A Persian romance

India rediscovers


India-Iran political exchanges always had a relative quality and an intrinsic value. The visit by the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to New Delhi last Monday was no exception. The United States always watches with an eagle’s eye Delhi's minutest transactions with Tehran. The fact that Mottaki's visit was scheduled a week ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s departure for Washington carried some political symbolism. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

While speaking in the US House of Representatives last Wednesday on a resolution welcoming Dr. Singh (“a man who is one in a billion” for America), Republican Congressman Gary Ackerman, who twice co-chaired the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, reiterated: “There are, as to be expected, differences between us (US and India). Some of them, and I would note particularly the issue of Iran, are very serious... I believe we can work through our differences.”

The US pressure - often engineered by the powerful Israeli lobby in the Congress - is on display. The US is averse to other countries striding ahead until it can normalise with Iran. Period. Iran is the last remaining frontier in energy and Washington is determined to calibrate Iran’s entry into the world market.

Thin on ground

The Indian elite kept a balance - neither unduly challenging the US interests nor overlooking Iran’s immense importance. In substance, though, India-Iran relationship remains thin on the ground, below potential. The pattern got broken under the UPA-I while it desperately wrapped up the nuclear deal with the US. Meanwhile, of course, unseen and unspoken, many sorts of vested interests inevitably developed as India began purchasing massive quantities of weapons from Israel ,short-circuiting open tendering procedure.

Suffice it to say, therefore, that the big question as Mottaki came and left last week is whether UPA-II will fare any better? There is reason for optimism, but also for keeping fingers crossed.

First, the need of circumspection. The primacy attached to the ‘strategic partnership’ with the US cannot easily change. This is for a variety of reasons - big corporate interests, great-power ambitions, geopolitics of South Asia, China’s rise, and last but not the least, the strong social kinships of the diaspora in north America. Frankly, for the Indian elite, the US remains the metropolis while Iran seems mofussil.  

Besides, the ties with Israel are going from strength to strength. We readily launched more than one Israeli spy satellite but ignored an Iranian request. All the same, there are stirrings. The US strategy to isolate Iran has failed and an engagement of Iran has commenced. Delhi needs to catch up with the US-Iran thaw. Iran heads the Non-Aligned Movement and its influence in the Middle East has increased.

However, the most important factor is that the US has not only failed to recognise India’s primacy in the Indian Ocean region but also attributes centrality to Pakistan in regional policies. Furthermore, the Barack Obama administration’s view of China and proclivity towards bringing it as partner to tackle the issues of regional security and stability of South Asia has a sobering effect on the Indian strategic mindset.

Clearly, the world order is not going back to the 19th century paradigm of the ‘balance of forces,’ where India would be a key ‘balancer.’ Obama’s speech in Tokyo on the Asia-Pacific omitted any reference whatsoever to India as a regional power of consequence.

A gravitation, inevitably, may have begun in the Indian thinking, towards searching out atrophied but time-tested relationships and to ‘modernise’ them. The traffic from Delhi to Moscow has noticeably increased. One presidential visit, two prime ministerial visits and visits by the foreign minister and defence minister - that is indeed heavy traffic between two capitals for a 6-month period.

Intrinsic content

 To sum up, Mottaki’s visit needs to be understood against a complex and evolving backdrop. But it is not devoid of intrinsic content, either. India has still not said ‘nyet’ to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. True, aside from the unpredictability of India-Pakistan ties, the project is now caught up in a political bind. When the government sets a ‘friendly’ price for the gas produced in the Godavari basin, how can it import Iranian gas at world market price? Some answer must be found.

Of course, a strong case can be made for cooperation with Iran over the Afghan problem. Iran is an ideal partner for India to break out of regional isolation regarding the Afghan problem. The two countries have not only no clash of interests, there are also signs of a meaningful relationship developing for exchange of intelligence relating to the activities of extremists and terrorists in the region. Both India and Iran have become ‘collateral victims’ of the chaos in the ‘AfPak’ belt.

However, the real litmus test lies in our political leadership’s foresight - and grit - to advance the gas pipeline project. No doubt, the project can provide a much-needed underpinning of regional stability.

In the present transformative period, most serious regional powers are searching for creative ideas for geopolitical positioning in anticipation rather than do nit-picking. Look at Turkey or Brazil.

If Singh embarks on a visit to Tehran in February, it should provide the occasion for a trilateral with Iran and Pakistan to seal the pipeline project and for a profound exchange of views on the range of issues affecting regional stability.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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