The framework agreement between P5+1 States and Iran ended up in the following way: The ‘great powers’ finally reconciled to an Iranian bomb, albeit making it tougher for Iran to make the N-bomb in the future. In return, Iran was assured that it would be freed from the burdens of a few critical economic sanctions in the near future.
What caused the two parties to agree to a compromise is equally significant: the immediate trigger was the threat posed by Daesh. The chronic trigger was a realisation by the P5+1 States that the marginal costs of the economic sanctions were starting to outweigh the marginal benefits they yielded.
At the zeroth level, Iran’s integration with the global economy will open the West Asian space like never before. India is uniquely placed in that it is perhaps the only state in the world having a non-adversarial bilateral relationship with every state in this fractious region. The new developments will alter Iran’s relative power in the region. Naturally, this is going to put to test India’s traditional balancing act.
India’s previous strategy was to deftly engage with all West Asian countries, while ensuring that neither of them is alienated because of India’s tilt towards someone else. This often involved keeping West Asian engagements under the radar in general, and interactions with Israel in particular.
The Modi government has indicated a shift in this approach with the impending visit to Israel, the first by an Indian PM. This new confidence suggests that India is willing to be more open with its presence across West Asia expecting that these countries will eventually reconcile with it. The success of this strategy will of course be bound by India’s own national power — economic, diplomatic and military, in that order.
Taking a cue from the Israel front, India would do well to justify its perception as a confident actor in the newly opened West Asian space by moving swiftly on areas of mutual benefit with Iran.
The first such area of co-operation is on the Afghanistan front. Tehran wants a stable Afghanistan for stalling narcotics trafficking, preventing an influx of Afghan refugees and stopping anti-Shia forces in the country. India too sees a stable and strategically autonomous Afghanistan as the cornerstone of its foreign policy for the region.
Consequently, this alignment of interests with regards to Afghanistan allows the two countries to do the following: First, fast-tracking the Chabahar port project will end Pakistan’s monopoly as a gateway to the landlocked Afghanistan. From an Indian perspective, it will also serve a secondary goal of attaining ground access to the Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Second, India and Iran will be able to invest.
their energies to prevent an Iraq like situation in Afghanistan. India and Iran can play a leading role in reaching out to Afghanistan’s northern neighbours and reconstitute an alliance as the one that existed in the 90’s. Such an alliance will act as a bulwark against forces like the Taliban and Daesh.
A second related area of co-operation is on countering terrorism on the Iran-Pakistan border. Border confrontations heated up several times last year, when the ISI backed Sunni militant group Jaish-ul-Adl attacked several Iranian border posts. In the short term, these confrontations pose a threat to India’s upcoming strategic assets in Iran – the Chabahar port and the railway network connecting it to Afghanistan. India and Iran can confront this challenge by expanding the Joint Working Group (JWG) on terrorism to include lessons learnt and actionable data on recruitment, training and operations of terrorist groups active in the western and eastern fronts of Pakistan.
The third area is economic co-operation. In the short-term, the removal of economic sanctions will lower oil prices which will bring some fiscal relief to India. In the long-term though, it will be important for India to diversify its trade basket with Iran. This will ensure that we have appropriate levers to rely on, in case geopolitical equations take a turn for the worse.
From an export angle, the opening of Iran’s markets means opportunities for Indian businesses. The open markets also mean that Indian businesses will face stiff international competition. Given that Iran will need India less than before, with the economic sanctions lifted, it will be up to India to raise its economic game.
In a global order where both, geo-economic and geo-political centres seem to be shifting, emerging powers like Iran are likely to play a greater role than ever before. Iran’s strong relationship with Russia, and now with China might lead to the expansion of BRICS in the middle-term, opening up new avenues for economic co-operation.
Besides acting on these opportunities, it will be equally important for India to not get carried away on the Iran front. This note of caution particularly applies to the case of the Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline (IPI). Though Iran is likely to renew its push for this project, India should stay miles away from it. A pipeline that passes through unfriendly territory is an additional weapon in the hands of the adversary.
India missed the chance to bring the US and Iran together because of a lack of intent and direction, for years. Luckily, India has a chance to make up for some of those missed chances now. It all depends on the speed and intent of India’s refurbished West Asia Policy.
Author Pranay Kotasthane.
Source: Niti Central