New US-led UN sanctions against Iran do not affect us yet, but India should keep its options open with this cradle of civilisation
IRAN IS once again in the needle’s eye. This time it stems from the US-driven decision of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to tighten sanctions on Iran in a bid to compel its compliance with UN-mandated controls on its nuclear programme. It is the fourth round of sanctions, progressively tougher, with the full support of the P-5, two of whom, China and Russia, had earlier shown reluctance to tighten the screw any further. With this, all members of the Security Council have come around to accepting the need for stronger coercion if the ambiguities surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme are to be ended. But Iran remains undaunted by the mounting pressure. Its President has scornfully and defiantly dismissed the UN resolution.
It remains to be seen how effective the latest resolution proves but this move has thoroughly queered the pitch for the almost simultaneous tripartite Iran-Turkey-Brazil initiative. This three-nation arrangement had briefly raised hope that it could provide a way out of the prolonged impasse over Iran’s nuclear plans. The agreement is a complicated swap arrangement, whereby Iran agreed to send a portion, about half, of its uranium stock to Turkey for reprocessing and storage, receiving in exchange enriched nuclear material suitable for its research and medical requirements. Reprocessing was to be done under strict safeguards in fully safeguarded facilities, and eventually Iran’s own nuclear stock would be returned, enriched to a level sufficient for civilian use but far below what is needed for military purposes. This is a compromise arrangement leaving a few loopholes but aimed at building trust and confidence so that all parties could retreat from the brink. What made the plan plausible is that it is very similar in essentials to what had been proposed only a few months previously by the US, with France as the third party. Iran had rejected it then, quite probably because it was unable to agree to US involvement, yet after persuasion it was able to accept the alternative proposed by Turkey and Brazil. But now the US changed tack, rejected the three-nation deal, and preferred to push through a fourth round of sanctions through the UNSC for which it had been lobbying even as Turkey and Brazil were labouring on their joint scheme. In a demonstration of their unhappiness, these two countries voted against the resolution in the UNSC, even though as non-permanent members they could not halt the decision.
For India, these developments at the UN do not pose an immediate challenge. Not being a member of the Security Council, India has not been obliged to take a public position on the new resolution, and in any case it has been critical of Iran’s nuclear policy in the past. At the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005, and again in 2006, India joined others led by the USA in demanding greater transparency from Iran. Even though its anti-Iran vote at the IAEA drew criticism at home, India has remained insistent that Iran should abide by the commitments it accepted as a signatory to the NPT and not engage in what could be clandestine activity to develop nuclear weapons capacity. India can thus conform to the latest UNSC decision on sanctions without breaking fresh ground in its own approach to the matter.
For now, Pakistan’s stranglehold on India’s trade with Afghanistan has been loosened by a new route through Iran
India and Iran are divided on the nuclear issue but that does not imply wholesale antipathy between them, for theirs is a multi-faceted relationship with several positive features important to both. Ties between them are deeply embedded in history and have remained close even when the two countries were drawn in different directions during the Cold War and in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran has always been careful not to disseminate its revolutionary ideology in India and in recent years relations between the two have expanded significantly, helped by the fact that in their mutual dealings neither has to keep an eye cocked constantly for Pakistan. The bedrock of the India-Iran relationship is economic: India is rising fast, its energy demand is increasing rapidly, and it must look abroad for its needs. Iran is an abiding partner that has a strong interest in India as a long-term assured market. Its importance as a source of energy for India can only grow. There is thus an obvious synergy between the two. It is in this context that the proposed pipeline for natural gas from Iran through Pakistan to India should be seen. Iran has been actively promoting this project for two decades, while India has blown hot and cold, and currently the project seems dormant. India’s own lack of confidence in Pakistan’s role is at the core of the difficulty, which is unfortunate for Iran is right in seeing the pipeline as a key building block for peace in South Asia. For reasons of its own, the US is firmly opposed to the pipeline, though it can afford to make its objections sotto voce, confident that India’s doubts about its neighbour will suffice to keep the project unachieved. Nevertheless, pipeline or no pipeline, the energy relationship between India and Iran has grown, will continue to grow, and remain essential to both.
Further afield, there is considerable strategic convergence between the two countries in regional affairs. For some time now, Iran has been developing its surface transport links with Central Asia, having invested in new rail and road connections. Now it has provided facilities for an Indian-built road from the Gulf port of Chahbahar to the town of Delaram in western Afghanistan, a route which would effectively bypass Pakistan and permit Indian goods surface transit facilities to points in Central Asia. Maybe in time Pakistan will be more amenable to Indian goods transiting across its territory; for now its stranglehold has been loosened by this new route through Iran and Afghanistan. It should be recalled that Iran is the implacable foe of the Taliban and in an earlier era kept up the fight against them when practically all others, including the US, were prepared to come to terms. India too, then and now, has found it impossible to rest easy with the looming fear of the Taliban re-establishing themselves in Afghanistan. This is a complex policy area where India and Iran have convergent views and are both doing what they can to support a stable, effective regime in Kabul. So far as the immediate issues highlighted by the UNSC resolution are concerned, India is in no position today to play the mediatory role attempted by Brazil and Turkey. But in the Asia of the future, India may well have a more active part to play. In all events, notwithstanding the constraints imposed by the major powers in the UNSC, the well-established relationship between these two ancient Asian civilisations is set to grow and develop.
Haidar is a former Indian Foreign Secretary