During US secretary of state John Kerry’s visit, discussions would certainly have taken place on recent developments in Iran, but it is uncertain whether India outlined a new role for itself vis-à-vis that nation of over 75 million.
Critics of India’s foreign policy often point to deficiencies both in respect of a long-term strategic vision as well as India punching far below the country’s potential weight in global affairs. In recent years, there has been evidence of a much greater strategic content in the conduct of India’s foreign policy, such as its ‘look east’ orientation and a distinct attempt to normalise ties with its neighbours. In the case of Afghanistan, a nation one country away from India, a carefully-fashioned effort at providing development assistance has created a desirable impact. However, another nation, which is separated by our immediate neighbour to the northwest, is Iran. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, our ties with that country have been based on some degree of ambivalence, no doubt as a reaction to Iran’s own self-imposed isolation. Does the election of Hasan Rouhani as the President of Iran give us a new opportunity? The question is whether India sees itself as a possible mediator between Iran and the rest of the world for the sake of peace, and for long-term influence on Iran as a stable friend and possible partner in economic cooperation. And, what did we convey to John Kerry on our perceptions of Iran?
President Rouhani in his very first news conference has promised better relations with the outside world and described the alienation between Iran and the US as “an old wound which must be healed”. This perhaps represents a unique opportunity for India to provide a healing touch and to act as a facilitator in creating better understanding between Iran and the US. India has historically had close relations with Iran. The only hostility that occurred between the two nations was when the brutal Nadir Shah invaded India. Cultural ties have been maintained between Iran and several sections of Indian society at a stable level over a long period of time. It was in 1989 that this writer in collaboration with Ali Shams Ardekani, later deputy foreign minister of Iran, came up with the proposal for an Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline. At that stage, Iran was willing to offer very attractive terms over an extended period, which would have secured India’s energy future, brought about a far more productive relationship with Pakistan and perhaps influenced Iran’s relationship with the rest of the world. A lack of determined effort on our part and the complications of multiple ministries assessing this project aborted any possibilities of materialisation.
Iran possesses almost 16% of the world’s known reserves of natural gas, and has prospects for large discoveries right from the Caspian Sea to its southern region. It currently produces a very small share of its total capacity, and, therefore, has substantial potential for large scale exports on a sustained basis. Given India’s current problems with the supply of coal and limited prospects of major increases in indigenous production, stable imports of gas from Iran, with Pakistan as a stakeholder, would have made great sense for this country. Very firm and secure contractual arrangements linking the three countries were mapped out in a major project supported by the United Nations Development Programme in the mid-1990s. Those contractual arrangements, if implemented, would have made it very difficult for Pakistan to disrupt supplies to India. Additionally, part of the gas could have been earmarked for power generation in India to be supplied as electricity to Pakistan’s Punjab province as a security-enhancing measure.
A recent news report stated that the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency feels that Iran’s nuclear programme is making steady progress despite sanctions against that country. This is a fact which is not likely to be lost on America’s strategic planners. Since sanctions have not dissuaded Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, and given President Rouhani’s encouraging statements, perhaps the US would now also be cautiously open to dialogue with Iran, not directly, but possibly through the good offices of India, a country which the US trusts. Of course, as the Israeli leadership has stated, there is little likelihood of Iran changing the course of its nuclear activities despite the promise of Iran’s new leadership. In the normal course, this would be true, particularly since on as grave a matter as nuclear policy the final decision would remain in the hands of the mullahs. But if the weight of public opinion and a strong effort on the part of President Rouhani would favour a revision of the current status, the mullahs would find this difficult to counter. There is, therefore, a unique window of opportunity for India and the global community to seize the moment and attempt all that is required for bringing Iran into the fold of international cooperation and full participation in creating security in West Asia. Would our leaders pursue a dialogue with the US and Iran? There would be substantial benefits over the long term if such a three-way understanding could promote better relations between the US and Iran with prospects of regional peace and potential economic opportunities for India with Iran.
RK Pachauri is director general, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)
The views expressed by the author are personal