Has India prepared itself for the paradigm shift? The below-the-radar consultations in Tehran by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in February helped. But there has been no high-level visit since this government came to power.
The good part is that the Iranian side signalled to Doval its interest to revive strategic ties. Doval made a big impression, praising Iran’s brilliant role in fighting terrorism and its positive role in preserving regional security and stability. He put on record India’s desire for an all-out expansion of bilateral cooperation.
The Iranians took note that the Narendra Modi government was stepping out of the US-Israeli orbit and reverting to India’s independent foreign policies toward Tehran.
The lifting of UN sanctions against Iran will spur massive economic activity in that country. Virtually all sectors of the economy need technological upgrade and expansion. Infrastructure development on a massive scale can be expected. Blocked funds to the tune of $100 billion become readily available and the decades-long import restrictions necessitated by sanctions will come tumbling down.
A seamless avenue of trade and economic cooperation opens up for India right in its neighbourhood. Iran is an immensely rich country, and unlike the Persian Gulf petrodollar states, it has a diversified economy with an industrial and technological base and a big market.
Delhi can expect a level playing field, but Indian companies will face stiff competition, especially from the western countries and China. However, Iranian elites and Indian business houses have got along splendidly in history. The government should prioritise the involvement of the Indian private sector.
The Iranians have never hidden their keen interest in the gas pipeline project. Delhi should not lose time to get cracking. Western countries hope to turn Iran into a supplier of energy for Europe, while Iran will be keen to balance its ties to the West with a ‘look east’ policy focused on China and India.
How about an Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline that transits through our country to connect China’s energy-deficient Yunnan and adjacent provinces? Russia’s Gazprom showed interest in the project, which makes it an ideal Shanghai Cooperation Organization project, thereby enhancing its fame as a ‘peace pipeline’. This group is a Eurasian coalition of countries founded in 2001.
Iran’s fabulous gas reserves are next only to Russia’s and it is mind-boggling what a profound transformation of India’s energy security scenario could ensue if Iranian supplies were to feed an Indian gas grid for several decades to come.
Again, Russia has proposed an out-of-the-box plan to involve India in building Russian-designed nuclear power stations in third countries. Can Iran be that third country where Russia plans to build up to eight reactors? This should be a talking point for Prime Minister Modi with President Vladimir Putin later this year in Moscow.
Do not overlook, either, that the Chennai Petroleum Corporation Ltd, dates back to 1965, the Shah’s era, and was our first ‘Make in India’ project. So indeed was the concept behind the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company in Karnataka when it was incorporated in 1976.
In geopolitical terms, the Iran nuclear deal profoundly impacts the power dynamic of the Persian Gulf, West Asia and the Indian Ocean. Simply put, a regional power with military potential, and economic prowess to back it, is rising in India’s neighborhood.
The American pundits would call Iran a “swing state”, which can tilt the balance of forces in a given situation. With Iran’s surge, the old regional order riveted around the Israel’s military dominance and the petrodollar states’ financial clout is crumbling.
However, although Iran’s elites are western-oriented, their DNA will continue to repose trust in non-alignment. Thus, while preparing for integration with western countries, Iran also aspires to become an SCO member, is an enthusiastic votary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which envisions co-operation among Eurasian countries, and maintains a high level of strategic understanding with Russia over regional issues.
If there is a total convergence possible between Russia, China and India, it is the recognition that Iran is their natural ally in the fight against extremist Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
From a medium- and long-term perspective, we are witnessing the rise of a hugely ambitious regional power with global aspirations similar to our country’s. Make no mistake: Iran will be an assertive regional power. Its missile capability is almost on a par with India’s, and is indigenously developed too.
The quality of the Indian-Iranian relationship in the coming period will to an extent depend on India’s ties with Israel, although Indian pundits hype it. Iran has been a victim of terrorism sponsored by Israeli intelligence and it will not lower its guard. While Iran cannot and will not object to India’s ties with Israel, the manner in which the Modi government flaunts its passion for security cooperation with Israel ‒ intelligence-sharing, etc. ‒ will not go down well with Tehran.
At any rate, Islamophobia, which fuels the present ruling elites’ passion for Israel, is illogical, since India has vital interests in Muslim countries such as Iran, or Turkey or Malaysia for that matter. An early visit by Modi to Iran might give the much-needed course correction to restore the sense of proportions in India’s West Asian policies.
Delhi should make a careful note that at the end of the day, if the US ignored Israel’s opposition to engage with Iran, it was acting in self-interest. The point is, Israel is too small a country to be a counterweight to Iran. With Iran’s surge, Israel’s military dominance of West Asia is becoming a thing of the past, but, regrettably, this is yet to register in Indian strategic discourses on West Asia.
Again, with Iran no longer available as the bogeyman, Israel will come under much greater pressure to address, finally, the root problem of the West Asian crisis, namely, the Palestine issue. Therefore, the present government’s deviation on India’s approach to the Palestine issue runs contrary to the spirit of the times.
Iran has a complicated relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in cultural, political and strategic terms. But, happily, India doesn’t figure in it. The contradictions playing out against the backdrop of Islamic affinities are not ones that India can exploit to its advantage either. Iran’s policies toward these two neighbouring countries have run independently of India’s relations with them and will continue to do so.
Indian discussions often blithely assume that Iran can be a second front against Pakistan. But Iran will be unwilling to play such a role. Three things need to be noted in this context. One, Pakistan has made strenuous efforts lately to improve relations with Iran. Two, the nuances in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia, such as its refusal to participate in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, have bearing on Iran’s vital security interests.
Three, in the emergent power dynamic in the region, Iran and Pakistan are on the same page in terms of their wariness over the US’s ‘pivot’ strategy and their rejection of continued US military presence in Afghanistan. Both have exceptionally close relations with China and their respective approaches to the SCO and China’s Silk Road strategies as well as Russia’s assertiveness on the world stage are in mutual harmony.
Besides, the two key factors that complicated Iran-Pakistan relations have undergone a sea change – Iran’s outright hostility toward the ‘Great Satan’ and its contempt toward the Pakistani elites’ traditional role as America’s principal local handymen.
All in all, how to finesse the quality of the Indian-Iranian co-habitation in the new regional environment becomes a major diplomatic challenge for Delhi, whilst a massive economic engagement is afoot between the two regional powers. Indeed, the Indian Ocean is getting a bit more crowded than it is already – and we can’t quite bring ourselves to say, the more the merrier.
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