India’s Middle East policy is now entering interesting times. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Tehran this week days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia is an indication that New Delhi is serious about its multi-vector policy towards the region. In recent days, New Delhi has moved ahead on a number of initiatives with Iran. Not only has India finalized the draft Chabahar Agreement – also known as the International Transport and Transit Corridor Agreement with Afghanistan and Iran but a preliminary agreement on developing Farzad B gas field has also been accomplished during the recent visit by Indian Minister for State for Petroleum and Natural Resources Dharmendra Pradhan. All of these projects have been languishing for quite some time now much to Tehran’s consternation. India and Iran have been talking about Chabahar since 2002 while the initial agreement for exploration and development of Farzad B gas field was signed with a consortium of three Indian state companies in 2000.
During his recent visit to Iran, Pradhan offered to invest up to $20 billion in oil, petrochemicals and fertiliser projects in joint ventures with Iran if Tehran provides land and gas at concessional rates. He also expressed an interest in setting up an LNG plant and a gas cracker unit at Chabahar. The official lifting of western sanctions against Iran in January 2016 has expanded the scope of Indo-Iranian engagement significantly and India is trying to recalibrate its Iran policy. Iran’s crude oil exports to India are now three times higher compared to last year.
New Delhi has signed an air services agreement with Iran enhancing the number of flights between the two nations and allowing each other’s airlines to operate to additional destinations. The two sides have also inked a memorandum of understanding that is aimed at increasing bilateral trade to $30 billion from $15 billion. Plans are afoot for greater maritime cooperation, and Iran has already joined the Indian Navy’s annual initiative, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, which provides a forum for the navies of the Indian Ocean littoral states to engage with each other.
After years of dilly-dallying by the United Progressive Alliance government, the Narendra Modi government decided last year to invest $85.21 million in developing the strategically important Chabahar port in Iran, allowing India to circumvent Pakistan and open up a route to landlocked Afghanistan. The port, located 72km west of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, holds immense strategic and economic significance for India. It is already connected to the city of Zaranj in Afghanistan’s south-western province of Nimruz and can serve as India’s entry point to Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond. New Delhi and Tehran both view Chabahar as critical to developing connectivity with Kabul and as a geopolitical lever vis-à-vis Pakistan. This is a high-priority issue for the Modi government.
New Delhi’s ability to manoeuvre in Tehran had been limited because of Iran’s inability to find a workable solution with the West on its nuclear ambitions. As a Shia-Sunni divide fractures West Asia and as American outreach to Iran begins to reshape the region’s strategic environment, Indian diplomacy will be forced to navigate these tricky waters with diplomatic finesse.
The certainties of the past with which New Delhi has lived so far are coming to an end and a new uncertain landscape will challenge Indian foreign policy in the coming years. New Delhi will have to move away from the ideological trappings of the past where domestic political imperatives continue to constrain India’s options.
The geopolitics of the Middle East is always a difficult one to traverse, even for great powers, as the US has found to its considerable cost. Today, the Obama Administration is desperately trying to reduce its equities in a region that has been in perpetual turmoil, partly due to external interference and partly due to internal contradictions. This has led to an even greater regional turmoil in the process. Enter China in an attempt to gingerly probe its ability shape a new regional order. Chinese President XI Jinping’s visit to Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia earlier this year was aimed at gaining greater political and economic salience in a region where it has been reluctant to get involved so far. But as the balance of power in the region unravels, new equations are emerging and older paradigms are no longer sufficient to engage the region.
Indian Prime Minister’s high-profile visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been aimed at isolating Pakistan and enhancing New Delhi’s strategic space in the region. Now the government should push for a substantive reorientation in Indo-Iranian ties. A thaw in US-Iran relations, heralded by the new nuclear understanding between the two, should alleviate some of Indian concerns, allowing it to push forth with a more purposeful regional engagement.
Harsh V Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College London.
The views expressed are personal