If you consider trade, the UAE is one of India’s largest trading partners. Much like Singapore in the east, Dubai has emerged as a major entrepôt for India in the west. In recent years India has also begun to significantly expand security co-operation. Where is that kind of relationship with Iran?