Collecting thoughts on Iran

The foreign policy challenge for India this year is to evolve a new Iran strategy. Here are some considerations

Excerpts from previous posts (from 21st Feb 2005 to 5th Jan 2007), quoted almost entirely in chronological order.

India needs Iran for very much the same reasons as the United States needs Saudi Arabia. Both countries are run by autocratic fundamentalists who have exported terrorism in pursuance of their ideological and geopolitical goals. So India would have as much of an appetite to enforce a violent regime change in Iran as the United States would have with respect to Saudi Arabia. Therefore if the sole purpose of an alliance between the United States and India is to challenge Iran (or Saudi Arabia), then such an alliance, as Praktike puts it, is not going to happen any time soon. [Iran does not stand in the way of better US-India relations]

Iran’s relationship with the United States is in a state of flux, and its nuclearisation, should it happen, has profound implications for India too. As long as the Iranian regime remains at loggerheads with the United States, it is not prudent to enter into deals that require investment in long-term fixed infrastructure. That does not mean India has to yield to American pressure on how it conducts its relations with Iran. [American concerns on the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline]

And there is Iran. While India would almost certainly not wish to take a provocative line with the Iranian regime, it can play its part in the good cop-bad cop routine. [
Condi Rice’s visit is not just a sales call

Iran does not depend on funds from the pipeline project to develop its nuclear capabilities or fund terrorism. It has been doing so for a long time without ever having sold any significant amount of oil and gas to India. Indeed, it is unlikely to stop doing so if India were to abandon its plans to build the pipeline. [The United States must offer better arguments]

If India had retained control (or its claim to) the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir, it would have had a chance to attempt a land route to Afghanistan, albeit through difficult terrain. But with India foreign policy clearly on a path that seeks to formalise the Line of Control into an international boundary, it is unlikely that India will ever be able to have a overland route to Afghanistan that does not cross Pakistani territory. The only alternative is through Iran. This involves a sea-route between Indian and Iranian ports, followed by overland transit across Iran.

To India, the attractiveness of the Iranian option grows with every Pakistani move at linking transit trade to Kashmir. If the United States desires to prevent this from happening, then it must lean on Pakistan to stop being metaphorical bone in India’s (and Afghanistan’s) kebab. [The bone in the kebab]

Contrary to what it is made out to be, it is not true that India will burn its bridges with Iran by voting in favour of referring the case over to the UN Security Council. While it is certain that India will have to make a significant withdrawal from its bilateral relationship account, it is hardly the case that this will send the balance into the red. And if it does, and the Iranians send a with-us-or-against-us message, then the choice should be pretty clear. Nobody in India, not even the Communists, can argue that India is worse off on the side of the United States than on the side of Iran. But it is unlikely that this will ever come to pass for the ruling theocracy in Iran too intelligent to present such stark options to India. [What India needs to do about Iran’s nuclear programme]

In fact, now more than ever, it is clear that the Iranian regime has decided on a course of confrontation on the nuclear issue. It is also clear that it is unwilling to accept any compromise that does not leave it with a capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium at short notice, perhaps within months. Iran’s centrifuges are of Pakistani vintage. But how deep and how recent is their nuclear nexus? No one knows. (If India votes) shield Iran, however, means that no one will ever know. [Declaring the hand on Iran]

Iran’s ready retaliation suggests that merely being a big buyer is not good enough to secure fuel supplies. In the absence of a larger bilateral economic relationship — two-way trade and investment — it is quite easy for the fuel supplier to blackmail India by threatening to and actually cutting off supply. Therefore India must either procure fuel from countries with whom it has broad-based economic relations or rapidly build them up with those it doesn’t. [The Iranian regime’s true colours]

The Acorn has argued that there is an alternative to the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. That alternative relies on investing in facilities and infrastructure at home to be able to plug in to the global energy supply chain. This will allow India to purchase natural gas not just from Iran, but also from any other country that sells it, including Russia, Indonesia and Timor Leste. But no single supplier will be hold the government to ransom. [An Ukrainian lesson (for India)]

There’s something in it for Indian policymakers too: another good reason to dump that pipeline project—Iran does not have enough gas to pump across. [Children, this is called analysis]

10 thoughts on “Collecting thoughts on Iran”

  1. Nitin – Let us reflect on this in a different way. What is the vital Indian National Interest at stake here ? Is it only Energy Security and the good side of relations with the U.S. or something more ? For far too long we have defined the Indian National Interest from a national sustenance (energy security) and limited opportunity (the good side of american relationships)standpoint. This essentially means our strategies are largely about preservation, sustenance and rarely about charting new frontiers. If we however redefine National Interest based on a Vision for India’s place in the world order and a set of Indian Values that we would like the world to embrace then the strategic thinking takes a different shape. I would like to see an Iran Policy evolve based on this for a couple of reasons. For all the denial across the world I am a big believer in the clash of civilizations construct. Civilizationally the Iranians are our cousins. We shared lamguages, gods and values 4000 years ago. In fact if the Sassanids had not lost to the Turkic/arab invaders who forced islam on persia the history of the region from iran to india would have been dramatically different. The Islamic revolution in Iran and the subsequent advocacy of a value system that has more to do with Islam and less to do with Persia was a huge disappointment. But what about a democratic Iran based on Persian values, how would that suit India ? something to ponder about !

  2. Yossarin,

    I put up this post in part to initiate a discussion on Iran policy. One big question is whether we should deal with Iran as it is, or should we try to shape it to what it ought to be (according to us). In practice, what is possible will be somewhere between these two extremes, but it is important to set the desired course.

    Any analysis must reckon with the fact that modern Iran will have two overlapping (sometimes conflicting) civilisational/cultural identies: Persian and Shiite Islamic. Ordinary Iranians I’ve come across are proud of both. A good case has been made (via Foreign Affairs) for the rise of Shiite power in the coming years, even while the survival of the Iranian regime may be threatened by petroleum economics.

    Btw, Arthashastra 101 says that even numbered states (counted outwards) are to be categorised as “friends”. The analysis behind that conclusion is simple yet profound.

  3. Nitin – Good question. I would frame it in a slightly different way. What would serve Iran’s own strategic interests ? To continue to tread a lonely Islamic path or to chart a new course that brings with it more friends. To burden itself as the custodian of global shite interests or to sub-ordinate the shite interest at the altar of the Persian interest. Understanding the answers to these questions would probably lead me to the answer to the original question of should India deal with Iran the way it is or hope to influence to it to shape itself that serves mutual interests.

  4. Yossarin,

    Agree. There is a lot of fog and smoke in Iran, helped by the Western media’s simplistic coverage. Iran is a theocracy, but not monolithic. There are various factions and world views fighting for primacy under the theocratic garb; so yes, we need an assessment of what Iran might be thinking. Neither its resolve to plough a lonely furrow, nor its desire for normalcy should be underestimated.

  5. Yossarin/Nitin, interesting questions. As a stand alone nation Iran is surely a Persian culture distinct from Arabs but in relations to rest of Islamic world it carries the mantle of global Shiites.

    Iran is threatened by Isreal because its a Jewish state – more than anything else. It is also a proxy for the great satan. But I think security issues are a bit periphery.

    As for India’s relationship with Iran, I don’t think India would ever sever ties with Iran unless Iran threatens India security. American pressure during nuclear deal, pipeline deal and such like will be around until Americans and Iranians kiss and make up. But with Iran on the other side of Pakistan and it being the only land conduit to Afghanistan – because of self-knifed dagger – it is never in India’s interest to completely cut of tie. The highs and lows in tie – mainly to please US – have to be managed.

    This applies to Iran too. India’s a blue water Navy, being on the other side of Sunni Pak, large market, historic ties all portent to Iran’s managing low points and strengthening on high water markers with India.

  6. Chandra,

    unless Iran threatens India security

    Fair enough. How would you define ‘threatens’?

  7. Nitin,

    Because we don’t share a border with Iran, it’s unlikely Iran will have territorial ambitions on our land mass – God knows we have tough time keeping what we have. So a proxy war or open hostilities with Iran is unlikely.

    In my opinion no country has done more damage to India’s security – more than pak, more than the Americans, the British, and the Soviet Union – than the Chinese. But we have booming trade with them, media celebrates Hu Jintao visit as a festival, and Indians are visiting China in droves for business and pleasure. Even the most ardent critic of the relationship is not suggesting that we break ties with China.

    While Iran is surely no China, Iran capacity to damage India’s security and national interests is limited. At most it can try and block its own oil and gas exports to India or beg for another few bucks after signing a long-term sale contract. It could potentially join the Chinese in creating trouble for us, in future, if we have to confront China for whatever reason. But Iran won’t be more Pak then Pak themselves, at least for the Chinese. Also, any future Iran’s nuclear weapons will be aimed long-range west and short-range east of its borders.

    Beyound our relations with the Americans and Israelis, I don’t see Iran and us being in loggerheads, in future, on other issues. We can always manage this aspect of our relationship – Iran will always be a regional player – with either parties.

    So Iran’s threats to Indian securities are really economic and potentially marginally strategic. Neither would be severe enough to warrant severing ties.

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