India should help Iran,S Arabia engage in peace process

Former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the UAE Talmiz Ahmad.

As New Delhi worries over how to balance India’s relations with Iran and the US in the face of impending US sanctions on Tehran, which will affect anyone who does business with Iranian entities, former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the UAE Talmiz Ahmad tells DH’s S. Raghotham that the central question is not about Iranian oil supplies but whether the world should let what he calls “a rogue US administration” cause so much disruption. He also suggests that India could use its good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia to get them to engage in a dialogue and peace process, which would help calm tensions and help resolve many of the region’s problems. Excerpts:

1. What is the significance of Iran to India — energy and otherwise? 

Iran is a strategic partner of India. 'Strategic partner' is not a cliche in this instance. Our relationship with Iran has value and substance. There is, of course, the oil trade and potential for our investment in Iran's hydrocarbons development. Strategically, there are two significant aspects: one is the opportunity to develop and manage the Chabahar Port, situated on the Gulf of Oman aand astride Gwadar Port in Pakistan, wwhich hasbeen built and  is being run by the Chinese. The second aspect is that  fromChabahar Port,  we plan to build multi-modal transport to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Moscow – connectivity linkages that India has been seeking for long. We have  no overland links with these partner countries, which has severely limited our  economic and political contacts with them. India-Iran ties are a very significant bilateral relationship.  

2. Given the uncertainty over import of crude oil from Iran, what do you think India should do to avert any shortfall? 

It is not just a problem for India. The US administration has gone rogue. I’m sorry, but there is no other term to describe it. Here’s a man who has come into the presidency with no experience of international diplomacy and strategic issues and he wants to tear down the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) with Iran. The JCPOA is the product of several countries, including the US, sitting together with Iran for two years. Trump has found faults with the agreement, but some of the faults he sees do not even form part of the agreement. In any case, if you have concerns about Iran, the useful way to go about is to accept the current agreement and then work with Iran on issues that continue to agitate you. The worst way is to reject a pact that Iran is fully complying with. The central issue, to my mind, is therefore not about Iranian oil but whether the world can allow a rogue administration to  be so disruptive.

3. What will be the impact on India-Iran relations broadly and on strategic relations in particular if India is seen to do America’s bidding fully or partially?

International affairs is not a zero-sum game. That’s not the way diplomacy is done. If the US has goodwill for India and wants to build a strategic partnership with India, hurting our other important relationships and our interests is hardly the way to do so. We must take a serious look and balance our interests. As far as I know, there has been no international support for the US position on Iran so far. And it does not have international support because what it is doing is wrong in principle, wrong in politics and wrong in diplomacy. We will be seriously jeopardising our interests if we go by the US diktat. 

4. American officials have already brought up the question of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India, seeming to suggest that if we want continued US cooperation on that, then India must understand US concerns on Iran-sponsored terrorism in West Asia…

Whoever is saying that does not know what he is talking about. The US-Pakistan relationship is the single most important factor why Pakistan has for decades felt bold enough to attack India. It had US support in 1965, 1971 and even post-9/11. The US turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear programme and to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism against India. Soon after 9/11, there were Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks on the Kashmir Assembly, the Red Fort and our Parliament. I do not believe there’s any parity between Pakistan and Iran. When has Iran sponsored terrorist attacks on the US, like Pakistan has done against India? The 9/11 attacks were the al-Qaeda’s doing, and the al-Qaeda is a creation of the US itself. So, those who are talking Pakistan and Iran in the same breath don’t know what they are talking about.

5. So far, how do you see the Iranian reaction to India’s bid to hedge on the issue of sanctions?

India has not yet spelt out its final position. Prominent ministers in the Union cabinet have said India recognises only UN sanctions and will not subject itself to the laws of individual countries. I hope India adopts this principled position, which will have long-term implications for our strategic interests.

6. There is expectation that Russia could also move away from Iran under US pressure and prodding because it’s not getting along well with Iran over Syria, as well as because sanctions on Iran could help Russian oil and gas sales?

That’s all rubbish. Wishful thinking of the media. Russia is the guardian of its own interests. There is no evidence that Russia is distancing itself from Iran. Russia and Iran are major countries, they consult widely between themselves. Their relations go  beyond  Syria to  several regional and global issues, including discussions on the world order. Iran and Russia support each other robustly. Remember that the day before the Putin-Trump Helsinki summit, (the Ayatollah’s senior adviser) Ali Akbar Velayati met Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Russia has promised a $50 billion investment in Iran’s hydrocarbon sector and they have an oil-for-goods agreement. I don’t see Russia distancing itself from Iran.

7. India has sought to move closer to Saudi Arabia, too. Is it possible that someday there could be a US-Israel-Saudi-India axis of some kind if we were to go with America on the Iran sanctions?

India is an independent country and not part of any axis – neither in the past nor in the future. We have strategic autonomy and we are proud of it. This ganging up of countries is US-Israel propaganda and media bombast. No country in the region wants a region-wide conflict. The Saudis did try to effect regime change in Syria but after some half a million people have died, there is still no prospect of a military solution in Syria.  Security concerns can be resolved only through diplomacy. For the US, Israel and Saudis, the way out is to engage with Syria and Iran and Russia to address their concerns. There is no question of India associating with any  alliance.

8. What will be the impact of our relations with Saudi Arabia, which we are trying to improve? What is Saudi Arabia trying to do in all this?

Saudi Arabia has two sets of challenges: domestic and regional. The domestic challenges are: disarray within the royal family; preparing the national economy for a post-oil scenario; meeting the aspirations of the youth for change; and reconciling all of these with the country's conservative Wahabi traditions. At the heart of it all is Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Even before he became crown prince, Saudi Arabia had sought to challenge  Iran in Syria. But it has had no success militarily. Iran has Russia, Syria and Hezbollah with it.  In its confrontation with Iran, Saudi Arabia has turned to US and Israel. There is nothing positive that the kingdom can gain from this association. It is drinking from a poisoned chalice.
No Arab supports Israel. To be associated with it is dangerous for the Saudis. In doing so, it has had to distance itself from Palestine. It’s a package deal that they have to accept to go with US-Israel.

Due to their confrontation with Iran, the Saudis have had to accept the US-Israel plan for Palestine, which is nothing but the nullification of Palestinian aspirations once for all. No Arab can accept this. But the Saudis cannot choose to go with US-Israel on Syria, but oppose them on Palestine. This is where I think India has a role to play. We must promote Saudi-Iran engagement, dialogue and peace process. India should lead such an initiative.

9.  How do you see the Modi government’s foreign policy evolving from now on, after four years of making efforts to move closer to the US?

It is very clear to me that the Modi government is pursuing policies that are within the framework of our commitment to strategic autonomy. We are engaged seriously and substantially with all the major powers while retaining our freedom to adopt positions on specific issues in our interest.

10. Isn’t our position seen to have been compromised, as on Palestine, in our attempt to move closer to US and Israel?

India’s strategic autonomy has been clearly spelt out in our ties with different countries in West Asia. Our ties are bilateral and transactional with all countries in the region. We continue to support the Palestinian cause even though we are expanding ties in specific areas with Israel. We also maintain excellent relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. That’s why I would suggest again that we should use this leverage to promote confidence-building and dialogue between the two estranged Gulf neighbours.

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