|The glue that bonds India,
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Last week India and
Iran signed a multibillion-dollar deal under which
Iran will supply India with 7.5 million tons of
liquefied natural gas annually for 25 years
beginning 2009. The deal also envisages Indian
participation in the development of the Yadavaran
and Jufeyr oilfields in Iran.
that the gas deal will provide to the growing
India-Iran bilateral relationship is likely to be
noted with concern by several countries,
especially the United States, Israel, China and
India's ties with Iran have
grown significantly over the past decade.
Relations were not particularly good before that;
the two countries were on opposite sides during
the Cold War - Iran under the Shah was a close
ally of the US while non-aligned India was close
to the Soviets. The India-Iran relationship
remained distant after the 1979 Islamic Revolution
too, with Iran warming to Islamic Pakistan rather
than secular India.
It was in war-torn
Afghanistan in the 1990s that India and Iran
discovered that they shared security concerns -
the threat posed by the Pakistan-backed Taliban
regime in Afghanistan, for one. Shi'ite Iran saw
its security interests threatened by the Taliban
and predominantly Sunni Pakistan. This led to
Tehran redefining its perception of India and its
relationship with it.
India and Iran both
backed Afghanistan's Northern Alliance for several
years in an effort to dismantle the Taliban
regime. The two countries also discovered their
shared interest in accessing Central Asia's
natural resources. In January 2003, Iranian
President Mohammad Khatami was the chief guest at
India's Republic Day Parade - an honor Delhi
reserves for its closest friends.
Bilateral relations received a big fillip
during that visit: the two countries signed an
agreement that envisaged greater strategic
cooperation and put in place military and energy
deals valued at over US$25 billion. According to
reports in the media, the two countries signed a
secret accord that gave India access to Iranian
bases in the event of war with Pakistan. Both
governments, however, denied that such a deal had
Bilateral defense cooperation
in recent years is believed to be robust. Two
months after Khatami's visit, India and Iran
conducted joint naval exercises. India is said to
be selling arms to Tehran, training Iranian
military personnel and helping Iran maintain and
upgrade its Russian-made military hardware and
fighter aircraft. Bilateral exchanges of defense
and intelligence officials are now routine.
India is also assisting in the development
of Iranian port facilities and with the
construction of road and rail links in that
country. India, Iran and Russia have talked of
creating a Russo-Iranian-Indian transport corridor
that could radically transform political,
strategic and economic realities in the region.
Bilateral trade too is looking up. In 2003-04
India-Iran trade was $1.18 billion, up from $913
million in 2002-03.
The growing proximity
between India and Iran has triggered concern
in Washington, Jerusalem, Islamabad and Beijing.
China's demand for energy, like India's, is
growing at a rapid pace and Beijing and Delhi are
in competition over Iran's oil. India's profile in
Central Asia is growing rapidly and this, too,
worries China, which also has huge interests in
that region. Meanwhile, India-Iran cooperation,
especially in the defense field, alarms Pakistan,
which since September 11, 2001, feels encircled by
hostile governments in India, Iran and
growing friendship with Iran is also at odds with
its simultaneous improvement in ties with the US and
Israel. Like Pakistan (but for different reasons),
Israel is concerned about India's defense ties
with Iran. Israel fears that India could divert Israeli
military technology to Iran, a country it
describes as the "epicenter of terrorism". This
concern was in fact raised by the Israeli
delegation during Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's
visit to India in September 2003. Sharon is said
to have demanded explicit guarantees from India
that it would not transfer any technology acquired
from Israel to a third country, especially Iran.
India, while assuring Israel that such "leaking"
would not happen rejected Israeli calls to shun
As for the US, although India's
increasing economic engagement with Iran counters
Washington's effort to isolate the Iranian
government, this has not worried the Americans as
much as Delhi's growing defense cooperation with
Iran has. Like Israel, the US is worried that its
military technology could fall into the "wrong
hands" - Iran's, for instance. Iran is among the
countries that the Bush administration has
described as constituting the "axis of evil".
But it is with regard to its effort to
curb Iran's nuclear ambitions that the US will
closely watch India's response. Delhi and
Washington have been gradually identifying ways
they can cooperate in preventing the further
spread of nuclear technology as part of their Next
Steps in Strategic Partnership.
a nuclear Iran, even effecting a regime change in
that country, is a major foreign-policy goal for
the US. While India might prefer not having more
nuclear weapon powers in its neighborhood, it has
sought to avoid taking a public position in the
non-proliferation efforts aimed at Iran. India is
anxious to ensure that its own nuclear program
will not come under international pressure and to
this end prefers to maintain a silence on the
Iranian nuclear program.
It was only
in November that India broke its silence on the
issue when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called
on Iran to "honor the obligations and agreements
to which it is a party". Singh also said
that India hoped that the issue would not be "excessively
politicized" and that "it can be dealt
with within the framework of dialogue between
Iran and the [International Atomic Energy Agency]".
Clearly, Delhi is uneasy with the United States'
objectives and role in the crisis. How India will
respond in the event of the nuclear crisis
reaching some kind of showdown remains to be seen,
especially in the context of India's growing ties
with Israel and the US on the one hand and the
warming relations with Iran on the other.
India's interest in Iran stems
primarily from its demand for oil, a thirst that Iran is
in position to satiate. Iran is the Organization
of the Petroleum Exporting Countries'
second-largest oil producer and sits on 10% of the world's
proven oil reserves. It also has the
world's second-largest natural-gas reserves. Delhi sees
Iran as a viable corridor to access the natural
resources and economic opportunities of Central
Asia and Afghanistan.
Delhi also values
Iran's support to India on the Kashmir question
and sees Tehran as its friend in the Islamic
Meanwhile, Iran sees in India
a cost-effective source of high-technology inputs.
More important, it sees in India potential means
to break out of its isolation caused in part by
the United States' containment policies.
Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist
at the Washington-based United States Institute
for Peace, points out that "India's value in
this regard has only expanded in recent years as
India has forged key relations with the United
States, Israel, the European Union and the states
of Southeast and Northeast Asia". Post-September 11
Iran needs India "more than ever". Iran needs
friends. And India has extended its hand to
Tehran. Last week's energy pact between the two
signals that the relationship is based on sound
economic calculations and is here to stay.
India says it refuses to see international
relations as a zero-sum game. "The United States
has its relationship with Pakistan, which is
separate from our own relationship with them,"
says Navtej Sarna, spokesperson of India's
Ministry of External Affairs. "Our relationship
with Iran is peaceful and largely economic. We do
not expect it to affect our continuing good
relations with the United States."
is of course keen to ensure that the upswing in
its multi-dimensional relations with US continues.
It is also anxious to preserve its growing
military ties with Israel. This could restrict
Delhi's dreams of deepening engagement with Iran
to some extent. But India will be reluctant to
walk away from Iran as its relationship with
Tehran provides it with immense economic and
political advantages. Commenting on the
Iran-India-Israel relationship, P R Kumaraswamy,
professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in
New Delhi, warns that Israel "will have to
recognize, accept and accommodate India's
interests in cultivating friendly ties with Iran".
The US and Israel would both do well to heed that
Several analysts - American and
Indian - have pointed out that instead of scowling
at the growing relationship between India and
Iran, the US and Israel should wake up to the fact
that they have much to gain from India's warming
ties with Iran. Fair points out that the
Iran-India relationship could help advance
longstanding US objectives, including regional
stability and security, promotion of democracy in
Iran and the containment of Wahhabi extremism.
an article in the International Herald Tribune
titled "India + Iran =
Stability", Stanley Weiss, chairman of Business
Executives for National Security (a
Washington-based, nonpartisan organization of
business leaders)points out, "India's new ties
with Iran make it more, not less, valuable to
Washington." US President George Bush "should
recognize that India and Iran are the key to
regional stability, and join New Delhi and Tehran
in an axis of friendship", he writes.
Rahul Bedi, Jane's Defence Weekly's
correspondent in India, too sees the India-Iranian
relationship as a stabilizing force in the region
and in accord with Washington's long-term
interests. "India and Iran's cooperation began in
Afghanistan, where their support was key in
overthrowing the Taliban," Bedi points out. "Their
continued cooperation will promote the
stabilization and development of Central Asia.
Perhaps India can also act as a bridge between
Iran and the United States."
watching warily at the growing proximity between
India and Tehran, the US and Israel should see how
they can leverage this relationship to their
benefit. Unlike the US and Israel, Iran has been
accommodative of India's growing ties with
Washington and Tel Aviv. It has wisely avoided
making its interaction with India hostage to the
latter's ties with the US and Israel, an approach
that Washington and Tel Aviv can adopt to their
is an independent journalist/researcher based in
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