Too late to make good in Iran?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will betake himself to Iran May 21, there to finally sign the tripartite Chahbahar port agreement, also involving Afghanistan, and to deliver on the $20 billion promised that country as follow-up to Iran’s handing over the Farzad-B gas field to set up a gas cracker unit and a liquefied petroleum gas extraction unit. The more significant thing to see whether Modi will opt for the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline to carry the gas, the more expensive undersea pipeline to pump Farzad gas to an Indian port for onward distribution, or whether he’ll have the foresight to approve both these pipelines — there will not be a time in the next Century when India will not need Iranian energy. But if, given meagre resources, GOI has to choose, one hopes he will have the audacity to think strategic for a change — something his advisers have scant talent for — to opt for the IPI pipeline and initiate, at long last, the slow process of weaving the economies of the states of South Asia into a semblance of unitary economic space.

A critical mass of thinking is evolving in Pakistan that sees the futility of terminal enmity and the fact that this path is absolutely not affordable for Pakistan. (See two articles in todays’ Pakistani newspapers — The News,, and Express Tribune, Truth be told, India — even though limping towards the status of the third largest economy, can afford it even less because its problems are more massive and will require great foresight to tackle.

Iran has always been the energy lynchpin for India, a fact Tehran appreciated early on but New Delhi predictably didn’t, at least not in the decade 2004-2014. The Congress party government of Manmohan Singh regime was too busy trying to please and placate the United States by ensuring Indian policies conformed with Washington’s, to pause and contemplate whether this line helped India’s cause or even its larger security interests. If Washington decreed Iran a grave threat and sought to isolate that country by applying the financial tourniquet to its economic jugular, why, New Delhi was right there with America, in effect, supporting the regime of restraints imposed on Iran. Once the Obama Admin resolved the outstanding issues — in particular the future of Tehran’s Bomb programme — that regime was promptly ended, even as American companies rushed to Tehran to cut deals. The habitual laggard, India, followed but now with lot less leverage in Tehran.

True, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did say, in the presence of the visiting Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj in April this year, that the India-Iran ties defined a “partnership which has the potential of connecting the entire region”, which’s a truism. ( But it is nothing as effusive as what Tehran used to say during the long winter of its isolation when it was desperate for friends and, especially India, to help it out, assist in ways for it to transact with the outside world — “a friend in need…”. It was an opportunity Delhi irretrievably lost, because Manmohan Singh was intent on a nuclear deal with the US that, besides freezing India’s strategic capabilities at the level of a failed thermonuclear weapon design — necessitated, as his government saw it, hewing to US policy likes and dislikes. It was during this period that the first substantive offer was made to India of the Chahbahar port as India’s entrepot to Afghanistan and Central Asia and, not to be undervalued, its utility to the Indian navy as base outflanking the Chinese setup in Gwadar, just 70 miles or so down that coast to instantly neutralize any big Chinese naval designs in that area.

Modi’s government is still to figure out the means of transferring $6.5 billion in outstanding dues for Iranian oil and gas imports in the past because the usual international banking channels working out of New York, London and Western Europe were closed off by Washington. But this payments is a microcosm of the problem India faces every time its government loses sight of the national interest. New Delhi, I have long maintained, institutionally lacks what the great theorist and practitioner of geopolitics Halford Mackinder called, “the map reading habit of mind”. One deko at the map would have made it clear why Iran, for various reasons, is central to India’s strategic concerns, again something Tehran recognized before there was a flicker of understanding at the Indian end.

Quite apart from the military importance of Chahbahar, with road and rail grids radiating northwards through Afghanistan to Central Asia to the northeast and to Russia’s Northern Distribution Network to the northeast, India is offered trade lifeline skirting the sea route, connecting Chahbahar directly to St Petersburg or southwards to the ports on the Baltic coast. With the transport and communications lines in flow, Afghanistan can be endlessly supported from landward — to protect India’s centrality in that country, while offering Indian commerce easy access to the Central Asian markets. Not to be forgotten that, as part of this general scheme of things, Tajikistan had offered the Indian Air Force the use of its Farkhor air base in Ainee. Su-30MKIs based there would have been on line of sight target runs to the Chinese nuclear complex at Lop Nor in Xinjiang — a useful stick to have in hand should the situation ever heat up with China. Yes, the Russians are reasserting their presence in Central Asia, and the Farkhor base, that India has remetalled and enabled for launch of air operations and its use is a matter of contention (because Moscow fears India getting too close militarily to the US). But had Delhi shown the resolve and a genuinely independent foreign and security policy, many of these problems wouldn’t have arisen in the first place.

When the geostrategic relevance of Chahbahar was never in doubt, why did Delhi take so long to ink a deal? Once the decade long opportunity to get in close with Tehran was lost, and the occasion to capitalize on Iranian gratitude for befriending it when no other major country would, was wasted, once the Iran marketplace opened up the US eased up on financial and transactional restrictions, instead of being moved to head of the line for every consideration — which would have meant mainlining India’s manufacturing into the Iranian market, Delhi, without money muscle of a China, found itself at the back of the line, with Tehran looking and sounding less and less eager to give any concessions to India, or hand it any advantage whatsoever. Instead of tying up the Iranian domestic market — on pure barter terms because money transactions were difficult, we could have exported masses of automobiles and auto accessories, light industrial and consumer goods, besides traditional exports like Basmati rice, etc and otherwise kicked the Indian industry into a higher gear and solved a part of the unemployment problem — India now has next to no such gains and next to nothing by way of accumulated goodwill and leverage.

The negotiating therefore has descended to the bazaari level, even where Chahbahar was concerned. After all, Indian and Iranian bazaars are notorious for their skills at negotiating a price for any product. Access to Chahbahar is a big thing and Tehran was determined to get the maximum — because there was no great love or gratitude o anything. Being a straightforward, almost commercial, transaction, it became a matter of ego and negotiating tactics carried out with bazaari flair for bargain-hunting. When earlier Chahbahar was available for India with Delhi needing to help construct a south-north railway line, now India is paying dearly not just to refurbish and modernize the seaport itself but also for establishing and paying for the support infrastructure to extract and transport Farzad-B gas.

More and more, my posts on this blog, resemble an overlong lamentation about the Indian government making a hash of every opportunity that has come its way to make India a great power, as Admiral Arun Prakash wrote in describing the contents of my book — ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ that he reviewed. But this reality of squandered opportunities cannot be avoided. It is a matter of wonderment how Delhi can get it so wrong so often?

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, arms exports, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, Culture, domestic politics, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, indian policy -- Israel, Iran and West Asia, Indian Politics, Iran and West Asia, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Relations with Russia, Russia, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US., Weapons, West Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Too late to make good in Iran?

  1. vonMoltke says:

    On reading this blog over the last couple of years, I increasingly feel Abba Eban’s description of the Arabs as a people who “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” could more aptly have been applied to the government of India.

  2. =+*%%# says:

    Nothing unusual about this news. The government babudom operates on its indian stretchable time . We are a country where regular run of the mill work are delayed like holding 12th standard exams , building roads, buying artillery/fighters (not developing !).

  3. quickboy says:

    Well Indians have enough trouble in political level, Ever asked why U.S is a great power or for that matter U.K , well they have just two parties, and either has their proper agenda, compare that with a million personal parties whose only agenda is to get their children/grandchildren jijajis to power. That is the real problem, India’s Govt has always been at the best described as chaos, Let us see if BJP has a will to start some far sighted thinking, We always believe in knee-jerk reactions and that too after media start shouting about the problems….lol

  4. quickboy says:

    Also we can see how the current thinking goes and how short sighted and moved from substance, impractical and common-sense things are for example ltes see and read this for a min, This is about our prestigious TEJAS assembly line to be begun,
    “An expenditure of Rs.1,259 crore has been proposed for this purpose with 50 percent funding by HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited), 25 percent by IAF (Indian Air Force) and 25 percent by Indian Navy,” the minister said. The timeline for this will be 36 months from the date of sanction.
    Read more at:
    Now take a look at that , The whole funds are in fact less than one RAFFALE cost. How sophisticated that ASSEMBLY LINE is going to be?.

  5. The only person in India who can think is our Great Indian machiavelli.India should base its policy on two articles written in newspapers.Such kind of people have always existed in Pakistan.

    I am a full supporter of a pipeline from Iran to India.Well it will be a lot cheaper if the pipeline is built on land then in Sea.But it should be built from Iran-Balochistan-Sindh-India.

    • SS108 says:

      You make a lot of cheap comments, I’m not even sure why they get printed.
      Its easy to say anything we want to from the comforts of home- though up close and personal is another matter entirely.

  6. Vivek Jain says:

    Does modi govt knows that india doesn’t have thermonuclear weapon??

  7. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Told you so.

    “Wed May 25, 2016 9:01am IST
    U.S. lawmakers question India plans for Chabahar port

    “We have been very clear with the Indians (about) continuing restrictions on activities with respect to Iran,” Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said on Tuesday.

    “We have to examine the details of the Chabahar announcement to see where it falls in that place,” she testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    She noted that India and the United States have already strengthened their security cooperation in several areas. “We’re looking at what additional areas we can engage in to deepen that cooperation,” Biswal said.”

    These sorry #$%$^&&* have penetrated every part of Indian society. We had to compete against China for Chahbahar port and these wretches are supposed to ‘help’ us fight the Chinese. With ‘friends’ like these, its always better to wish for sanctions and enemies.

  8. andy says:

    However late it has transpired, the Chabahar port development and it’s affiliated projects for a transportation network connection to Afghanistan and the central Asian countries is a very welcome move by GOI.It not only checkmates the CPEC and the concurrent Chinese presence at the Gwadar port in Pakistan occupied Baluchistan(yes the Khanate of Kalat was a separate country and not a part of the British Dominion of India,it was invaded and illegally occupied by Pakistan in 1948 after the tribal invasion of Jammu And Kashmir was thwarted by the Indian armed forces and the ruler of Kalat coerced into signing the treaty of accession ,sowing the seeds of the Baloch insurgency for freedom, that persists to this day).

    It’s good to see some steps being taken to reassert Indian influence in a geographical area which has become strategically very important for India, it bespeaks a modern strategic mindset quiet unlike the introverted one prevalent since 1947.Indian presence at Chabahar(literally char bahar or four springs) is not new,Indian culture,commerce,men and material went to this region more than two thousand years ago.The coast of Makran was Alexander the greats conquest on his march to and from India,as he returned home Alexander bequeathed this territory to his trusted General Selucus Nicator with the express charge of holding off the man the Macedonians called Sandrocottus (Chandragupta Maurya).Chandragupta eventually defeated Selucus in battle and got back the territory into the Indian fold.

    Centuries later Alberunis Tarikh AL Hind identifies Chabahar as the port where India’s coastline began.

    Maybe India needs to make its own 9 dash line beginning at Chabahar right up to Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam where the temples of Angkor wat and other art and cultural events bear an Indian imprint ,with some of them still retaining Hindu rituals and festivals despite conversion to Islam.This is due to Indian influence in these areas from Centuries ago.Indian influence remains pervasive today despite New Delhi having ceded ground to Beijing in many places.

    It’s high time India got out of its defensive mindset and retrieves lost ground in this vast swathe of territory that has historically been India’s sphere of influence.In fact even the biggest religion of the Chinese(Buddhism)is also an Indian export. So much for China’s 9dash line and area of ” historical”influence in the South China Sea.

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