INDIA-IRAN RELATIONS have come a long way since they were forged at the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947. Since then, the relationship has experienced episodes of warmth as well as coolness, from the Shah’s alignment with the West (and Pakistan) as part of CENTO, to their mutual support of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan the 1990s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the relationship lay in cold storage until the India’s Republic Day in 2003, when leaders from both countries renewed their commitment to further bolster their strategic alliance with the signing of the New Delhi Declaration.
However, India’s engagements with the United States, and increasingly with Israel, amidst Iran’s growing isolation post-9/11, affected the ability of the two countries to collaborate on areas of mutual interest, including energy security and stemming the growth of Sunni extremism in the region. During this period, two events effectively put paid to the momentum gained by the New Delhi Declaration—India’s voting against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005 and India’s launching of the Israeli reconnaissance satellite TecSAR (Polaris) in 2008.
The UPA’s naiveté with regard to relations with Iran will come back to haunt the nation. India’s voting against Iran at the IAEA was perhaps the biggest strategic foreign policy blunder since the turn of the millennium. It was less a reflection of India’s conviction against nuclear proliferation and more an evidence of the United States’ coerciveness, effectively tying the India-US nuclear deal to India’s vote. Now, far from the Bush administration’s goal of isolating Iran, the new administration is looking to actively engage with the Islamic republic. An acknowledgement by the new US secretary of state of the need to involve Iran in dealing with the Afghanistan issue, and the subsequent olive branch extended by President Obama to Iran, are indicative of Washington’s desire for rapprochement.
Moreover, there seems to be some uncertainty now about how “strategic” the India-US strategic relationship really is, with India figuring nowhere in Obama’s foreign policy initiatives in the first 40 days of office. Indeed, it is ironic that the very deal for which India stuck its neck out by voting against Iran, might lie in the Obama administration’s cold storage, while the United States and Iran take the first steps towards ending decades of disengagement and distrust. Even if it is to be assumed that India’s recent bonhomie with the United States does not suffer under the Obama administration, the relationship must not come at the price of compromising India’s interests in the region. The realities of being strapped for energy resources, and having to conduct its affairs in a region where instability is increasingly the norm, is one that India—not the United States—has to live with. Despite its previous protests against India’s engagement with Iran, the United States is unable—or incapable—of addressing India’s energy demand and security in the region.
From a regional security perspective, India’s engagement with Iran leaves a lot to be desired. Both countries must accelerate co-operation on matters of intelligence sharing and regional security, given the volatile political and security climate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the capitulation of the state of Pakistan to Taliban forces are matters of common concern to both countries.
Virtual anarchy in Pakistan coupled with its own weak internal security apparatus threatens peace and stability in India. Further, Indian and Iranian investments in Afghan reconstruction projects are threatened by the law and order vacuum in the country and by the return of the Taliban to the political fold of that country. Of particular concern is the targeting of Indian engineers and Afghan security forces involved in the construction of the 220 km land link between Nimroz, in South-west Afghanistan, and the Iranian port-city of Chahbahar.
The continuing spread of Arab-sponsored radical Sunni Wahhabism in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a matter of deep concern to Iran, and one that is undoubtedly linked to the spate of both “home grown” and foreign-sponsored terrorism in India. That the Taliban and terror groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Indian Mujahideen have been beneficiaries of generous sponsors from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is no secret. If India is concerned about the wave of Islamic violence in Jammu & Kashmir and mainland India, Iran is concerned about anti-Shi’a violence in Pakistan perpetrated by groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has assassinated several Shi’as and Iranian nationals in Pakistan.
However, despite these areas of common interest, both countries have their own compulsions on matters of security and despite mutual intent to further develop the relationship, neither country will be willing to disengage with existing allies for the sake of the other. Therefore, it is imperative for Iran to recognise that the clout that Israel enjoys in India is unlikely to wane, just as it is necessary for India to realise that Iran will be unwilling to sacrifice its relations with Pakistan for the sake of improving ties with India. How India and Iran manage the walk the tightrope, while being mindful of the other’s political constraints, will be a matter of interest in the years ahead.
From an energy perspective, India faces critical shortages in supply today. India’s natural gas imports from Iran have not done justice to either India’s consumption capacity (already the largest in the region, with projections of increasing four to five times by 2020), or Iran’s ability to supply the commodity. India’s high powered economy and significant shortages in domestic supply have made it one of the world’s largest importers of gas, while Iran, though lacking in a mature processing and transportation infrastructure, possesses the world’s second largest natural gas reserves. India has traditionally imported most of its natural gas from Qatar; however, the recent $40 billion India-Iran agreement to supply 7.5 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually to India is a step in harnessing Iran’s untapped LNG market. In addition to its ability to supply natural gas and crude oil, Iran’s proximity to the oil rich Caspian Sea area makes it an appealing conduit for sourcing energy from the Central Asian republics. India is vying for a stake in the region’s oil and natural gas sector. The recent agreement allowing a 35 per cent stake to Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) in Kazakhstan’s Satpayev oil exploration sector is an indication of the importance India attaches to this region.
Finally, even as India engages with Iran on energy trade, the controversial Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, for all intents and purposes, is dead. Notwithstanding America’s concerns with this “peace pipeline”, a project that provides Pakistan even partial control of a resource of strategic importance to India, is one that should have been terminated in its conception. This is not to say that India and Iran shouldn’t continue to explore alternate transportation routes. For example, the underwater pipeline via the Arabian Sea that was considered an alternative to the land-based model of the IPI project might still be viable. Indeed, the risks that India would have to assume on account of routing any pipeline through Pakistan, if quantifiable, could outweigh the apparent premium associated with the alternate design.
In trying to engage with each other on areas of mutual interest in a volatile political environment, India and Iran must recognise that there will invariably be areas of conflicting interests. As Henry Kissinger said, “No country can act wisely simultaneously in every part of the globe at every moment in time.” In the face of contentious issues, both nations must allow pragmatism to prevail, focus on strengthening ties in areas that are mutually beneficial, and recognise the heavy price that they would have to pay for not jointly addressing the debilitating security situation in the region.