By C. Raja Mohan
27 August, 2012
India must navigate turbulence of Iran-US and Iran-Saudi Arabia tensions
Every three years, there is much political excitement when the leaders of the non-aligned movement gather in some corner of the world. The hype, however, is rarely matched by the small pickings from NAM summits. At the last two summits, Sharm el-Sheikh (2009) and Havana (2006), the Indian public interest was focused on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meetings with the Pakistani leaders.
In Havana, Singh’s meeting with the then Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, came after the bombing of the Mumbai suburban trains and New Delhi’s decision to suspend the bilateral talks. Musharraf gave Singh a face-saver in the form of a new mechanism for terror talks and the PM announced the resumption of talks.
At Sharm el-Sheik, the reference to Balochistan in a banal joint statement on the talks between Singh and then Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani generated a big controversy in India and prevented Delhi from a quick resumption of the talks that were in a limbo after the terror attack on Mumbai at the end of November 2008.
This time round, the India-Pakistan talks are moving along at a snail’s pace. Few are willing to bet that a Singh-Zardari encounter in Tehran will produce a major political breakthrough.
Meanwhile, the NAM has long ceased to be an important element of India’s foreign policy. On the multilateral front, India is more interested in smaller groupings like the G-20, where it rubs shoulders with the top world leaders, the BRICS (where it is developing a new international agenda with China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa), and the IBSA (India’s own smaller shop with two other democratic middle powers, Brazil and South Africa).
Even more important for Delhi are the SAARC, the forum to promote India’s interests in the subcontinent, and the East Asia Summit that is a vehicle to strengthen India’s standing in a region of growing global importance.
Despite its general irrelevance, the NAM political theatre in Tehran has generated much international interest, thanks to Iran’s deepening conflicts with the United States and Israel. Washington and Tel Aviv are concerned that Iran will exploit the NAM summit for its own political ends.
As the multilateral United Nations sanctions and the unilateral American and European measures begin to bite, Iran has its back to the wall and unsurprisingly wants to use the NAM opportunity. Whether Tehran will succeed is a very different matter. The NAM is a sack of potatoes; many countries like India have tried and failed to lend it either political credibility or a strategic orientation.
NAM is rather good at empty rhetoric against the West on a range of issues, but has found it impossible to cope with civil wars and regional conflicts within the developing world. While Iran will try and direct NAM’s fire at the West and Israel, it has difficulties in mobilising support for its positions on the widening regional conflict within the Middle East, now centred on Syria.
According to one count, 70 of the 120 members of the NAM recently voted with a recent Saudi sponsored resolution in the UN General Assembly on Syria that Iran opposed.
As the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia deepens and acquires sectarian colours, India has walked the tight rope in the Middle East. India’s economic interests today are concentrated on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf — where nearly six million Indians work and send billions of dollars home.
The Arabian Peninsula will remain India’s main source of petroleum for a long time. While Iran is also a natural energy partner for India, Delhi’s oil business with Tehran has been severely circumscribed by the international sanctions. So far, India has carefully navigated the turbulence generated by the confrontation between Iran and the US by finding a balance between the competing imperatives of its relations with Tehran and Washington.
India has urged Iran to abide by its non-proliferation obligations, cautioned the US and Israel against the use of military force, and stayed on the right side of the redlines imposed by the American sanctions.
India’s geopolitical interests in Iran are real and go beyond energy security. Singh’s political dialogue with the Iranian leadership is undoubtedly the most important part of the PM’s visit to Tehran this week. His talks with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will touch on both regional and bilateral issues.
Given the uncertainty over the future of Afghanistan after the US ends its combat role there by 2014, India must necessarily engage with Iran that is an important neighbour to both Islamabad and Kabul. With Pakistan blocking India’s overland access to Afghanistan, Delhi has long explored alternative transit facilities through Iran. There has been much talk, for nearly a decade, of India joining Iran’s development of a new port at Chabahar on its southeastern coast.
Chabahar, not too far from Pakistan’s Gwadar port built recently with Chinese assistance, is aimed at leveraging Iran’s geographic advantages in Afghanistan and inner Asia. If Chabahar fits so nicely with Delhi’s search for access into Afghanistan, there was little movement on India’s participation. At least until recently.
If Tehran opens its territory to a liberal overland transit regime to Delhi and Kabul and allows them effective access to the Chabahar port and the special economic zones around it, India should offer a preferential trade arrangement and substantive financing for the development of the triangular transport corridor with Iran and Afghanistan. The ball, however, is in Tehran’s court.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi