A full day after the announcement came in Vienna that Iran and the world powers have reached an agreement on the nuclear issue, Delhi extended a cautious welcome. The foreign ministry spokesperson said that Delhi is waiting to see the text of the agreement but provisionally welcomed the «successful conclusion» of the negotiations.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers holds deep implications for India in terms of the bilateral relations, energy security as well as regional politics. The implications need to be weighed carefully since they do not necessarily run in a unilinear fashion.
Has India prepared itself for the paradigm shift? The below-the-radar consultations in Tehran by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in February probably helped to an extent.
But then, there has been no high level political visits to Iran since the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office one year back. (Modi met Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu within four months in power.)
Yet, the silver lining is that the Iranian side signaled to Doval their interest to revive the bilateral cooperation. Of course, the UN sanctions against Iran will spur massive economic activity in Iran. Virtually all sectors of the economy need technological upgrade and expansion. Infrastructure development on a massive scale can be expected. The decades-long import restrictions and the removal of banking restrictions may open up increased trade.
Clearly, an avenue of trade and economic cooperation opens up for India right in its neighborhood. Iran is an immensely rich country and unlike the Persian Gulf petrodollar states, it has a diversified economy with an industrial and technological base and a big market.
Delhi can expect a level playing field but Indian companies will face stiff competition, especially from the western countries and China. However, the Iranian elites and Indian business houses have also got along splendidly in history.
The Iranians have never hidden their keen interest in the gas pipeline project. Delhi should not lose time to get cracking. The western countries hope to turn Iran into a supplier of energy for Europe, while Iran will be keen to balance with a «Look East» policy focused on China and India.
Russia’s Gazprom has evinced interest in the project, which makes it an ideal Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] project, thereby enhancing its fame as «peace pipeline».
However, there are no indications so far that Delhi is having any rethink on the gas pipeline project. Indeed, the US’ preference would be that India chooses the TAPI pipeline, which would give the American companies a foothold in Turkmenistan and enable Washington to erode to an extent China’s present level of dominance in that country’s energy sector. To be sure, the TAPI could give some traction to the US’ overall presence in the Central Asian and Afghan chessboard, apart from the leverage to mentor India-Pakistan relations.
In geopolitical terms, the Iran nuclear deal profoundly impacts the power dynamic of the Persian Gulf and West Asia and the Indian Ocean. Simply put, a regional power with military potential – and economic prowess to back it – is rising in India’s neighborhood. The Indian strategic analysts, who are heavily under the influence of Israeli and American views, are manifestly anxious as to how Iran’s surge affects India’s own ambitions to be the dominant Indian Ocean power.
The point is, with Iran’s surge, the old regional order riveted around the Israel’s military dominance and the petrodollar states’ financial clout is crumbling. India, on the other hand, is closely aligned with Israel, and the Sunni Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf region have close links with the Indian political elites.
Without doubt, India factors in that while preparing for integration with the western countries, Iran also aspires to become an SCO member, is an enthusiastic votary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and maintains a high level of strategic understanding with Russia over regional issues. But, where there is total convergence possible between Russia, China and is probably that Iran is their natural ally in the fight against extremist Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.
The quality of the Indian-Iranian strategic relationship in the coming period will to an extent depend on India’s ties with Israel – although India will be loathe to admit it. Iran has been a victim of terrorism sponsored by Israeli intelligence and it will not lower its guard. While Iran cannot and will not object to India’s ties with Israel, the manner in which the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi flaunts its passion for «security cooperation» with Israel (intelligence-sharing, etc.) will not go down well with Tehran.
At any rate, «Islamophobia», which provides an ideological affinity and a vital alchemy to the present ruling elites’ passion for Israel, is illogical, since India has vital interests in the Muslim countries such as Iran (or Turkey or Malaysia). An early visit by Modi to Iran might give the much-needed course correction to India’s West Asian policies.
Again, with Iran no longer available as the bogeyman, Israel could come under pressure to address, finally, the root problem of the West Asian crisis, namely, the Palestine issue. Therefore, the present government’s deviation on India’s traditional support to the Palestine issue runs contrary to the spirit of the times. Recently, in the vote in the UN Human Rights Council, India abstained in favor of Israel, a development which drew forth angry criticism from Palestinian officials.
Iran has a complicated relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in cultural, political and strategic terms. But, happily, India doesn’t figure in it. The contradictions playing out against the backdrop of Islamic affinities are not such that India can exploit to its advantage, either. Iran’s policies toward these two neighboring countries have run independently of India’s relations with them and will continue to do so.
The Indian pundits often blithely assume that Iran can be a «second front» against Pakistan. But Iran will be unwilling to play such a role. Three things need to be noted in this context. One, Pakistan has made strenuous efforts lately to improve relations with Iran. Two, the nuances in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia (such as its refusal to participate in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen) have bearing on Iran’s vital security interests.
Three, in the emergent power dynamic in the region, Iran and Pakistan are on the same page in terms of their wariness over the US’ «pivot» strategy and their rejection of continued US military presence in Afghanistan. Both have exceptionally close relations with China and their respective approaches to the SCO and China’s Silk Road strategies as well as Russia’s assertiveness on the world stage are similar.
Besides, the two key factors that complicated Iran-Pakistan relations have begun receding – Iran’s outright hostility toward the «Great Satan» and its contempt toward the Pakistani elites’ traditional role as America’s principal local handymen.
All in all, how to finesse the quality of the Indian-Iranian co-habitation in the new regional environment becomes a major diplomatic challenge for Delhi, whilst it desires a substantive economic engagement is on the anvil between the two regional powers. From a medium and long-term perspective, Iran will be an assertive regional power and its capacity to project power is very substantial.
Indeed, the Indian Ocean is getting a bit more crowded than it is already. Delhi’s notion that Indian Ocean is India’s backyard is not sustainable. And so indeed the fanciful thought planted in the Indian mind by American think tankers and military officials in the recent years that Delhi should assume the role of a provider of security for the «Indo-Pacific» (stretching from the Persian Gulf to Australia.)
The cautious welcome being shown by Delhi to the Iran nuclear deal hints at a sense of unease. At the very minimum, Delhi could have and should have spontaneously expressed its happiness over Iran’s comeback to the world community. But it pointedly held back. The low-key Indian reaction emanated from the spokesman of the Indian foreign ministry, while world leaders by and large lost no time reacting.