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Home > India > News > Columnists > C Uday Bhaskar

Iran, India and the 'great game'

May 02, 2008

The brief working visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Delhi on April 29 has led to considerable comment -- both before and after the visit -- and this has more to do with the manner in which Iran has become a litmus test for the 'autonomy' of India's foreign policy in the light of the India-US civilian nuclear co-operation agreement of July 2005.

At the outset it merits recall that in the lexicon of international relations, no nation has a truly pristine autonomous or independent foreign policy. A nation's foreign policy is crafted to advance or protect one of the many strands of the complex but abiding national interest (often economic or security related ) -- and to that extent adopting any foreign policy orientation is in itself an exercise in making the most viable of multiple choices in a given strategic context. Thus the normative objective of foreign policy is not about displaying defiance or merely seeking cordiality -- but to sub-serve a national interest determinant. 

The man the West loves to hate

Iran has loomed large in the Indian debate due to the divergence between New Delhi and Washington, DC over the manner in which each has perceived Tehran -- particularly after the election of Ahmadinejad as the Iranian President in 2005. Seen as a hardliner in the context of domestic Iranian politics, Ahmadinejad has been very critical of the West as an entity and the intimidation by the US for its characterisation of Iran as being part of 'an axis of evil' apropos its weapons of mass destruction profile.

India does not share this view of Iran and has conveyed as much to the US -- though it does have its own assessment of the nuclear issue in the regional and global context. Paradoxically, India and Iran have held divergent positions in the nuclear domain ever since the inception of the NPT. Iran signed the treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state while India has remained outside the NPT -- as it does today in 2008. Traditionally Iran has neither been helpful nor empathetic to the Indian position on the nuclear issue and this was evident during the 1995 NPT Extension Conference and in the immediate aftermath of the May 1998 Indian nuclear tests. In short -- India and Iran have differed on the nuclear nettle -- but this did not prevent engagement in trade -- specifically in the hydrocarbon sector. Thus India imports up to 8 percent of its oil from Iran and is exploring the possibility of increasing this to include gas -- which is where the current Ahmadinejad visit becomes relevant.

US is collapsing: Iran president

India and Iran have been engaged in sporadic negotiations over the supply of gas since the late 1980's and the transit through Pakistan has given this project a trilateral IPI contour. However there was little meaningful progress due to lack of consensus on the techno-commercial aspects that included pricing of the gas and transit fees, as also the physical security of the pipeline that will extend over 2,600 kms from Iran through Pakistan to India. The latter aspect has become central since three quarters of the transit route will be through the Baluchistan province in Pakistan which has a history of local opposition to gas pipelines and Islamabad has not been able to prevent attacks by Baluch rebels on Pakistan's domestic gas pipelines.

It was this complex ground reality that compelled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] to note in July 2005 when asked about the viability of the IPI pipeline: "I am realistic enough to realise that there are many risks, because considering all the uncertainties of the situation� I don't know if any international consortium of bankers would probably underwrite this project." The project will call for an investment of almost $7 billion (about Rs 28,000 crore). Since 2005, the IPI stalled over price negotiations -- both for the gas with Iran and the transit with Pakistan -- and in the interim, political and strategic developments further muddied the waters.

IPI pipeline doable: India

India's domestic debate over the US nuclear deal became more contested -- with the Iran policy becoming a lightning rod; Pakistan had not yet overcome its animosity towards India and the fixation that Kashmir must be resolved before there could be any progress on trade; and Iran was going through its own domestic convulsions as regards its nuclear program and its purported breach of commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency resulting from the revelation about the AQ Khan network It was in this context that India had voted along with the majority against Iran in the IAEA -- a position that has not changed. Here India's stand has been consistent -- that Iran should meet its obligations as a NNWS and satisfy the IAEA over its covert nuclear program -- and again it merits reiteration that India has not arrived at a determination or passed judgment over Iran's nuclear weapon status -- which is a departure from the US position.

It was significant that during the current visit, the Iranian President asserted that the Indian vote at the IAEA was no longer an issue of contention between the two countries and that he hoped that the IPI deal would be finalised in the next 45 days. This is a very optimistic assessment and highly desirable -- given India's growing energy needs and the market reality that oil is now trading at $120 a barrel -- but one would still urge a note of caution. None of the complex constraints that had eluded consensus -- techno-commercial and pipeline security aspects -- have disappeared. The political intent is there in all three countries and the change of stance in Pakistan is to be welcomed. But here again, the transit fee negotiations have not been concluded and fluctuations in the hydrocarbon market add greater complexity to the negotiations.

India should choose Iran, not US

India -- like China -- needs energy from any and every source to sustain its GDP growth and related developmental goals and Iran's importance cannot be ignored. The choice for India is not an 'either-or' option in relation to the US/Iran and the nuclear/oil sector. India needs both and the challenge for Indian foreign policy will be to realise both objectives. As of now India will have to engage with the US through quiet diplomacy as opposed to emotive public statements that stoke inflamed domestic opinion. With oil prices climbing, the compulsions of geo-politics and geo-economics are converging in the energy domain and some very unlikely political accommodations are being initiated.

Central Asia with Iran as a major gas supplier is the arena where the new 'great-game' is being played out and China, India and Japan [Images] are all seeking to protect their respective energy interests for the medium term -- and pipeline politics is the new instrumentality. The Ahmadinejad visit is part of this 21st century strategic chess-game but the fruition of the IPI gas pipeline will be a long haul. The desirability is not in doubt but the feasibility cannot be exaggerated.

Exclusive: S P Hinduja on Indo-Iran ties

Commodore Uday Bhaskar an independent security analyst is a former director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. He can be contacted at

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