Insulating Indo-Iranian ties

Image result for pics of Rouhani in hyderabad

(Rouhani at a Hyderabad mosque)

As I write this, Iran President Hassan Rouhani is sitting down to talk with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The latter can firm up bilateral relations in a way that hasn’t been done before in that the stake is now immeasurably strategic. Having shown tremendous strategic nous in getting Oman and Muscat on India’s side, something the Sultan Qaboos regime has been sending out feelers for, for more than a decade, and getting Duqm as a prized Indian military base in the Gulf, Modi now has the opportunity for sealing the country’s presence in that region — and maritime-wise outflanking China out of Gwadar at one end and Djibouti at the other end. Duqm, built up by the US military, is an alternative (to Bahrain)  forward headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet.

Rouhani has made clear what Tehran is putting on the table — permission for Indian investment in the rich Farzad-B gas field in southern Iran, Chahbahar as the Indian entrepot to the hinterland of Central Asia bypassing Pakistan, and a regime that will allow Indian investment in that country in rupees — in a sense monetarily extending India’s reach to the Gulf. With respect to Chahbahar, Modi needs to formalize — even if in a secret provision — not so far there — in the draft agreement on the table, the Indian military’s use of this port as an Indian naval base to preposition its stores. This is an imperative because in the regional chessboard a worried Pakistan military has revived its old association with Saudi Arabia by posting  a Pakistan Army contingent in Riyadh.

What does Rouhani expect in return? Tehran will very much appreciate a two-way economic-trade-investment milieu entirely insulated from the arbitrariness of the US policy towards Iran. Washington has tried to corral the lot of proximal Asian states to fall in line with the US policy of pressuring the shia clerics-run Iran. Most Gulf states being sunni, their religio-ideological interests adhere to American posture. But not so India, with the second largest shia population in the world (and nearly 20% of the almost 200 milllion strong Indian Muslim community) and in the thick of the sunni-shia contestation in the extended region. Indeed, one of the largest en bloc supporters of the ruling BJP are the Indian shia voters. Delhi can no more afford to alienate Tehran and the theocrats of Qom than it can upset the sunni world. So while Modi’s “balancing” act between Israel and Iran is a matter of traipsing along the sidelines because India’s policies to these two countries are on different tracks, avoiding the US call to Delhi to bandwagon with it against Iran is centrally injurious of the Indian national interest, and cannot be tolerated.

It is here that Modi will have to show strong conviction and communicate to Trump and Washington that it will be no part of any concerted Western-Arab sunni moves to inconvenience Iran, because it cannot afford to, that too much rests  on good relations with Tehran for any Indian government to risk losing a friendly country historically close to India. And that if, in extremis, India is asked which side it is on — the US should be told in no uncertain terms that the Indian government is on the side of India. For too long — almost 30 years now — Delhi has prosecuted relations with Tehran with an eye cocked to Washington. This is not necessary any more.

India has humungous leverage where the US is concerned — economic in terms of access to the largest free market in the world, and strategic in terms of size and location and formidable, if largely unimaginative, military forces, and the clear message that the US cannot do without a friendly India if it means to counter China. It is leverage that mousy Indian governments to-date haven’t used. Time Modi did.

India is pivotal, in a curious way, for both Iran and the US. Rouhani’s Iran recognizes this; Trump’s America doesn’t.

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.
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9 Responses to Insulating Indo-Iranian ties

  1. Edelbert Badwar says:

    Dear Bharat Karnadji,building military bases and ports, left right and centre is all very good.But what are we going to station in our ” Diego Garcias”.We are short of almost every major military
    hardware like submarines,fighter jets ,warships.minesweepers etc. etc.

  2. Shaurya says:

    We should do what we can to shore up Iran but from Iran’s perspective, if India invests $2 billion then China invests $25 Billion. China offers a UN veto and is willing to challenge the US to protect its geopolitical interests. China even offers military hardware something unavailable to them except from Russia. We need to step up our game and as Bharat pointed be absolutely been and seen to be willing to work with Iran independent of US interests and policies. Wish we have a MIC to offer.

    • Sir,ULTIMATELY it means carrying out our own FOREIGN POLICY, all these BABUS are worried about their children studying in NYU or Yales & then getting a job in US.

      • sanman says:

        Sir, I fear we don’t have the might to fulfill our autonomous ambitions, and we’d better go in for foreign tie-ups to bolster ourselves, or else risk falling flat on our own faces.

    • agreed ,but what stops US ( i mean us the indian people) when we have so much talent,so much potential

      • sanman says:

        Too much internal opposition and bickering. I was noticing how, when Modi welcomed Netanyahu in India, the Bollywood people overwhelmingly stayed away, but when Indian govt chose to downgrade meeting with Canada’s Trudeau, then Bollywood types enthusiastically flocked to embrace him. And yet our netas have the audacity to claim Bollywood gives India a lot of “soft power” – more like the opposite – Bollywood is a liability which exposes Indian masses to “soft power” and manipulation by anti-national interests. Govt should use tax raids to purge the anti-nationals.

  3. MS says:

    Bharat Karnad, your last blog on maldives has suddenly become relevant. I had commented that India has three nights to move in and make a difference before Chinese subs come in, and nodded in agreement with you.
    But then, of late with more information that military move may work against India-it actually means that we have not cultivated a leader in Maldives, I thought may be. Just now read, Chinese warships are there.
    All the other, otherwise truly smart analysts, can wonder about it. It all depends whether China is willing to take chances or not. It is clearly going in for the kill now.
    Why are things going bad with one after the other. We do not know how to drop money in the pockets of foreign leaders and get what we want? or we simple do not want anything till China appears.
    Meanwhile, your note on Iran shows that there is some meaning here even when we have lost elsewhere.

    • sanman says:

      I too just now left my latest remarks on Maldives, but under the previous blog entry. It seems the much-touted “strategic autonomy” is worthless and under-serving us, as we don’t have the capabilities or capacities to make anything of it. We are hopelessly outmatched by China, and it’s therefore incumbent upon us to seek external backing. The best hope for us is “Trump’s America” – even while we keep a wary eye on its opposing faction, the Atlanticist lobby, who are embedded in both US national parties while opposing Trump’s agenda from their dual perches. The Atlanticists represent a threat to us, even while posing a threat to America itself, due to their unending blood-feud with Russia, by hindering America from adapting to new global realities.
      The longer the new dispensation in Maldives is allowed to continue, the more China will become more entrenched there. We’ve only confirmed to China that we’re the toothless tiger they knew we were.

  4. sanman says:

    Mr Karnad,
    Strange that you should refer to “Trump’s America” in particular, when it’s the other faction of American policymaking which keeps India and even Asia at arm’s length while prederring to dwell on Europe and Russia. This latter faction are closely tied to the NATO lobby, and have put all their eggs in the European basket. It’s under their blinkered eyes that America was blindsided by 9-11, and now the rising spectre of Chinese hegemonism will bring the dropping of the other shoe.
    In my opinion, it’s Trump & Co who are less entrenched in obsolete Cold War thinking, and are more open to reaching out toward new alliances. Trump may have a personal fetish against Iran, in the same way that he was the only presidential candidate actively warning about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. But the fact is that China presents the biggest threat, along with the lesser threat of Pakistan – so India’s interests will have to be accommodated, as its help is needed against these two. It’s really a matter of India striking a sufficiently favorable bargain (like General Zia’s infamous “peanuts” stance)

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