India: Walking A Tightrope Seema Sirohi

India wants to link Chabahar to Turkmenistan and Russia with a rail line, and by road to Afghanistan. It may prove a lifeline of influence.

Hosting US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and an Iranian trade delegation at the same time was, perhaps, not a deliberate signal by New Delhi – but it does reflect the tough reality India faces in making friends and influencing people.

Clinton asked India do “even more” to slash oil imports from Iran because there was adequate Saudi supply. India already has quietly reduced Iranian imports by 15% while taking a public stand against US-led sanctions. Plans are underway for the Mangalore Refinery, the largest importer of Iranian crude, to drastically cut imports during the current financial year.

India has seen the writing on the wall and is doing the “needful”, to use that inelegant but perfectly fitting word of Indian officialdom, containing within it the parameters of karmic but adequate action. India is clearly part of the international effort to pressure Iran but it won’t be shouting its support from the rooftops. It prefers old-fashioned diplomacy, especially in these times of delicate coalitions and whimsical regional satraps. Yes, public demands from Clinton are a function of American political reality – a tough re-election campaign for President Obama and a restive US Congress laser-focussed on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Clearly, sanctions are working; Iran has come to the table to discuss its nuclear programme. This can be a potential foreign policy success for Obama, especially if the current round of talks leads to an understanding between major western powers and Tehran. Obama wants to appear tough on Iran but not so tough as to shut the door on negotiations.

While India gains little from appearing tough on Iran, its balancing act of following the US while maintaining ties with Tehran may yet succeed. Clinton knows India enough to understand its massive energy needs and developmental challenges. More than 400 million Indians are without access to commercial energy in a bipolar country of extreme privilege and excruciating poverty.

She also knows that India’s relations with Iran are riddled with complexity and even heartache. Dealing with Iran on the simplest of issues can be the hardest because Tehran has a history of arbitrary changes of mind. It is surely not blind anti-Americanism or a desire for “strategic autonomy” – the new stick for American neo-cons to beat India with – that compels Delhi to go against American wishes.

The hard fact is that Indian imports of Iranian crude will shrink further because avenues to pay are closing daily. Payments through the Asian Customs Union ended in December 2010 because of US sanctions, and as of March 2012, any international wire transfers to Iran became impossible. The Indian private sector is already marching out of Iran. Reliance has wound up for it hardly wants a tangle with the US financial system. The Indian Oil Corporation can’t find shipping tankers to bring the crude home.

As for the push to buy more Saudi oil, Saudi Arabia already is India’s largest supplier. It would be foolhardy to become overly dependent on one country no matter how friendly. The kingdom’s deep ties to Pakistan also make India slightly nervous.

India has other strategic calculations too. Iran will be a player in its circle of concern as US troops depart from Afghanistan in 2014. No one really knows how the Afghan-Taliban-Pakistan-US dynamic will finally unfold. It may be less important to Washington who rules Afghanistan so long as the US homeland is not attacked from its soil. But for India it is vital. Iran will become a big part of the strategic puzzle if Pakistan is left with all the leverage. It is important not to forget the ‘hood’ India lives in.

Relations with Iran are a necessity for both oil and geo-graphy, even though Tehran has hardly been supportive of India on key issues. Yet, India helped develop Iran’s Chabahar port in 2002 after China showed up in Gwadar in Pakistan, placing a big pearl in its string around India from which to monitor both Indian and US naval activity.

Chabahar is India’s only port of entry for aid to Afghanistan and for keeping lines open to Kabul. It is also the only way to Central Asia where again China’s footprint is large and growing. India wants to link Chabahar to Turkmenistan and Russia with a rail line, and by road to Afghanistan. It may prove a lifeline of influence.

Let us also not forget that one of the broad aims of the US-India Strategic Partnership was to “manage” the rise of China by coming together and pooling resources. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia was for the same reasons. Iran is part of that picture, no matter how unpalatable.

Finally, it is good to remember that 25% of India’s 175 million Muslims are Shia, a generally peaceful and peace-loving minority, mostly not involved in Hindu-Muslim violence and terrorism. But observant Shia tend to follow Iranian clerics for spiritual guidance. A few prominent leaders have completed their religious studies in Iran. They understand the geopolitics of oil and occupation and will not appreciate India rejecting Iran totally under US pressure, a move that could be easily exploited by Iran – and how.

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