PM’s visit to Iran

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Just a month or so ago Prime Minister Modi was in Saudi Arabia, reinforcing a long standing relationship which is of great strategic importance to India. Over 2 million Indians reside there, remit money home and help retain the relationship which also provides much of India’s energy needs. All commentaries in India during that visit inevitably mentioned the need for balancing India’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran; the latter now on a fresh trajectory which is as yet tentative. Mr Modi has not disappointed them and is soon to embark on a journey to Iran. The strategic importance of this visit needs an early embedding in the public mind to enable it to savor the inevitable analyses which will then emerge.
Iran survived isolation for almost 35 years after its revolution in 1979 which overthrew the Shah and brought back Islam to prominence in every facet of the state. In many ways the rise of Shia Islam in 1979 led to the response from the Sunni Salafi world. The intense competition between the intra Islamic ideologies and belief led to a chain of events which have eventually culminated in the rise and current existence of the Islamic State (Daesh).  Trans-national terrorism driven by Radical Islam is being witnessed globally and its antecedents are rooted to the response to the rise of Iran’s brand of faith based radicalism.
The return of Iran to the status of being an accepted member of the international community, after years of isolation as a pariah state, has caused a flurry of activity. Its geo-strategic location is a major attraction besides the fact that it upholds one end of the Islamic political spectrum. Geo-strategically its control over the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf enhances its importance manifold. “The Straits of Hormuz, located between Oman and Iran, is the world’s most important oil chokepoint due to its daily oil flow of about 17 million bbl/d in 2011, roughly 35% of all seaborne traded oil and almost 20% of oil traded worldwide. More than 85% of these crude oil exports went to Asian markets”. The blockage of the Strait of Hormuz, even temporarily, could lead to substantial increases in total energy costs besides curbing availability at the user end.
For India it is all about Iran’s gas since Central Asian and Russian gas cannot be transported by overland pipelines due to Pakistan’s intransigence. As much as 10 percent of India’s gas needs can be brought in by overland pipeline from Iran if Pakistan relents (and it is to its economic advantage) and undersea pipelines have been under examination for long. However, everything was on hold due to sanctions against Iran all these years and India, although aware of the advantages of a strong economic relationship with Iran had to remain mindful of the international community’s imposed compulsions.
More than all the above is the geostrategic importance of Indian access through Chah Bahar (the Iranian sea port) to outflank Pakistan and reach out by land to Afghanistan and to Moscow’s North South Corridor. It is Central Asia which is again the hub of the New Great Game. In the older Great Game the aim was to prevent a southwardly Russian push towards the British Indian Empire. This time the Game is all about roads, railways, energy pipelines and to some extent ideology China’s westward and Russia’s eastern push must be balanced by India’s northern push. This is only possible through cooperation with Iran on the usage of Chah Bahar. Tehran has been playing hard to get and could be justified to an extent. However, it must realize that India was never acting alone against the interests of Iran; it was a part of an international consensus.
The last of the major gains provided by geostrategic aspects is the relatively low profile but nevertheless very crucial role Iran plays in Afghanistan. It’s a part of the Heart of Asia initiative and its location on the west of Baluchistan and Afghanistan offers a distinct strategic advantage to India. However, the Prime Minister would be well advised to avoid too much emphasis on this. Iran has, at best, been a reluctant player in the India-Pakistan strategic equation although fully aware of the significance it could enjoy. It is bound by compulsion to make low noises in favor of Pakistan due to the larger ambitions towards eventually becoming the flag bearer of the Islamic world. Even in the time of the Shah of Iran when no major compulsions existed, Iran had chosen to support Pakistan. This historical aberration need never influence Indian strategic thinking nor ever be a limitation for the future relationship.
Iran’s significance does alone not lie in the economic, energy and geo-strategic dimensions. Its ideological importance has always existed but it has punched below its weight in the Islamic world. Its brand of Shia Islam may be puritan in many ways but it has focused more on the theological and intellectual aspects of the faith rather than the political. India too has a Shia minority within its Islamic population which is under theological influence of the Iranian Islamic schools of faith. As the world struggles with a counter campaign against the Salafist brand Iran has yet to exert itself sufficiently. It is well recognized that the defeat of Daesh and its extermination can finally be only with the complete cooperation of Iran.
Will India’s relationship with Iran be influenced by the yet tentative nature of the US-Iran relationship, given the fact that the Indo-US strategic partnership is moving towards greater warmth? Iran’s strong brand of strategic independence is an exact reflection of India’s outlook towards strategic bilateral relationships. India did not display that strategic independence during the vote on Iran’s nuclear policy. However, there was a degree of pragmatism in that move. Now that Iran is opening itself up internationally and engaging many of the nations who also voted against it there is no need for India to be embarrassed by its earlier stance. Bold steps need to be taken to refurbish Iran’s economy and as one of its principal customers of energy India needs to contribute towards that.
In the military field joint cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries may not have been visible. However, intelligence sharing and consultation has been rife. Given India’s role in Afghanistan it is only through Iranian territory that India has ground access to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s antipathy towards Indian presence in Kandahar and other centers such as Herat has to be countered with the assistance of Iran. It would be recalled that both India and Iran sided with the Nine Party Alliance. India and Iran should be seen to be on the same side against international terrorism. In fact India’s good credentials should be utilized by Iran to divest itself of all perception about being a rogue state.
The timing of the Prime Minister’s visit appears apt although it may be following after the Chinese President’s visit.    An early visit would have found Iran still emerging from the effects of lifting of sanctions and financial compulsions. It now appears promisingly to be making strides towards acceptance in the international community. The only thing which will sound a jarring note for the Iranians is India’s very strong relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia. It will need convincing that India can play its friendship in all three directions without impinging on the interests of either of its partners.
As we come closer to the visit deeper analyses will be required to bring home starkly the level of strategic balance, orientation and focus which will be necessary to achieve all the aspirations of both nations.
(The writer is a former GOC of the Chinar Corps and now a part of two major Delhi think tanks, Vivekanand International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group)


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