Amid the rubble of the Middle East policy of the George W Bush-Ehud Olmert duo, there has been a true success story. The United States and Israel have largely succeeded in snatching India from the “other” side of the Middle Eastern geopolitical divide. This became evident more than once in the past week.
On October 26, US forces based in Iraq attacked the Syrian border village of Sukkaryiah. The attack triggered outrage regionally. Even the Arab League, which has an ambivalent attitude toward Damascus, felt compelled to condemn Washington. But Delhi looked away. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who paid a five-day visit to India in June – the first visit by a Syrian head of state in more than three decades – must be bemused why Delhi didn’t say at least what was so patently obvious, namely, it is wrong to violate the territorial integrity of a sovereign country.
Only in June had an Indian spokesman claimed that Assad’s visit “further consolidated the excellent relations that exist between India and Syria and identified new areas of bilateral cooperation”.
This dichotomy in India’s diplomacy with regard to the Muslim Middle East – excellent photo opportunities not quite translating as official policy and ultimately degenerating as publicity exercises in the competitive environment of Indian politics – was again on display during the weekend visit to Tehran by Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, from October 31 to November 2.
Mukherjee’s visit was badly timed. Only a few weeks had passed since Delhi hosted two visits by the Israeli and US army chiefs, Avi Mizrahi and George Casey, to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in a clear policy departure from past practice. The visits marked a quantum leap in US-Israel-India security cooperation. It provoked some sharp comments in the official Iranian media – about Delhi opening the door to Israeli and US involvement in the “Kashmir problem” against the backdrop of the Islamic militancy in the adjoining Pakistani tribal areas and in Afghanistan.
Just four days before Mukherjee arrived in Tehran, the Tehran Times newspaper, which is credited with reflecting Iranian thinking, featured an article roundly condemning the Indian stance on the Kashmir issue. Titled “The Black Day of Kashmir – 61 years of pain”, the article was ostensibly meant to coincide with the anniversary of the Indian military intervention in Kashmir on October 27, 1947, which it called “one of the darkest chapters in the history of South Asia”.
The article amounted to an unvarnished endorsement of the Pakistani point of view. It said, “India continues to defy the world by denying Kashmiris their inalienable right to determine their destiny … The atmosphere of tension in India-Pakistan relations has engendered instability and insecurity in South Asia. The urgency of the situation and the need to resolve the dispute as soon as possible cannot be over-emphasized … The world’s Muslims will always stand by the Kashmiris until they succeed in their struggle to attain the right to self-determination.”
The lengthy article recalled Iran’s “deep-rooted spiritual and cultural bonds with the people of Kashmir” and went on to fondly underscore that in Tehran, Kashmir is known as “Little Iran” – Kashmir-Iran-e-saghir.
Such rhetoric on the eve of a foreign minister-level visit from India hardly served the purpose of a “curtain-raiser”, except to warn Delhi in advance that it cannot be business as usual in Iran-India relations and that the chill in bilateral ties and the dissipation of mutual understanding must not be lightly taken as a mere hiccup.
Simply put, if Delhi’s intention was to project a semblance of normalcy in India’s relations with Iran and to create a favorable impact thereby on Muslim opinion in India, Tehran decided it would not play ball.
Washington and Tel Aviv must be quietly chuckling. Up until some three years ago, there was a constant refrain in India-Iran political exchanges – that their relationship constituted a factor of peace and stability in the region. But the mantra was completely lacking in the pronouncements of the two sides during Mukherjee’s visit. The two countries are drifting apart.
Mukherjee candidly admitted that “in this changing context, we need to look at India-Iran relations afresh”. Indeed, that “context” is dramatically changing. A fortnight before the visit, Delhi deployed for the first time ever a warship in the Persian Gulf region, which will operate in close coordination with the Western navies under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the region.
Mukherjee assertively said in Tehran, “India has a natural and abiding stake in the safety and security of the sea lanes of communication from the Malacca Strait to the Persian Gulf.”
But Delhi didn’t consult Tehran beforehand. Delhi instead approached Oman for assistance in berthing facilities for its warship. Tehran, meanwhile, views the Western naval deployments in the Persian Gulf with alarm. Last week, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi criticized the expansion of NATO to the east and called on regional governments to “distance themselves from competitive and hostile policies”.
Tehran would have most certainly noted Delhi’s decision to host a large-scale naval exercise with the US along India’s western coast in late October in which the nuclear-powered American aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and US nuclear submarines and frigates participated. Iran has since announced the opening of a new naval base in the southern port of Jask in the eastern part of the Strait of Hormuz. According to the chief of the Iranian navy, Admiral Habibollah Sayari, “With this new naval base, a new line of defense was created in the Persian Gulf. If necessary, we can prevent any enemy from entering the Persian Gulf’s strategic area.”
Sayari announced that Iran proposed to build yet another naval base to establish “an impenetrable line of defense at the entrance to the Sea of Oman”. He added, “If the enemy goes insane, we will drown them at the bottom of the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman before they reach the Strait of Hormuz and the entrance to the Persian Gulf.” Curiously, the Iranian announcement coincided with the consultations of Indian National Security Advisor M K Narayanan in Oman regrading an Indian proposal that the sultanate provide berthing facilities for the Indian warship deployed in the region.
Though Mukherjee’s visit to Tehran ended on Sunday, it has not yet been revealed whether President Mahmud Ahmadinejad received him. A call on the Iranian president – and, perhaps Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – was customary for visiting Indian foreign ministers in the halcyon days of the India-Iran strategic partnership. In another sign of the change in the Iranian mood, Tehran “downgraded” the Joint Economic Commission with India. Mottaki is no longer its co-chairman, as is the practice with Iran’s other major interlocutors and partner countries.
Thus, a series of icebergs has been lately slicing through the hull of the Titanic that used to be the grand old India-Iran “strategic partnership”. A disaster was waiting to happen ever since India voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency three years ago following US President George W Bush’s entreaties with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
At the root of it lies unprecedented US-Israeli interference in India’s Iran policy. Such interference is nothing new since the early 1990s, when Delhi established diplomatic relations with Israel. Delhi skillfully navigated the relationship with Iran, despite the robust growth of ties with Israel on a parallel track.
However, things began changing three to four years ago as Indian foreign policy in the region began getting more “security-centric” and Israel was elevated as a pivotal relationship. Today, in the Iranian perception, Delhi’s avowal that it is capable of buttressing the India-Iran relationship from the predatorial skill of US and Israeli diplomacy lacks credibility.
Tehran used to respect India’s perceived political will to retain its autonomy of action and thinking on regional issues. That confidence seems to have evaporated. Mottaki forcefully pleaded with Mukherjee that the two countries should focus on a relationship that served their “real interests” rather than fall into the “conspiracies of foreign powers” which hatch “mischief aimed at sowing discord” in Iran-India relations.
The litmus test is the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. It is obvious that Delhi is dragging its feet on the project, despite its great potential to boost India’s energy security – all because of US and Israeli pressure. Tehran finds itself in a dilemma. No doubt it is keen to partner with India in the project, but Tehran realizes that political will is lacking in Delhi.
At the same time, Tehran cannot cut out India altogether as it estimates it is only logical that some day soon, under a different leadership in Delhi, India will revert to this project in its compelling self-interest. The Iranian frustration showed when Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari told the media soon after Mukherjee concluded his visit, “Considering that we have lost many opportunities in the ‘peace pipeline’ project due to India’s procrastination, we have told that country to engage more actively.”
The US$7.5 billion, 2,700-kilometer pipeline has been in discussion for almost two decades. The pipeline is to begin from Iran’s Assalouyeh energy zone in the south and stretch over 1,100 kilometers through Iran. In Pakistan it is to pass through Balochistan and Sindh before linking up Rajasthan and Gujarat in western India.
Again, the geopolitics of the region dictate that Delhi and Tehran explore the frontiers of a common strategy towards Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban’s resurgence is apparent and its induction by the US into a coalition government in Kabul in the not-too-distant future appears highly probable. Mukherjee could have conceivably utilized the visit for such purpose.
The Iranian side indeed appeared keen for purposeful dialogue on Afghanistan. But Delhi isn’t willing. The priority in the Indian mindset is to harmonize its regional policies with the US (and Israel) as regards the “war on terror”. That includes Delhi’s Afghan policy.
The powerful chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council and former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, told Mukherjee, “Resolving the current crisis in Afghanistan requires extensive cooperation between Iran, India and Pakistan. This cooperation can bring tranquility to the region … The experience of the Soviet Union in this country [Afghanistan] shows that the path the West is now treading in Afghanistan will not yield the desired results. The signs that are currently observed in Afghanistan show that the West is not capable of resolving the problems of this country.”
Mukherjee responded, “No country outside the region can find a solution to the problems of regional countries and the regional states themselves should resolve the problems through cooperation with each other.” He added that India, Iran and Pakistan could play “important roles in regional events” and their cooperation would “help establish peace and stability” in the region.
The Indian timidity is despite the fact that India and Iran were staunch allies supporting the anti-Taliban alliance until the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Delhi would be aware that Tehran has sharply reacted to the current US, British, Saudi and Pakistani efforts to accommodate the Taliban. Actually, the Indian and Iranian positions have striking similarity insofar as neither thinks there is anything conceivable as “good Taliban”. Yet, Delhi shies from coordinating with Tehran lest it tread on US-Israeli sensitivities.
So far so good. But what happens if a Barack Obama presidency moves toward normalization of relations with Iran? Indeed, Russia and China seem to be getting ready for such an eventuality. Iran’s admission into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a full member has now become a certainty, with both the Russian and Chinese prime ministers affirming their support of the Iranian candidacy. Iran has been offered membership of the Black Sea Union. Russia is forming a gas cartel with Iran. (The SCO comprises China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.)
Above all, Delhi will face a new situation if Obama revisits the “war on terror”. As well-known Lebanese commentator Rami Khouri thoughtfully wrote, “US-backed governments in half a dozen countries are losing their battles and political confrontations with Islamist-led indigenous oppositions, and have to form national unity governments or explore other means of power … The American-Afghan tentative move to engage the Taliban politically is … a welcome sign that Washington is finally learning the value of seeing and resolving conflicts in their wider local and regional context. We may well see something similar happen in Iraq, including American-Iranian-Saudi-Syrian contacts in the near future.”
During his visit to Tehran, Mukherjee characterized the Persian Gulf as India’s “proximate neighborhood”, but there is no evidence Delhi has thought through its Middle East policy against the backdrop of impending shifts and realignments in the geopolitics of the region. Creative diplomacy lies in keeping all options open at a time of extreme volatility in regional politics.
On the other hand, it is a measure of the success of the US-Israeli diplomacy in recent years that Delhi increasingly finds itself at odds with Tehran’s growing ambitions as a regional power, whereas sufficient elbow room is available for them to co-exist. There is no real clash of interests between India and Iran. So, ultimately, who is to blame – Washington, Tel Aviv or New Delhi?
As far as Tehran is concerned, it is countering the US’s containment strategy and India’s political support is no more an imperative need in the denouement of the Iran nuclear file. Moreover, as Iran’s engagement by the West advances, Tehran will have no dearth of partners for energy cooperation. Least of all, the Gulf Cooperation Council states themselves are seeking accommodation with Iran and, arguably, they won’t need India as a “balancer”. The net result is that any weakening of India’s strong ties with Iran at the present juncture can only debilitate Delhi’s overall foreign policy in the Persian Gulf region in the critical period that lies ahead.
Delhi may ruffle feathers not only in Tehran but in regional capitals too – apart from Islamabad – if it presses ahead with the claim to be the pre-eminent power between the Persian Gulf and the Malacca Strait.
The Persian Gulf is a tough neighborhood and any grandstanding will not pass unnoticed. With only a fortnight to go for Manmohan to pay his first-ever visit to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh abruptly sought a postponement. If there is any political symbolism behind the Saudi move, it will surely emerge.