India “will pay a heavy price for a total disregard of US concerns vis-a-vis Iran. It just will not fly in this body and they need to be told that in plain English, not in diplomatic English”, was how Tom Lantos, the seniormost Democrat on the foreign affairs committee of the lower House of the United States’ legislature, spoke during a 2005 hearing on the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement. For good measure, he described Natwar Singh as dense and warned that if there was no strategic congruence between New Delhi and Washington on Iran, then the India- US bilateral relationship would go down the tubes.
While that fate did not befall the India- US ties, what literally went down the tubes was India’s engagement with Iran. Over the next decade, while China and Russia maintained their ties with Iran on an even keel (the fruits of which they are now reaping), India went out of its way to antagonise Iran first by voting against it in the IAEA (a counter view is that it was in India’s interest to jettison its ties with Iran in order to save the India-US nuclear deal) and subsequently by going slow on some strategically significant infrastructure projects. One is the Chabahar port, located west of the Gwadar port in Pakistan which figures prominently in China’s strategic calculus, and the other is the International North South Transport Corridor which would give India access to Central Asia and Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan.
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Earlier this month, another Democrat politician by the name of Barack Obama upended nearly four decades of American foreign policy by entering into a nuclear deal with Iran, which, it can now be said with a modicum of certainty, is a country whose time has come (and how!). The US-Iran detente holds out the tantalising prospect of reordering West Asia, the full import and consequences of which are yet to be fully grasped. If borders have been drawn and redrawn in West Asia, the nuclear breakthrough with Iran can be expected to reshape the geopolitics of the region in more ways than one, not least in the manner in which Iran (responsibly) uses its heft to influence the course of events in the Persian Gulf and the Arab world.
That Obama chose to cut a deal with Iran without worrying too much about how well it will go down with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other traditional American allies in the Arab world riven by sectarianism (between Shiites and Sunnis) and regional rivalries is a lesson for India in how not to allow yourself to be coerced into a situation where you are forced into choosing one over the other. Also, the collaboration between Iran and the US in Iraq in spite of their differences and the prospects of them jointly taking on the Islamic State (is) could offer a template for similar creative solutions to problems bedevilling South Asia where a tactical understanding on specific issues can be worth it.
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India’s diffidence on Iran over the lost decade (2005 to 2015) is all the more inexcusable given how some key officials in the past maintained that “we believe that we understand Iran better” (MK Narayanan) and how “the narrative of our relations against the background of our longstanding civilisational ties is therefore one of fundamental complementarities and natural affinities” (Nirupama Rao). The irony becomes stark when one considers that after forcing India to reappraise its ties with countries such as Myanmar and Iran, the US and its allies themselves plunge headlong into courting those very countries; but while they rush in to gain the first-mover advantage, India remains leaden-footed in capitalising on its friendly ties with the countries in question.
No doubt, Iran coming out of isolation makes India’s life easier in some ways but the signing of the nuclear deal and the eventual lifting of sanctions will pose a peculiar challenge to India. How countries such as Saudi Arabia will react in the months or years to come is not known. Compounding matters for New Delhi will be the realisation that Iran is not going to replace India’s friends in West Asia — Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, etc. For India, negotiating the minefield that is West Asia is not going to be easy.