An Iranian sister

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

Age-old interactions, common security concerns and complementarity of economic interests make India and Iran natural partners. The time is ripe for India to take the initiative to fructify the relationship.

INDIA and Iran share a centuries-old, close cultural and civilisational experience. The two countries have in the past influenced each other in the fields of culture, art, architecture and language. But most of all, as I found during a recent visit to Iran (February 6-11, 2002), the common people's love for India and admiration for things Indian are profound. Here, the ordinary people are unreservedly and unconditionally pro-India.

This vast reservoir of mass goodwill for India has nothing to do with Iranian foreign policy, but is rooted in the genuine feeling of civilisational sisterhood. However, it is a paradox that at the popular level India has near-amnesia about Iran. Today's Iran is not comparable to the Taliban's Afghanistan. It is a country that is modernising and reforming, albeit at a slow pace. Women in Iran, for example, are much more empowered than those in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. They drive cars, and travel without a male relative as escort.

The people of Iran and India have interacted with each other since time immemorial. The continuity of these interactions was broken for a time after the British conquest of India in the early 19th century. Post-1947, there was a perception in Iran that India, though supportive of Iran, seemed to have a tilt towards the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Iran's foe. Iran had participated in the Asian Relations Conference convened in New Delhi in March 1947 by non-governmental organisations. At this forum, the Iranian delegate had extended his country's friendship and good wishes for India's Independence. But soon afterwards, Iran-India relations experienced the complex fallout of the Second World War. Iran found itself deeply involved in the Cold War. The Iranian people interpreted communism as a potential threat to the territorial integrity of the state, their social system and to the regime's security. They feared that the Soviet Union had a design to destabilise Iran through its ideological protege, the Tudeh Party, which had close links with the USSR. A definite policy predicated on close relations with the United States, anti-communism and the systematic expansion of Iranian military power was pursued deliberately by the Shah of Iran from that time.

But, despite this ancient link and reservoir of goodwill, the Indo-Iranian diplomatic and political relationship in the modern context began only in the 1960s with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's visit to Iran in 1963. But it remained just that - a visit by a voluble Nehru but not much action. Obviously India's tilt to the Soviet Union was responsible for this feeble, sporadic and delayed diplomatic effort to effect an India-Iran compact. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Iran much later in April 1974, but more on commercial grounds, in which the Hindujas played a role. Today the Hindujas are personae non grata in Iran.

While Iran aligned itself with the West, the Indian government after Independence had originally sought not to join one bloc or the other. But Nehru tilted towards the Soviet Union and state-dominated economic planning. India's policy of Soviet- tilted non-alignment and Iran's policy of alignment with the West, determined the parameters of Indo-Iranian relations in the post-War period until 1979 when the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran and the Shah was deposed. The Islamic Republic became virulently anti-U.S., while India under Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi progressively softened towards the U.S.

Besides these policies of alignment and non-alignment, there were other factors that determined Indo-Iranian relations from 1947 onwards.

Nehru's endorsement of the pro-Soviet Gamal Abdel Nasser as the leader of the Arab world and of his policies did not go down well with the Shah. Similarly, Nasser's crusade against monarchies and his attempts for the unification of Arab states by means of steps such as the formation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) through the merger of Egypt and Syria, only tended to increase the Shah's sense of insecurity.

The Shah's response to the perceived threats from these challenges came in two counter-moves. First, he sought to use Islam as a counter-ideology to neutralise secular Nasserism. That was why he supported the Islamic bloc. It was because of this that the Shah attempted to organise the Islamic conferences, particularly in the 1960s. Secondly, the Shah intensified his efforts to mitigate Iran's isolation by cultivating non-Arab countries in the region and neighbouring Pakistan. It may be stressed that the Shah's motives in taking an interest in Islamic solidarity and befriending Pakistan were basically political and not Islamic. Thus the Shah cultivated both Islam and Pakistan as a counterpoise to Nasserism and a possible Arab domination of the region. But this affected Indo-Iranian relations adversely.

FORMAL diplomatic relations between India and Iran commenced on March 15, 1950. One year after the formalisation of bilateral relations, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq of Iran nationalised the Anglo-Iranian oil company. But India's reaction to it was equivocal; it advocated the demand that Iran should give up its "unbending attitude". India had not yet acquired the Soviet tilt, and Nehru was a conscientious adherent to the Commonwealth.

Thereafter, regional alliances such as the Baghdad Pact and the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) were also not seen by India with favour, because the Baghdad Pact was instrumental in bringing Iran and Pakistan closer.

Thus the die was cast; there was very little in common between India's pro-Soviet non-alignment and Iran's alignment with the West. That was why for decades Indo-Iranian relations remained confined to non-political spheres such as trade and commerce.

It was P.V. Narasimha Rao who made the landmark move in September 1993 as the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The visit was mentioned by Iranian leader Hashemi Rafsanjani as "a turning point in bilateral relations".

One such manifestation of that turning point was the Iranian invitation to India to attend the Teheran Conference on Afghanistan in October 1996. The invitation was extended in spite of Pakistan's strong objection and threat to abstain from the conference. Pakistan ultimately carried out the threat. In 2001, after the "9/11" terrorist attack, the U.S. yielded to Pakistan and sidelined India in all consultations on Afghanistan. But not Iran.

India and Iran signed on April 10, 2001 the historic Teheran Declaration for the enhancement of bilateral cooperation. The declaration called for the establishment of a broad-based government in Afghanistan and expressed shared concern over international terrorism. It envisages that the two nations would cooperate to fight the menace of terrorism and respect each other's national security interests. There was complete convergence of views on combating terrorism. The two countries showed deep concern over the situation in Afghanistan where the Taliban-controlled areas had become a breeding ground of religious extremism and international terrorism. The declaration also stressed the need for a comprehensive convention against international terrorism being passed at the United Nations. This suggestion came on an initiative taken by New Delhi.

India and Iran share a multi-dimensional commonality of interests. Besides cultural interests, India and Iran have a congruence of benefits in economic and security matters. For example, Iran's large energy reserves can complement India's large energy deficit and India's strengths in industrial and managerial know-how and science and technology can meet Iran's need for the same. Iranians are keen to send their students to the Indian Institutes of Technology. This makes for long-term economic complementarity between the two countries. The gas pipeline is one such example in actualising this complementarity.

During 1999-2000, India's exports to Iran were worth $165.05 million, which represented a mere 4.04 per cent rise over the previous year. The top items of export from India during this period included tea, oil-meal, non-basmati rice, engineering goods, iron ore, basic chemicals and textiles (yarn and fabrics). But India's imports from Iran registered a 106.3 per cent increase, from $485.87 million in 1998-99 to $1,002.53 million in 1999-2000. The top items of import by India included crude oil, pulses, fruits and nuts, sulphur, metallurgical ores, metal scrap and inorganic/organic chemicals.

No wonder then that Iranian President Mohammed Khatami recently described India as Iran's "natural partner" - which sounds much more real and sincere than U.S. President George W. Bush describing India as a "natural ally".

As matters stand today, India and Iran share common security concerns and complementarity of economic interests in respect of three issues: energy, Afghanistan, and terrorism.

IRAN holds the largest gas reserves in the world after Russia and is a large reservoir of oil. It is, therefore, keen to find export markets. India, which has now emerged as one of the world's biggest consumer-importers of petroleum products, is in the best position to receive this natural largesse. India has to ensure its energy security, and hence has to look for long-term partnerships, and it is because of this that cooperation in the energy sector must be on top of the agenda between India and Iran. India's interest has been whetted with the recent discovery of Iran's largest known gasfield, Tabnak, with estimated reserves of more than 400 billion cubic metres.

Such vast reserves have enhanced Iran's position in the world energy market. India has emerged as the world's fifth largest petroleum-consuming, and an increasingly important gas-consuming, country. Since India's domestic production is unable to meet its requirements and the demand for energy is set to rise rapidly in the coming years, India is expected to purchase 20 million cubic metres of gas from Iran annually; of this about five million cubic metres will be in liquid form. The proposed gas pipeline from Iran to India has become the main focus of the relationship and is expected to provide long-lasting mutual benefits to both countries. The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that "building a gas pipeline from Iran to India would be one of the several beneficial projects that would cement bilateral ties". In this regard, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that the laying of the Iran-India gas pipeline will contribute greatly to regional peace and stability.

Iran has 5 per cent of the world's crude oil and 14 per cent of natural gas reserves. Its oil reserves are estimated at 88,200 million barrels and natural gas reserves at 23 billion cubic metres. (Russia has reserves of 47 billion cubic metres.)

There are three broad options to transport gas from Iran to India. The first, the cheapest in terms of monetary outlay and the easiest to build, is an overland pipeline via Pakistan (from Iran's Abousaliyeh facilities to Gujarat, through the deserts of Baluchistan). Iran has been seeking Indian cooperation in building this pipeline. The second is a shallow-water pipeline running along the continental shelf of Pakistan and India. Under the Law of the Sea, the laying of pipelines on the edge of the continental shelf requires only delineation permission from Pakistan. The third option is to lay pipelines on the sea-bed from the Straits of Hormuz to the Arabian Sea. This is the most expensive option. There is a fourth option, which is already in place - transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) by tankers. But while the LNG option sounds safer, the expenses are considerable. Going by 1999 prices, the expenses are in the range of $2 billion for a liquefaction unit, $200 million for an LNG tanker and $500 million for a re-gasification facility, plus the cost of inland pipelines.

Iran and India are currently engaged in finalising the gas pipeline project for the transportation of natural gas to India. In 1993, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the project. But a choice in transmission technology has to be made: to send gas by overland pipeline via Pakistan or via under-sea means? While the cost outlay for an overland pipeline is the cheapest, a more sophisticated, risk-discounted calculation turns the analysis on its head. Then, the seabed route is the cheapest.

In the past three years an Indo-Iranian Joint Working Group (JWG) studied this aspect of energy supplies from Iran to India. Iran had conveyed to India that a deep-sea pipeline was not viable, commercially and technically, and that the only viable option was an overland route running through Pakistani territory. For India, the gas pipeline passing through Pakistan has major security implications. The Indian government is deeply apprehensive that Pakistan might disrupt the supply of gas during a period of military or diplomatic tension between the two countries. Conseq-uently, India asked Iran to ensure Pakistan's commitment for the security of the project, and President Pervez Musharraf gave such an assurance to the Iranian government.

Is that enough, since leaders are mortal? Iran has agreed to provide a sovereign guarantee for the supply of gas. The Iranian government has also promised to give an undertaking to the Indian government that if Pakistan at any point of time cuts off gas supplies to India, Iran will supply an equal amount of LNG to India at the same price. Teheran has also assured New Delhi that it will stop delivery of gas to Pakistan if Islamabad disrupts gas supplies to India.

When Pakistan gave the green signal to the project, India, as a result of increased hostility in the post-Kargil situation, became reluctant to carry its supplies through Pakistan, fearing that these could be stopped in case of an emergency. Finally, Iran told India that the only viable option was an overland route through Pakistan. In response to India's apprehensions, Pakistan assured the Iranian government that it would guarantee the security of the pipeline. A letter from Minister of Petroleum and Natural Resources Usman Aminuddin assured his Iranian counterpart that "Pakistan was prepared to address all concerns of the Indian government in this regard and extend all guarantees they required". Also, at the first ever Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) energy conference in Pakistan in November 2000, Pakistan reaffirmed its commitment to allow uninterrupted gas supply to India through a pipeline from Iran.

But then this may become all the more expensive in the long run as New Delhi would need to shell out to Pakistan $400 million each year as transit fee. That is something which should bother New Delhi. Obviously Teheran does not want Islamabad to become a loser, even though Iran has formally endorsed India's stand on international terrorism and the reformist regime of Khamenei has condemned Pakistan on jehadi terrorism. Pakistan is interested in the pipeline in order to overcome the shortage of cash, but then the risk parameters have to be factored in. Teheran has now agreed to a feasibility study on a deep-sea pipeline, an indication that it has accepted India's security concern and that it is really in no mood to benefit Pakistan. On February 23 this year, Pakistan and Iran signed another MoU to undertake the pre-feasibility study for a 2,600-km Iran-India gas pipeline. But the Iranian Oil Minister clarified while signing the MoU in Islamabad that the studies would include an under-sea pipeline project as well, leaving the options open.

Nevertheless, India has to make it clear that it will not accept the option of involving Pakistan in the proposed gas pipeline project with Iran.

At an international conference on India's energy security, organised recently by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, speakers quoted a document published by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2000 to emphasise the need to keep Pakistan out of the proposed pipeline. The document ""Global Trends 2015: A dialogue about the future with non-government experts" says: "Pakistan will not recover easily from decades of political and economic mismanagement, divisive politics, corruption and ethnic friction. Nascent democratic reforms will produce little change in the face of opposition from an entrenched political elite and radical Islamic parties. Further domestic decline would benefit political activists who may significantly increase their role in national politics and alter the makeup of the military."

The document further says: "In a climate of continuing domestic turmoil, the central government's control will probably be reduced to the Punjabi heartland and the economic hub of Karachi." A bit alarmist perhaps, but who can rule it out? The risks are thus enormous from a country where religious fanatics can not only interrupt the pipeline flow but also turn it into a major source of disaster. Fortunately, the technology for the deep-sea route is available. A similar project was completed in the Black Sea recently, raising hopes of the feasibility of such a route, although the Iran-India route would be laid deeper in the seabed, something unprecedented. Both India and Iran will have to raise loans from international lending agencies, which the U.S. may block because Iran is involved. But it will be a test of India's diplomatic skills.

THE rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in recent years had drawn India and Iran closer in their assessment of the new threats to regional security. Both countries viewed the growth of the fundamentalist Taliban as a threat to the entire region. Kabul's role in drug trafficking and its harsh treatment of the Shia minority generated the legitimate apprehension that it would affect Iranian interests in Central Asia. Iran's media have also accused Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. of raising an armed Islamic force to encircle Iran. India, too, had made no secret of the role played by the Pakistan-Afghanistan nexus in the so-called Kashmir militancy. Neither India nor Iran recognised the administration of the Taliban fundamentalist Islamic militia, which swept Afghanistan in 1996 and ousted the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Both countries backed the moderate forces represented by the then government-in-exile of President Rabbani and favoured a peaceful settlement through the establishment of a broad-based government with the representation of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Events since the "9/11" terrorist attack have vindicated the Indo-Iranian view on Afghanistan. This should be a solid basis for India and Iran to stabilise Afghanistan.

The Kashmir problem had been the main point of difference between India and Iran throughout the period 1950-2000. Teheran had actively supported Pakistan, both within and outside the U.N. It also supported Pakistan during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. Since 1991 there has been a substantial dilution of Iran's stand even if it is ambivalent today. In 1991, during discussions between the leaders of the two countries, Iran agreed that Kashmir was an integral part of India. However, during his visit to Pakistan in September 1992, President Rafsanjani expressed support for the right of self-determination of Kashmiri Muslims. In July 1993, the Indian Foreign Secretary was told by Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati that Iran would not give any help to separatists in Kashmir and expressed full support for the territorial integrity of India. Iran assured Prime Minister Narasimha Rao during his visit to Iran in 1993 that it had no intention of interfering in India's internal affairs, including in Jammu and Kashmir. During his visit to India, President Rafsanjani pleaded for a peaceful solution of the Kashmir issue through bilateral negotiations between India and Pakistan.

At the ninth summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Doha in November 2000, the member-countries, including Iran, agreed not only to include the Kashmir issue in its resolution but also to impress upon India that the Islamic world cannot ignore the fate of Kashmiri Muslims. In its resolution the OIC called upon its member-states "to take all necessary measures to persuade India to put an immediate end to the violence in Kashmir". It emphasised that the international community must intervene in the Kashmir issue. On November 15, 2000, India rejected the OIC's demand with regard to the violence in Kashmir, emphasising that it was India's internal matter. But recent utterances by Iranian leaders have been quite moderate. They appear to be in favour of India and Pakistan bilaterally settling the Kashmir issue, a stand that is closer to India's. It is also to be recognised that Shia Muslims in Kargil and Ladakh, who have close religious connections with the mullahs in Iran, have always been fervent supporters of India and the Indian Army's activities in the region. Iran has consistently refrained from interfering in India's internal affairs despite OIC resolutions. Even on the Babri Masjid issue, Rafsanjani's speech in Lucknow in 1994 disappointed Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav.

India and Iran also have common concerns regarding the stability of Central Asia where both countries have developed strong political interests. As India has no direct access to the Central Asian Republics, Iran is its gateway for India to the markets and natural resources of that region. The construction of transport links among Iran, Russia and India will play a crucial role in the context of trade cooperation. It has been suggested by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) that India requires a North-South trade corridor running from Iran to southern Russia and Central Asia, instead of via Pakistan, for surface transportation of goods. The corridor, originating from Bandar Abbas, extending to the Caspian Sea, and eventually reaching Russia, has been described by India as an excellent outlet for its goods to the region. Both sides have agreed to encourage businessmen to make better use of the transit corridors through India, Iran, Turkmenistan and Russia. This will expand the role of Iran as a transit route to export Indian goods to Central Asia, the Caucasus and Russia. This point has pleased Iran, which is trying to develop its potential as a regional hub and as a link between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. India had earlier signed a tripartite agreement with Iran and Turkmenistan. Such treaties enable India to have a land trade route into Central Asia, the lack of which has long constricted the countryinfluence in that region. It is thus my suggestion that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation be expanded to include Iran and Afghanistan.

PRESIDENT Bush's State of the Union address, in which he named Iran - along with Iraq and North Korea - as part of an "axis of evil" sponsoring terrorism and developing weapons of mass destruction left little doubt in Iran that the U.S. administration's new policy towards the country is strengthening the position of hardline mullahs and weakening that of the reformist President Khatami. Bush's tough talk has prompted the rival factions leading Iran to unite in protest against the U.S. administration.

Why is the U.S. administration stepping up pressure on Iran, especially at a time when it is building the momentum for military action against Iraq's Saddam Hussein? What is amazing about Bush's approach to Iran, however, is that he is weakening the reformist Khatami. Until now the U.S. had joined European nations in the hope that Khatami could succeed in instilling democracy in Iran and opening up the country more to the outside world. Conservative clerics who have influence over the judiciary and other key levers of power have blocked reforms. Is it a fear that a democratic, moderate Iran might destabilise the U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, and other West Asian monarchies? Bush is a Master of Business Administration from Harvard, hence not stupid.

It appears that the U.S. is adopting a long-term strategy of regime change in Iran. Bush is perhaps harking back to the "Evil Empire" days, when President Ronald Reagan's words were said to have inspired dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. The Bush team hopes to exploit whatever disenchantment there is with Iran's regime, a sentiment which the U.S. thinks was evident during the recent soccer riots and a teachers' strike in Iran.

But this is ultimately counter-revolutionary thinking, especially if Bush's rhetoric ends up uniting factions under a nationalistic umbrella. India should not be a part of this line of thought. It is overstretched to imagine that Iran sponsors terrorism systematically through the Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel. While in Iran, I made it clear that I favoured warm and close relations between India and Israel for no other reason than that Israel has never done anything to harm India and, on the contrary, has come to India's help at critical times when the Islamic world was ranged against it. But that did not mean that India shares the Israeli or American perspective on every issue. On the same reasoning, India should not let Iran down when the U.S. slanders it as a part of the "evil axis".

Furthermore, neither the Hezbollah nor its patrons in Iran would have much to gain from getting too close to Al Qaeda. In religious terms, the Sunni fundamentalists ranged around Osama bin Laden are anathema to the Shiites of Iran and Lebanon. And while there is no doubt that Iran supports the Hezbollah, Newsweek's sources in Teheran estimate that though this "Party of God" receives $100 million a year from Iran, much of it through powerful religious foundations, the elected government in Teheran and much of the current Hezbollah leadership are trying to distance themselves from terrorist tactics. It is on record that Iran assisted the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism in Afghanistan and helped form the Hamid Karzai government. Iran did it discreetly, not like Vajpayee who bowed and scraped before Uncle Sam, and got nothing in return.

During my stay in Iran, I addressed the reputed Institute for Political and International Studies, the "think tank" of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, and the Department of Government at the University of Teheran. I was also taken by Iranian officials to the beautiful ancient city of Isfahan where I visited a functioning Zoroastrian fire temple (my wife is Zoroastrian). I also addressed the Indo-Iranian Friendship Association, the students of the Indian School that is run with the cooperation of the Indian Embassy (the Principal of the school is a Tamil by name K. Sridharan). In all these places, the thirst for contact with India is not only surprising but even flattering for Indians.

The need today is to build and promote a multi-dimensional collaboration with Iran in matters of trade, security, education and cultural exchange through bold initiatives. There is an immediate and urgent need for an Indian cultural centre in Teheran to promote yoga, ayurveda, music, films and so on, but for some mysterious reason the Ministry of External Affairs is stone deaf to this demand from the Indian Embassy in Teheran. I was surprised at the widespread interest in these subjects amongst Iranians. They even want to meet our swamijis! India messed up bilateral relations in the past. In the beginning it was owing to India's pro-Soviet tilt. Now it is because of its overweening desire to placate the U.S. It is time India now thought of itself as a pole in the multipolar world and cast foreign policy as a pursuit of its national interest without being anybody's junior partner. Iran, placed as it is geographically on the other frontier of Pakistan and being of Shia sub-faith, is India's natural ally in South Asian geo-politics. The moment is ripe for India to seize the initiative to fructify the relationship.

Subramanian Swamy is former Union Commerce Minister.

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