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Joining the great game

india Updated: Jul 06, 2010 23:42 IST
Jayanth Jacob
Jayanth Jacob
Hindustan Times
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It was almost a throwback to the Cold War era.

India hadn’t ticked off the US, publicly at least, like this for years.

“We are justifiably concerned that the extra-territorial nature of certain unilateral sanctions recently imposed by individual countries (read: the US), with their restrictions on investment by third countries in Iran's energy sector, can have a direct and adverse impact on Indian companies and more importantly, on our energy security and our attempts to meet the development needs of our people,” Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said recently.

If the rhetoric was of Cold War vintage, the strategy was at least a century older – and her audience wasn’t in Washington or among New Delhi’s US-hating intellectual elite.

Rao was signaling India’s intent of staying on in the “great game” being played out in Afghanistan –using Iran both as an ally and a staging post.

But first some background: India has, for a while, been feeling left out in Afghanistan, despite its “humanitarian investment” of over $1 billion (Rs 4,650 crore) on helping rebuild that country.

With the US making periodic noises about pulling out, and Pakistan and its proxy, the Taliban, again emerging as important players in that country, India was fast running out of cards to play.

No wonder, phrases like “Iran is a key factor in regional stability” – last heard years ago – have again become fashionable in Indian policy circles.

Though the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline may never see the light of day (given that it has to pass through Pakistan) and though India’s dependence on Iranian oil is now negligible, Iran has something else to offer – access to Afghanistan.

“We are both neighbours of Afghanistan and Pakistan and have long suffered transnational terrorism emanating from beyond our borders. Neither of our countries wish to see the prospect of fundamentalist and extremist groups once again suppressing the aspirations of the Afghan people and forcing Afghanistan back to being a training ground and sanctuary for terrorist groups,” said Rao, in her speech titled ‘India-Iran: An enduring relationship’ on July 5.

India and Iran, despite other differences, therefore, are natural allies on Afghanistan.

How?

Because Shia Iran has a serious trust deficit with Sunni Pakistan; the Taliban remains implacably opposed to the regime in Tehran; and the Iranian leadership has been unable to build a rapport with Pakistan’s pro-US army generals.

“India and Iran have a lot of common interests in Afghanistan. The time has come to walk past the past and work together with warmth and transparency,” said former diplomat and commentator M.K. Bhadra Kumar. “The key issue is to win back the trust and confidence of the Iranians.”

After the acrimony over India voting against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency, India has been trying to rebuild its bridges with Tehran.

External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna recently visited Tehran. Then, the Indo-Iranian joint commission on energy and trade ties met this week after a gap of 16 months.

It is with this bigger picture in mind that India is helping Iran develop the Chabahar port, on that country's southeastern coast, and related railway lines.

“These are projects that are not only in the common interest of India, Iran and Afghanistan, but also the countries of Central Asia,” Rao had stressed in her speech.

Besides helping India counter the Chinese presence in the area (China is building the Gwadar port in neighbouring Pakistan), it will give India access to Iranian oil and gas and the Central Asian markets.

It will also give New Delhi a beachhead from which to project its influence in Afghanistan and continue its humanitarian assistance to that country.

And, if push comes to shove, it will also give India the wherewithal to provide assistance to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which may, in the event of an American withdrawal and a Taliban takeover, become India’s only ace in Kabul.

But the moot question is: how will India balance its ties with US and Iran?

“National interest dictates our policies. Iran is an important regional player and figures in a major way in our energy security plans. So, one can’t be linked with the other,” said an MEA official.

It’s early days yet. The players are still jockeying for position. The middle game promises to be more interesting.