We Have Shared Interests
We Have Shared Interests
By G Parthasarathy
21 July 2008
It became evident that our communist parties are determined to conduct foreign policy as though it was a comical soap opera when a luminary representing an avowedly atheist party landed up in Lucknow in a gathering full of Shia clerics, to pledge support for the Islamic Republic of Iran — a country, where his fellow communists, from the Tudeh Party, have been either incarcerated, or summarily executed.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thereafter justified India's growing ties with Iran on the grounds that India, like Iran, has a large Shia population. It is now argued that while we should reject the Indo-US nuclear deal designed to end global nuclear energy sanctions against India, because Indian Muslims allegedly oppose it, we should move ahead with the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline.
Then, there are controversies on whether Iran is an adversary or a "strategic partner". Crass communalisation of foreign and national security policies has now unfortunately become an integral part of our politics. Those opposing close ties with Iran refer to its hostile policies on Jammu and Kashmir, where it has combined rather extreme rhetoric, with support for anti-Indian resolutions in Islamic forums like the OIC.
Eyebrows have been raised about Iran's clandestine nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, at a time when it vociferously advocates that nuclear sanctions should not be ended against countries like India, which have not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. On the economic side, there are complaints about Iran being an unreliable partner. Unlike Qatar, which has scrupulously adhered to the terms of a long-term contract for supplying LNG, Iran unilaterally repudiated a $22 billion agreement it signed with India in August 2006, for supplying five million tons of LNG annually, demanding that higher prices should be paid.
There is also the case of Iran not abiding by earlier commitments to buy iron ore from Kudremukh in Karnataka. Thus, commercial deals with Iran have to be carefully negotiated to ensure that it does not wriggle out of its commitments.
Despite these misgivings, India-Iran ties have immense strategic importance. Both countries have a common interest in opposing Taliban-style Wahhabi extremism in Afghanistan. For years, the two countries, together with Russia, backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. They have extended extensive economic assistance to the Karzai government. Iran extended support, including promises of rescue help, to the America-led ouster of the Taliban and thereafter at the Bonn Conference, which led to the installation of Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's president.
Iran will remain a crucial ally for India, should the NATO forces in Afghanistan choose to withdraw. The most important symbol of this strategic partnership is the Zaranj-Delaram highway that India is building in Afghanistan, which will link that landlocked country to the Iranian port of Chahbahar. When completed, this project will erode Pakistan's ability to deny Indian exports access to Afghanistan and end Pakistan's ability to blackmail its landlocked northern neighbour. Iran similarly remains important strategically, for our access to the markets of Central Asia and to Russia's Caspian ports.
The 2,700-kilometre IPI pipeline designed to supply 32 billion cubic metres of gas annually to India has been the subject of much controversy. India, like the European Union, should not be deterred by concerns of possible American sanctions, in proceeding with this project. But, the Manmohan Singh government has, like in the case of a proposed gas pipeline from Myanmar, bungled negotiations on the project, by getting involved in unnecessary negotiations with Pakistan, instead of insisting that it is entirely Iran's responsibility to deliver the gas at India's borders, with strict penalty clauses for non-fulfilment of contractual obligations. This appears to have now been set right. But, it is imperative that a major energy giant like Russia's GAZPROM be brought in with an equity stake in the project, as an additional guarantee of assured supplies, especially as western oil companies are unlikely to participate in the project.
India's relations with Iran are inevitably influenced by the controversies Iran is embroiled in, because of its nuclear enrichment programme. Both the US and Israel have made no secret of their determination to strike, if Iran comes close to developing nuclear weapons. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's provocative statements to "wipe out" Israel from the map have only escalated tensions in the region. Iran's neighbours like Saudi Arabia are also nervous about Iran's nuclear ambitions. With IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei proclaiming that Iran had cleared virtually all doubts about its nuclear programme and a US National Intelligence Estimate (representing the consensus view of 16 US intelligence agencies) declaring with "high confidence" that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, while keeping its weapons option open, a serious dialogue has now begun between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council, together with Germany and the EU, to find a way out of the nuclear impasse.
The western powers would be well advised to remember that national pride is an integral element of Iranian foreign policies. Mercifully, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has cautioned its mercurial president against "provocative and illogical sloganeering". India would do well to encourage and even facilitate moves for reconciliation between Iran on the one hand and the US and Israel on the other.
(The writer is a former Indian high commissioner to Karachi)
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi