India’s Persian Puzzle

Ahmadinejad’s Iran is itself to blame for its predicament
Growing isolation: Ahmadinejad’s Iran is itself to blame for its predicament, Photo: AFP

IN A dynamic and ever changing world, shibboleths should be the last thing determining, much less governing, the formulation of foreign policy. Unfortunately, in India, there is a certain aversion to challenging conventional or accepted wisdom, even if it is neither relevant nor conforms to the reality of the world as it is rather than as we’d like it to be. Relations, between nations as between people, change all the time. For a variety of reasons, they become unprofitable, unaffordable, unviable, unsustainable, untenable or just plain unnecessary. And when situations change and circumstances demand, these very same ‘uns’ disappear. But this happens only if policy is formulated not on extraneous considerations like emotions and prejudices but on the basis of cold, hard facts and realities with the sole objective of securing national interests.

The diplomatic conundrum confronting India on Iran isn’t quite rocket science. That Iran is an important country for India is a no-brainer. But the question is how important? Where do our relations with Iran stack up when we juxtapose them with our interests in countries that are hostile to Iran. Ideally, we would like the best of both worlds and not have to choose between one or the other. But what if we are forced by circumstances beyond our control to make such a choice? At that stage, the dilemma will be best resolved by making a hard-nosed cost-benefit analysis of our options. Staying middle of the road probably might not be an option, partly because it may not be on offer and partly because the longer you stay middle of the road, the higher your chances of getting run over.

For its own very valid reasons that range from economy (oil shock) to regional stability and even some strategic constraints and compulsions, India would not be very comfortable with the way Iran is being hounded and pushed into a corner. But let’s face it: this is a situation that Iran has brought on itself. Not only is Iran violating, or at least seen to be violating, its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, its rank bad behaviour — sponsoring terror outfits and exporting radical ideology (including in India), making outrageous remarks about other countries, including questioning their right to exist, and the oppressive and authoritarian hard line Islamic system imposed upon its own people — isn’t exactly something that a country like India should be seen to be siding with. And yet, if anyone argues that India must continue to stand by Iran then there must be some very, very good reasons for doing so, which frankly speaking escape this writer.

Harping on India’s “centuries of historical and cultural links” — something that the Ministry of External Affairs never tires of doing — is hardly helpful. Historical links are by definition history and their relevance in today’s context need not be overstated. Come to think of it, our historical experience with Iran hasn’t exactly been pleasant — remember the mass-murderer Nadir Shah and a host of other invaders and adventurers that Iran exported to India? Even recent, post-Independence, history doesn’t really commend Iran’s case. In all our major wars with Pakistan, the Iranians sided with Pakistan. The reason: Pakistan is an Islamic country, India is an infidel country. The same logic has been applied by the Iranian mullahs and Ayatollahs on the issue of Kashmir. That Kashmir is an integral part of India and “a core interest” of India never stopped the Iranians from saying their two bits on the issue.

The Indo-Iranian trade is around $14 billion, which is heavily loaded in favour of Iran

Some people in India, who get all apoplectic at the very mention of Israel, seem to gloss over the fact that Iran is hardly a poster boy for liberal, progressive or secular values. There is unfortunately an insidious attempt to introduce the virus of communalism in formulation of foreign policy. It is being suggested that 150 million Indian Muslims will ignore their own country’s national interest and back Iran in any conflict not only with Israel and/or the US and Europe but perhaps also the Arab world that is allied to the West, simply because it is an Islamic country. This sort of logic is difficult to digest, much less accept because when you start extending this logic, someone else will argue that India should support the US and Israel because 850 million Hindus back those countries.

Indeed this was the sort of spurious logic used by some members of the Sangh Parivar to root for the former Nepalese king who, they argued, was the head of State of the only Hindu kingdom in the world. But just as the monarch’s advocates in the Sangh Parivar ignored that the former king never really behaved in a very friendly manner towards India and neglected New Delhi’s interests, so too is the case with those who support Iran, not so much because doing so would protect India’s interests, but for purely communal considerations. In any case, why should anyone stereotype Indian Muslims and imagine that their worldview, aspirations and interests are any different from those of their other compatriots who follow a different religion?

SEEN IN purely secular terms, India has certain economic and strategic interests attached to Iran. But here again, there is a need to make a fresh assessment on how critical these interests are and whether or not in the defence of these interests India is willing to antagonise or at least stand up to powers that are threatening Iran. The total Indo-Iranian trade is around $14 billion, which is heavily loaded in favour of Iran, which sells us oil worth around $10 billion. India’s trade with the US is $50 billion, with the EU over $100 billion, with Saudi Arabia around $26 billion. The oil India buys from Iran can always be sourced from other places.

There is then the strategic importance of Iran, which provides India a land route to Central Asia and, even more importantly, Afghanistan. While there is no doubt that Afghanistan is a very important country for India, the old cliché of “tyranny of geography” as well as India’s other inherent limitations — to put it pithily, militarily, economically and technologically, India is not America — dictate that there is only so much we can do in Afghanistan. When you break down the Afghanistan issue, it boils down to a simple fact of life: India’s options are hostage to two equally unreliable partners — the Americans today, and Iran the day after the Americans cut and run from Afghanistan.

If indeed we want to maintain our relations with Iran only to remain an effective player in Afghanistan, then we must ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions: How much access will Iran give to India on Afghanistan? Even if Iran pulls out all stops, how far is India willing to go, or can realistically go, in support of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan? What if tomorrow the Iranians strike their own deals with the Pakistanis and the Taliban and leave India out in the cold? And most importantly, is Afghanistan so critical for India that we will be willing to side with Iran against rest of the international community only so we can get access to Afghanistan?

At the end of the day, depending on other countries for our Afghanistan policy is a bit of a mug’s game and India would be far better off making a policy that depends on its own strengths and factors in its weaknesses and limitations.

The views expressed here are the author’s own

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation And Consultant, IDSA