India should have the self-confidence to engage Iran on its own terms and on the basis of a clear understanding of its national interests, says Harsh V Pant
External Affairs Minister S M Krishna was in Tehran a few week's ago on a three-day visit. Though he was in Iran ostensibly to participate in the G-15 summit, his visit also tried to give fillip to the Indo-Iranian ties that have been in a dormant state for some time now. Ever since the United States and India started to transform their ties by changing the global nuclear order to accommodate India, Iran has emerged as a litmus test that India has had to pass from time to time to the satisfaction of US policy-makers.
However, the American focus on India-Iran ties has been highly disproportionate to the realities of this relationship, a result more of the exigencies of domestic politics than of regional political realities. And when the choice emerged between Iran and the US, India ended up siding with the US. But now the Barack Obama administration's callous attitude towards India is forcing New Delhi into the arms of Iran, something that can have grave geopolitical consequences.
Over the last several years, India has repeatedly voted in favour of International Atomic Energy Agency's resolutions, condemning Iran's nuclear behaviour. Though the Indian prime minister has been categorical in his assertion that a nuclear Iran is not in Indian interests, the Indian government has been keen in recent months to underline that it favours dialogue and diplomacy as means of resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis. This was once again emphasised by Krishna during his visit. However, what is troubling is that Krishna found it necessary to explain India's behaviour to the Iranian government. There was no need for it and it merely reinforces the perception of a diffident India unable to stand up for its own national interests.
India and Iran have long held significantly different perceptions of the global nuclear order. Iran was not supportive of India's tests in 1998 and backed the United Nations Secuiry Council's resolution that asked India and Pakistan to cap their capabilities by signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Iran has repeatedly called for a universal acceptance of the NPT, much to India's discomfiture.
Though Iran has claimed that this was directed at Israel, the implications of such a move are far-reaching for India. Iran's position on several other issues crucial to India has been against Indian interests. India's position on the Iranian nuclear question is relatively straightforward. While India believes that Iran has thea right to pursue civilian nuclear energy, it has insisted that Iran should clarify the doubts raised by the IAEA on its compliance with the NPT. India has long maintained that it does not see any further nuclear proliferation as being in its own interests. There is no need to be apologetic about India's position on the nuclear issue.
The issue of the $7.5 billion Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline was also on the agenda as India remains keen to gain access to Iranian energy resources. Not only has Pakistan already signed the deal with Iran, China is starting to make its presence felt in Iran in a big way. It is now Iran's largest trading partner and is undertaking massive investments in Iran, rapidly occupying the space vacated by western firms. India is right to feel restless about its own marginalisation in Iran despite its civilisational ties with the country. The problems with the IPI pipeline, however, remain difficult to overcome. India has differences over the pricing of the gas even as ensuring the security of the pipeline in the restive Balochistan makes it difficult for India to accept the deal in its present version.
India indeed would like to make its presence grow in the Iranian energy sector but there is little evidence, so far, that Iran would be a reliable partner in India's search for energy security. A number of important projects have either been rejected by Iran or have yet to be finalised due to its changing of terms and conditions. Despite Krishna's best attempts, no date could be agreed upon for the next meeting of the bilateral joint commission, which hasn't met since November 2008, suggesting Iran's continued reluctance to move on crucial economic issues.
The crucial regional issue where India and Iran need each other is the evolving security situation in Afghanistan. America's Afghanistan policy in particular has been causing consternation in Indian policy-making circles. A fundamental disconnect has emerged between US and Indian interests in Af-Pak. The Obama administration has been systematically ignoring Indian interests in the crafting of its Af-Pak priorities. While actively discouraging India from assuming a higher profile in Afghanistan, for fear of offending Pakistan, the US has failed to persuade Pakistan into taking Indian concerns more seriously.
While the US may have no vital interest in determining who actually governs in Afghanistan, so long as the Afghan territory is not being used to launch attacks on US soil, India does. The Taliban -- good or bad -- are opposed to India in fundamental ways. The consequence of abandoning the goal to establish a functioning Afghan state and a moderate Pakistan will be greater pressure on Indian security. To preserve its interests in such a strategic milieu, it is in Indian interests to coordinate more closely with states like Russia and Iran.
But that can happen only if Iran is also interested in stabilising Afghanistan. If Tehran's interests are primarily driven by its desire to see America's withdrawal, then New Delhi will have to rethink its approach towards Iran. In any case, India should have enough self-confidence to engage Iran on its own terms and on the basis of a clear understanding of its national interests. That's the only way of achieving stability in bilateral ties.
The author is in the Department of Defence Studies, King's College London, UK