Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement (2)

The geopolitical implications of the new route to Central Asia

Commenting on India-US relations after the UPA government won the vote of confidence last week, Nikolas Gvosdev contends that Iran will remain as the key stumbling block for improved bilateral relations. Well, it doesn’t have to be.

A realist re-appraisal of the geopolitics of Central Asia will indicate that the United States and India are among those who lack good access to the region. China and Russia have an upper hand as they not only have borders with Central Asian states, but have extended their influence over gateways to the region. Once the Iran-Afghanistan corridor becomes operational, India will have an opportunity to improve its access to Central Asia. As Dr Gvosdev points out, the United States could benefit too:

There are even some positives for the US—a new trade route that provides an alternative to Central Asia’s continuing dependence on Russian export routes; a new alternative to China; another “brick” in the stabilization of Afghanistan by opening up trade and providing fees. [The Washington Realist]

Now, access to Central Asia is only one element of in US calculations: but if American policymakers understand that thirty years is long enough a time to be miffed, they will find that better relations with Iran not only solves many of their problems, but also that this has become necessary. The Bush administration’s recent decision to send a diplomat to join the Europe-Iran talks in Geneva and Barack Obama’s willingness to break the ice with Iran are therefore steps in the right direction.

At the very least, to the extent Iran is a ‘stumbling block’, a US-Iran rapprochement is in India’s interests (see previous post). This will require proactive diplomacy on India’s part. But it won’t be difficult to generate domestic support for such a project. And why, it’ll take wind out of the sails of those who are against better relations with the United States.

More on India’s military presence in Afghanistan

Over at Broadsword (linkthanks Pragmatic, Rohit), Ajai Shukla makes a curious case against India strengthening its military presence in Afghanistan.

To now throw troops into what will inevitably become a bloody struggle for power risks smudging India’s benevolent image.

Instead, Indian planners should be considering that, perhaps three years along, US and NATO forces may pull out of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai would be history, and Afghanistan itself divided into different zones of control. In that Afghanistan, India’s physical presence may well be reduced to zero. The ITBP would have pulled out; development projects would have shut down; elements politically hostile to India may well control large parts of the country; the embassy and India’s consulates may well have closed shop. This is what happened in 1996; today, only American and European support—fickle, and already wavering—prevents a return to that time.

But despite those threats, and the occasional cross-border foray, western forces in Afghanistan can hardly influence events in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Only the Pakistan army can do that, but remains unwilling to….The army brass in Pakistan—which will eventually have the final word on this—has not yet come round to accepting that the military has little choice but to transform the NWFP from a sanctuary to a battlefield.

Without that realisation in Rawalpindi, a couple of years more of rising casualties in Afghanistan could well trigger a US and NATO pullout.[Broadsword]

Now, one part of Mr Shukla’s argument is reasonable: that it is crucial for India to consider the effect its level of military presence has on the local population. It is difficult to fathom the logic of the rest of his arguments.

Mr Shukla underestimates the US commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. Far from even talking about cutting and running, both presidential candidates have committed to reinforce American military presence in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is upping the ante in the Afghan theatre. If the situation can be cast as a battle of resolves, then a “realisation in Rawalpindi” is more likely than a pullout by the United States.

In this situation, the prospect of India deploying more troops to Afghanistan can change the strategic calculations of the Pakistani brass. As Lieutenant-General (retired) Talat Masood writes, the Pakistani army continues to think that the Taliban can be used as frontline options against US troops along the Durand Line (just as it uses jihadis against the Indian army). But the prospect of Indian troops joining the fray, albeit in Afghan territory, would discourage the Pakistani army from pursuing this course. And even if it doesn’t, it still makes sense for India to prevent Pakistan from repeating its 1996 performance in Afghanistan, one that had severe consequences for India’s national security.

Believing and acting on a pessimistic prognosis might well bring it about. Far from discarding the military option out of pessimism or concern for the erosion of ‘soft power’, it is important to keep it on the table.

India’s foreign aid budget

More for Bhutan and Afghanistan, less for ‘other developing countries’

Here is a chart showing outlays for ‘technical and economic cooperation with other countries and advances to foreign governments’, allocated to the foreign ministry.

There are new allocations for Afghanistan, and an increase in allocations for Bhutan. There’s a modest increase for Sri Lanka and Africa. But allocations for ‘other developing countries’ (ODC in the chart above) have been cut. India appeared to have disbursed less that what was budgeted for Myanmar, and this year’s allocations are lower. There was an unplanned increase in assistance to Bangladesh last year—quite likely due to emergency assistance for flood relief—but the outlay this year is almost the same.

Turkish delight

India should welcome the proposal to secure Central Asian gas through Turkey and Israel

Indrani Bagchi reports on an exciting new development. Ali Babacan, Turkey’s foreign minister, has proposed a plan to deliver Central Asian oil and gas through a combination of supertankers and overland pipelines in Turkey and Israel.

(Oil) from Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and even Georgia be transported through Turkey’s massive pipeline infrastructure to Ceyhan port. Traveling through the Mediterranean Sea in super tankers, the oil will then be fed into Israel’s Ashkelon-Eilat pipeline, while super tankers pick it off from the Gulf of Aqaba port of Eilat and back again on super tankers to India.

Turkish officials pointed out that none of the pipelines will have to be built. They are already in existence. The Ashkelon-Eilat pipeline is a functioning one, as is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which started work in 2006. Tel Aviv and Ankara have announced plans to carry water, electricity, natural gas and oil to Israel by way of a proposed Ceyhan-Ashkelon-Eilat passage. So, its not difficult to imagine gas coming through this passage, though this will need liquefaction and gasification terminals, which are a longer term investment. [TOI]

The supply chain involves multiple links, but is likely to be less risky compared to overland pipelines through Afghanistan and Pakistan. (The headline writers at the Times have been a little too excited—this project need not be an ‘alternative’ to buying gas from Iran. And a pipeline is not the only way to buy Iranian gas.)

Now, promoters of this Central Asia-Turkey-Israel project are bound to claim that it will lead to cheaper supplies—be that as it may, what is important is that having access to fuel supplies via this route is consistent with a strategy of diversification of supply sources. As advocated by this blog, India’s energy security lies in competitive markets.

India should take up Turkey’s offer and commence exploratory negotiations forthwith. And while this deal is worked out, the central government should lose no time in announcing a policy of investing in several oil & gas processing terminals along its seaboards. For Turkey’s proposal shows that there are more such projects in the pipeline.

Related Links: On Israel’s Eilat-Ashkelon project; and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline