President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to New Delhi is a confirmation of India’s balanced approach to the West Asian region. It comes amidst a flurry of visits by Indian leaders to the region, and key West Asian players like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now the Iranian president to New Delhi.
The outcome of the visit is fairly routine. The agreements signed are mundane and along expected lines, including the lease in Chah Bahar. No doubt, there will be issues that have been untangled such as that of India’s oil imports and the Fazad B gas field. But we will know of them only later.
India’s interests in Iran are fairly easy to outline. First, it is geographically the most proximate source of petro-energy resources for India. Already, it is a major supplier of oil to India and is a potential supplier of natural gas as well. Second, it offers India a major means of avoiding the Pakistani blockade and developing rail/road links to Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond to Europe. Third, it is a major market for Indian products, ranging from agricultural produce to engineering goods and pharmaceuticals. Fourth, it is an important destination for Indian corporates wanting to invest abroad. Fifth, Iran with a large middle class, is the source of a vast trove of human resources in terms of trained engineers and software specialists. Companies like eBay, Google, YouTube, Dropbox, Twitter, have been founded or given leadership by Iranian-Americans who are more numerous than Indian Americans.
But there are many potential obstacles that hold back the relations from reaching their full potential. American unhappiness with Iran going back to the days of the 1979 hostage crisis is a major issue. Subsequently, it involved sanctions brought on by Iran’s nuclear programme between 1995-2016. India was directly affected by the sanctions which drastically reduced our oil trade with the country. Now, it is bedeviled by the Trump Administration’s stance on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme which has been accepted by the Obama Administration and the other P5 countries plus Germany.
The Iranians are difficult negotiators and India has found itself tripped up on the issue of the Farzad B gas field that Indian companies helped discover under an exploration contract. India has complained of the Iranians shifting the goalposts on the deal at will. Many questions arise about whether Iran is even serious about exporting natural gas. Its aim is to remain a major oil exporter and gas is often used to flush the now ageing oil fields.
The third issue of concern are Iran’s geopolitical ventures in Lebanon, Yemen and Syria, which have brought it into conflict with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran, of course, has the right to act in the region as per its perceived national interests. Contrary to perceptions, Iran is driven by nationalism, rather than any desire to promote Shia Islam. Here it finds itself at odds with the US and the Arab world. Contrary to appearances, Iran is driven by pragmatic concerns which have led to it cooperating with the US and others to defeat the Islamic State.
The fourth matter which we must navigate is that of Iran’s internal politics. There should be no doubt that despite some trappings of democracy, the country is ruled by a mullah regime. The President and the secular government system is severely constrained. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) which acts as an enforcement arm for the mullahs, has an unhealthy spread in the corporate and business life of the country. But its branches like the Quds Force also play a significant role in Iran’s security policy.
In all this, there is need to put the Iranian nuclear programme, the issue that is roiling its relations with the US, in perspective. It has two drivers, the first being regime safety for the mullahs who are aware that the US and the West successfully toppled governments in Iraq and Libya which were alleged to have nuclear programmes, but are hesitating to do so in the case of North Korea which has a proved nuclear weapons capacity.
But equally important is the perception of security in the minds of the average Iranian. In 1980 encouraged by the US, Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Iran. In the bitter eight-year war Iran’s casualties were 200,000 dead, though some estimates put it at twice that number, and this in a population base of around 30 million. Iraq also used chemical weapons against the Iranians. All the big powers backed Iraq and the US also helped it through a variety of ways.
It is true that Iraq no longer offers the kind of threat it did under Saddam, but with continuing US hostility and containment policies, Teheran’s insecurities have only grown. The Iranian help to the Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Hamas in Gaza is, as Vali Nasr put it, a form of forward defence.
Whatever it is, India has to step nimbly over these minefields to move ahead. The payoffs are, of course, significant. Iran is a huge country, some two-thirds the size of India and a strategically located one. Not surprisingly, we face considerable competition there with the Russians and the Chinese. The latter are a major presence in Iran which has been the largest recipient of Chinese aid between 2000-2014.
With the lifting of the sanctions in 2016, Chinese investments have been surging in a range of areas from railways to hospitals while other western investors are still hesitating to go in. In February 2016, the first train from an east coast city in China arrived in Teheran, signalling its role in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Greater Kashmir February 19,2018