A new perspective

Print edition : March 18, 2016

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Mohammad Javad Zarif in New Delhi on August 14, 2015. The author explains the change in bilateral relations since 1990 as the joint response of the two countries to unfettered U.S. hegemony. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

February 5, 1979: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, waving to supporters in Tehran shortly after his return from 15 years of exile. Photo: AFP

April 25, 1980: Iranians celebrate outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, shortly after the news of the failed American mission to rescue the hostages was announced on state radio. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The book is a comprehensive and substantial contribution to an understanding of the West Asian political and economic scenario and the historical and contemporary framework within which India’s ties with Iran have been shaped.

SINCE the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there has hardly been a day when Iran has not figured in world news. The revolution swept aside, under dramatic circumstances, a high-profile regime that had captured world attention with its glamour and imperial grandeur and replaced it with the dour and austere rule of religious clerics who were at once doctrinaire and ruthless. Under the leadership of the clerics, hundreds of political opponents were killed in frenzied bloodletting and thousands of others were incarcerated.

The United States Embassy in Tehran was attacked and its diplomats were held hostage in demeaning circumstances for 444 days, an event that is etched in the collective memory of most Americans as an unforgivable humiliation.

Then the nascent republic endured eight years of war unleashed upon it by neighbouring Iraq, which was backed by most Arab regimes who feared the allure of the Islamic Revolution for their domestic populace. The resilience of the revolution and the Iranian people was severely tested during this conflict, as the international community freely armed both sides and ignored the use of chemical weapons supplied to Iraq by Western factories. The war claimed a million victims and exhausted the capacity for further conflict on both sides. But Iranians exulted in their ability to endure the extraordinary privation inflicted upon them and in the fact that their nation and revolution had held firm when most of the world had turned its back on them.

What remarkable consequences the revolution and the war have had! Iraq, celebrating its own “victory” in the war, occupied Kuwait as a worthy prize for its sacrifices, initiating a series of events that included two Gulf wars, the devastation of the nation and the destruction of the regime and the political order. The U.S. did not forgive the humiliation of its diplomats and commenced a confrontation against Iran and its regime, which lasted more than 35 years.

Devastated and despoiled, Iran built a wall of resistance to the West, which viewed it with unabated hostility and threatened it with isolation and even assault. Iran saw itself as a nation with a great destiny on account of its history, its civilisation, and above all its Islamic Revolution.

Iran’s status as an untouchable has now drawn to a close: from late 2013, for over 18 months, its political leaders, diplomats and technical experts sat face to face with the world’s great powers and negotiated arrangements that would dismantle the onerous sanctions they had endured in the past few decades and provide their nation with the space and opportunity to pursue national development and assert its interests in regional and world affairs.

Sujata Ashwarya’s India-Iran Relations: Progress, Problems and Prospects could not have been better timed. A well-known scholar of West Asian affairs, the author, who is teaching at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, has pursued the theme of India-Iran relations on the broadest possible canvass, going back to bilateral ties that have existed since 1947, and placing each evolution in its relations in its regional and global context. Being an academic, she has explained these developments in the framework of the applicable international relations theory, which is a great boon for the scholars of the subject.

During the Cold War, India-Iran ties were obviously influenced by the two countries being in different camps. In view of sustained Russian expansion over Central Asia and parts of Iran through the 19th century after the Second World War, Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, had no choice but to seek security in the U.S.-sponsored Baghdad Pact (later Central Treaty Organisation, or CENTO) and maintain the closest possible political and military ties with the U.S., and by extension, with Turkey and Pakistan. India-Iran relations, therefore, remained, in the author’s words, “low-key, suspicious and even hostile at times”. This did not change much after the Islamic Revolution: India was wary of Iranian rhetoric relating to the “export” of the revolution; it did not share Iran’s vehement opposition to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and, during the Iran-Iraq conflict, attempted to maintain equidistance between the two warring countries.

Turning point

Real change in bilateral relations occurred after 1990. Sujata Ashwarya explains this as the joint response of the two countries to unfettered U.S. hegemony. She says: “Although they [India and Iran] were in no position to challenge the U.S. dominance in any significant measure, they made attempts at balancing the power accumulation at one pole by upgrading [their] bilateral relations”, which led to a convergence of views on several issues of strategic importance, particularly in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Thus, in 2003, the two countries finalised the New Delhi Declaration, which had a road map for strategic cooperation. This led to joint naval exercises in 2003 and 2006, the latter coinciding with U.S. President George Bush’s visit to India to discuss the nuclear deal, signalling, in the author’s words, “India’s intent to pursue independent and parallel bilateral relations with several countries consistent with its own interests”. Again, India and Iran worked closely against the expanding Taliban presence in Afghanistan, in cooperation with Russia and the Central Asian Republics, and from 2009 together disagreed with the U.S.’ attempts (at Pakistan’s prodding) to identify and deal with the “good” Taliban as an acceptable political force in the country.

At a joint meeting in January 2003, India, Iran and Afghanistan agreed to develop transport corridors for the “safe, smooth, rapid and low-cost” transportation of goods between them. The book contains some beautiful maps of trade and transit corridors linking India with Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. These include the Central Asian trade corridor, both road and rail, that goes from Mumbai to Bandar Abbas and then on to Central Asia and Moscow, and the road from Chabahar port to Afghanistan, the Zaranj-Delaram highway (already built by India), which could be extended to Kabul, and supported by a parallel rail route to Afghanistan’s Hajigak region, which is rich in iron ore and is just 130 kilometres from Kabul.

These routes have both an economic and strategic significance, but have remained mere lines on the map, possibly because the increasingly “crippling” sanctions on Iran constrained the development of economic relations. The development of Chabahar port, to which India is already politically and financially committed, would not only give Afghanistan access to the Indian Ocean, it would also balance China’s presence at Gwadar port in Pakistan, just 76 km away.

The nuclear issue has obviously been a more complex matter: while India has opposed Iran’s aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons (which Iran has consistently denied), it has robustly backed Iran’s right to the peaceful development of nuclear energy within the framework of the non-proliferation regime. The author asserts that “India does not feel threatened” by the possibility that Iran might develop nuclear weapons. On the other hand, India sees Iran as an “effective balancer in the region” which, in association with India, could put a brake on the regional hegemonic intentions of the sole superpower, the U.S. This also explains, as the author points out, why India has rejected a “full-fledged alliance with the United States” and, instead, has built up its own economic and military capabilities “to assure the autonomy of its foreign policy”.

The author devotes a large part of the book to analysing the perspectives of the major West Asian players—Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel—on regional issues and the implications these have had on their ties with India. She notes that India values its ties with all these countries, but their competitions and confrontations have meant that these relations have been “essentially independent and non-parallel”.

Having established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, India went on to expand links in the defence sector so that Israel is the second largest defence supplier to India, after Russia, and the source of a wide range of high-tech surveillance and counter-terrorism equipment. At the same time, India has remained a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause and has not hesitated to publicly castigate Israel for its violence and the steady expansion of its “colonies” in the occupied territories.

Iran retains its importance for India as a major source of energy and is its strategic partner in its quest to reach the markets of Central Asia and beyond. But the real change in India’s ties in the region has been with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is the principal supplier of oil to India and the home of India’s largest overseas community, estimated at three million. The kingdom is also a central figure in Arab and Islamic affairs, and the destination of millions of Muslims who go on a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For much of the Cold War and even after, political ties between India and Saudi Arabia were restricted by the dichotomy in their global affiliations, which meant that Saudi Arabia’s main ties were with the U.S. and Pakistan, relations that were tested and solidified on the battlefields of Afghanistan in the “global jehad” mounted by these three partners against the Soviet occupation.

Much has changed since then, though this has been missed by several Indian observers who continue to see Saudi-Pakistan ties through the prism of communitarian affiliation and fail to note the pragmatic approach that has come to define Saudi foreign policy over the past 15 years. This approach has given primacy to the development of “strategic partnerships” with Asian countries, particularly India and China. Political ties between India and Saudi Arabia obtained their contemporary character with the visit of then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to Riyadh in January 2001, when Saudi Arabia removed the Pakistan-related cobwebs that had restricted bilateral political relations and affirmed the value of ties with India on their own merits.

This was followed by the “strategic energy partnership” set out in the New Delhi Declaration of January 2006, and the “New Era of Strategic Partnership” set out in the Riyadh Declaration of February 2010. The main result of this has been deepening bilateral cooperation in the security sector, a significant change from the time Indian agencies used to view the kingdom as the principal source of regional violence and terror.

Today, West Asia is perhaps experiencing its severest crises: even as the U.S. and Iran have successfully addressed the nuclear issue, Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a visceral competition, shaped largely in sectarian terms, with the kingdom viewing the expansion of Iranian influence in the region as an “existential” threat. Israel, too, sees an “existential” threat from Iran, now free from the shackles of sanctions and seeking its legitimate place at the regional and global high table.

In fact, their shared concerns relating to Iran have led to some cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, particularly in pooling their considerable resources to lobby their friends in the U.S. against the nuclear agreement, the easing of U.S. sanctions, and the further strengthening of U.S.-Iran relations.

Challenges for Indian diplomacy

Sujata Ashwarya discusses in considerable detail how India’s interests are being affected by regional tensions and the forces of jehad and sectarianism unleashed in their wake, and the challenges they pose for Indian diplomacy. With the U.S. now little interested in pursuing a military role in the West Asian quagmire (that its earlier actions have done much to create), the opportunity has emerged for other countries with a substantial and abiding interest in regional security to get off the fence and assume responsibility to promote regional stability. India and China are the obvious lead role-players in this regard. The author mentions this briefly in her conclusion. She notes that India “finds itself in a unique yet challenging position in West Asia” in that it has substantial interests in the region and excellent ties with each of the major countries that are in contention with each other. She points out that while the traditional Indian approach has been “to walk the thin line by balancing its relationship with the contending powers”, it has made little effort to address and possibly resolve ongoing regional disputes.

She urges India to pursue a robust diplomatic effort with the Gulf sheikhdoms to promote their engagement with Iran which, in due course, will culminate in a regional security framework that will guarantee the security and territorial integrity of all regional states and provide platforms to address disputes and promote mutual confidence and trust. This framework will serve India’s long-term interests as well since it will moderate the national ambitions of individual members within the larger association, and in time attract other partners important for India, mainly from Central Asia.

There are just a few areas where I differ with the author. While discussing the establishment of India-Israel diplomatic ties, she refers to the anti-India resolutions of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as a possible contributing factor, besides, of course, the “Muslim” factor that she (and several other commentators) believes had delayed the resumption of diplomatic relations. I think both these suggestions are erroneous. The principal factor, which she herself highlights, was the fact that under U.S. patronage, Israel and Palestinians were in dialogue from 1991, and that the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat himself backed the Indo-Israeli diplomatic engagement as being helpful for the Palestinian cause.

Again, while discussing early India-Saudi Arabia ties, the author says they were “stunted” in the first few decades after Independence. This is not true because Jawaharlal Nehru, in his Glimpses of World History, welcomed the unification of the Saudi Kingdom under King Abdul Aziz, and as the author notes later, Nehru was a hero-figure in Saudi Arabia, being welcomed in 1956 with the slogan: “ marhaba rasool al salaam” (welcome, messenger of peace). Thus, her reference in this context to India’s “poor foreign policy calculations” is misplaced.

The divide between the two countries came much later when, from the 1960s, the kingdom competed with the challenges of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism (promoted by the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser) by burnishing its own Islamic credentials. But, the parting of ways, as noted above, was really because of different alignments during the Cold War, though this did not prevent the expansion of energy and economic ties and the preference for Indian human resource over other national communities.

While the book has an excellent chapter on India-Iran ties in the energy sector, I do not share the author’s optimism about the revival of the transnational gas pipelines from Iran to India, primarily in view of India’s deep mistrust of any initiative that involves Pakistan as a crucial participant; import of Iranian gas as liquefied natural gas (LNG) seems to be a more likely proposition. Similarly, while looking at the various transit corridors from Iran to Central Asia, the author could have explained in greater detail why such important initiatives for India’s strategic interests have not been pursued with greater vigour and enthusiasm.

Finally, I would have liked a more detailed conclusion, particularly with regard to India’s role in promoting the regional security framework, which the author has mentioned as the way forward in addressing the intractable disputes that bedevil West Asia.

But, these are minor quibbles. This book is a comprehensive and substantial contribution to our understanding of the West Asian political and economic scenario and the historical and contemporary framework within which India’s ties with Iran have been shaped. Besides attractive maps, the book includes as appendices the texts of important documents that constitute the milestones of India’s engagement with the region. (It would have been useful if the titles of these documents had been set out in the contents page.) This book will remain an important reference for scholars and policymakers interested in West Asia for years to come.

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