Tight rope walk for India?

Hosting Rouhani

Dr. D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani was in India between 15-17 February. He was returning the obligation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was in Iran in 2016; also, perhaps, to draw on India’s good will support for Iran’s positions in West Asia.
Be that as it may, observers interpret India-Iran’s relation as a balancing act by New Delhi in the Middle East vis-a-vis Saudi Arabi, UAE, Israel and so on. But, to be sure, it is a tough call for India. Iran is backing the controversial Syrian President Bahar-Al-Assad Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Teheran is building a Shiite network against the Sunni countries which are in cohort with Israel, its sworn enemy. Besides, Iran supposedly has access to Al Qaeda, and has sheltered the family members of Osama Bin Laden, after his murder in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Such acts by Teheran do not set well the international and even Indian narrative on terrorism. The nuclear deal cut by it with P5+1, has come under cloud with US decertifying the deal and imposing sanctions against Iran. In such a scenario, how does India conduct its relations with Iran is big question for New Delhi’s diplomatic skills.
Evidently, India needs Iran for at least two things, one strategic, and the other economic. The access to Shahid Behesti Port Chabahar is critical to India’s connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia, a golden-gateway as some would call it. This is an invaluable alternative route as Pakistan denies any land-connectivity between India and Afghanistan. New Delhi seems to have leased some berths, in this visit of Iranian President having invested up to $500 m dollar in Chabahar.
Along with Bandas-Abbas port, Chabahar may provide access for India up to Europe. That is indeed a big gain for India. But, if the diplomatic gossips are to be believed, Iran is engaging China as well on Chabahar Port, which is only 140 km afar the Gwadar Port in Pakistan fully developed by Chinese investment. Teheran would like its infrastructure development on India’s investment, and will play New Delhi against Bejing for securing more and more technical and financial support. Teheran is keen to build the rail link from Chabahar to Zahedan, on Afghanistan border.
President Rouhani started off his visit from Hyderabad with prayers at a Mosque. His message to the Muslims all over the world was to unite for peace and harmony etc, as division between Shia and Sunni weakened them. Rouhani met the key leaders, foreign minister, prime minister, a courtesy call-on to the President of India, leaders of think-tanks etc. He was accompanied by a 21-member delegation to discuss and deal in a range of issues and they signed eight MoUs. A “number of projects were inked for the expansion of ties, that will be in the interest of both nations, as well in the interest of the region”, said Gholamreza Ansari, Iran’s Ambassador to India.
Obviously, there are strong historical and civilisational bonds, complementarities of interests, which should sustain the ties between New Delhi and Teheran. Not surprisingly, a festival of India is planned in Iran in 2018-19. Also, to deepen the trade ties, Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) is opening a chapter in Teheran. That should certainly help.
Going by the past experience, dithering by Indian officials, New Delhi almost lost an oil reservoir, Fazad B. Field, exclusively given to India. The Indian officials took time to take charge until Teheran threatened to open it up to others. A Preferential Trade Agreement is on the anvil, a bilateral trade agreement and a double taxation agreement were signed; the visa procedures were relaxed. Surely, India needs Iran for crude oil, Iran is the seventh supplier to India, and India needs Iran to connect with Central Asia.
Iran is in search of new allies, and India is a strong one to bank on. Iran needs a market for its investment, will like its banks to open branches in India. In West Asia, Teheran has few friends, and is currently beleaguered by US ad-hoc foreign policy. For the sake of helping its allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, which are daggers drawn at Iran, the US is tightening the screws over Teheran. Although Europe may seek to balance US by continuing to support the nuclear deal signed in 2015, it may not be enough to save Iran’s isolation. India, in such case, will find it hard to navigate its relations with Iran.
Experts would suggest that diplomatic negotiations with Iran are an art by itself. Teheran tends to mix-up strategic issues with trade, and worse, its spiritual position. Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader, in his visit last year to India, raised the Kashmir issue, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of New Delhi. It gives clandestine support to Pakistan. It is an open secret that Iran built up its nuclear base by intercepting a Pakistan shipment of nuclear material to Libya. The interception could not have happened without Pakistan’s tacit concurrence.
The other strong factor influencing, rather hampering India-Iran relation is Israel. In the last weeks, Israel bombed the Shia bases of Iran in Syria as Shiite militia shot down an Israel fighter-plane. Israel is opposed to the nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1 nations. President Rouhani, a moderate in Iran’s Islamic militant political scenario, is hard-selling the deal to his country. Should the deal fail, there will be new sanctions imposed by US and its allies. India then would be stalemated in Iran with its investment.
Going by India’s approach to Iran, it has been blowing hot and cold. On the one hand, it has been cultivating Iran for the twin objectives on strategy and oil, on the other New Delhi is wary of Iran’s Shiite foreign policy bordering on supporting Islamic militancy and the isolation it faces at the behest of USA. India has followed US in the United Nations, in voting against Iran on the issue of IAEA.
It is, indeed, a tight-rope walk for India. It is not a simple balancing as it does between Israel and Palestine. Repeating that feat will not be so easy between Israel and Iran. However, to be fair, Modi is known for being unpredictable at home and abroad. India is known for following a middle-path, a core characteristic of Indian culture. But on Iran, on real politik, can New Delhi make room for political accommodation in a polar world, where one is called upon to take side?
Strategic alliance building is new normal in international politics. India may have to choose between Israel and Iran, and their respective allies. Either of the country– Iran or Israel will ask India to declare its affinity on the contrary, given the complexity of international relations, Israel and US could harness India’s goodwill with Iran, and Palestine to find solutions.
India will have to raise its game in such case. If India succeeds in keeping both the countries as its trading and strategic partners, Indian foreign policy could be a model, for the rest of the world. Also India’s foreign policy would have done a full circle from equi-distance from two powers (super powers then), to equi-engagement with two rival powers. —INFA