Event ReportsPublished on Dec 22, 2007
Dr P R Kumaraswamy, Associate Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, initiated a discussion on ¿India, Iran and the US: The Problematic Triangle¿ at the ORF Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation on 22 December 2007.
India, Iran and the US: The Problematic Triangle

Dr P R Kumaraswamy, Associate Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, initiated a discussion on “India, Iran and the US: The Problematic Triangle” at the ORF Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation on 22 December 2007. His presentation was split into different sections, and under each of them, he analysed various aspects involving the three nations and their relations.

Prof. Kumaraswamy started with the caveat that Iran had all the makings of becoming a great power, a regional power in terms of people, territory and resources. Recalling the history of bilateral relations with Iran, which went back in time, he said post-Independence, they were not on best of terms. He attributed it to the ‘Cold War’, when India and Iran came to be identified respectively with the Soviet Union and the US on the one hand, and with Iraq and Pakistan, on the other. It was only in the post-Cold War decades that the ties were put on an even keel. It would be in India’s interest that this relation was nurtured, as in strategic terms Iran would act as a buffer on the western front. There was also the religious factor – of Iran being a Shiite nation, and India having the second largest Shia population after Iran.

At the same time, Prof Kumaraswamy said, much has been made of ties with Iran in terms of energy security. Hydrocarbon imports from Iran started only in the Nineties, when Iraq was unable to meet the demands/commitments in the aftermath of the ‘Kuwait War’. Today, Iran accounted for only eight per cent of the Indian imports, against 33 per cent from Saudi Arabia, and comparable supplies from Nigeria, Vietnam, the Emirates, Russia and Sudan. The hype attending on bilateral relations may be ‘politically correct’, but it was not necessarily astute. Indian corporates, including those in the public sector, investing in the Iranian oil industry faced the additional disadvantage of not being able to sell the products in the open market. They had to sell the oil only to the Iranian Government, at rates lower than the prevailing market price.

Prof. Kumaraswamy went on to highlight the rough weather that clouded the Iranian ties with the US. Both nations had not offloaded the historical baggage – respectively of the Washington backing for the Shah’s regime, and the 400-day ‘hostage crisis’, which in turn contributed to President Clinton losing re-election. The Iranian nuclear programme has added additional fuel, since. In this background, the Indo-US nuclear deal completed a triology. It was however important to note that neither the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, nor the proposed India-Pakistan-Iran pipeline deal, would meet all the energy needs of India. Either way, India had to look out for other sources to meet its oil and energy needs. On the question of the nuclear deal with the US, the Indian Government faced stiff opposition on the domestic front. On the oil pipeline deal with Iran, there was a problem with respect to pricing and cost constraints. While the $ 7-billion capital cost on the pipeline may not be too big for even Indian entities to invest at one go, the US law on sanctions against Iran, which impacted on investor-nations, could be a dampener.

Prof Kumaraswamy said that Indian foreign policy was neither clear, nor assertive enough to be able to explain New Delhi’s individual positions on the pipeline, and the IAEA vote against Iranian nuclear ambitions – and be able to stand by it. Allies of the US, like Japan, had done oil business with Iran in a big way, to meet their surging demand, and had delineated this from their long-term strategic ties with the US. Likewise, India could have justified the vote against the ‘Iranian nuclear aspirations’, by citing the unanimous mood of the 15-member UN Security Council, where Russia and China from among the P-5 voted with the West. With the delineation between the diplomatic mechanisms and the military calculations overlapping in many places, an impression had gained ground that India was unsure and uncertain in handling the relations with the US and Iran. The confusion was compounded furthermore by India’s intention of wanting to be nice to everyone, which in turn contributed to this capriciousness even more. The following points were made during the discussion:

  • Iran being an important player in the Persian Gulf, its relationship with its neighbours impinged a great deal on the relations it had with other countries, including India.
  • For India, Iran could be a good linkage to Central Asia. There was thus a need for New Delhi to pursue a non-parallel policy in international relations.
  • The comparative advantages of nuclear technology, and the competitiveness between LNG and CNG, both in terms of meeting India’s energy needs could not be overlooked or undermined.
  • As neighbours, Iran needed to engage Israel immaterial of the US opinion and that of the international community.
  • The US cannot resort to a military option in Iran whatever be the provocation. The only option was sanctions, and this too could have very serious international repercussions for all concerned.
  • The weakening of the dollar was a reality, but Iran opting for an euro-pricing of its oil would not generate much heat in an era of full convertibility.
  • India needed to balance the civilian nuclear deal with the US carefully against the energy security involving Iran. New Delhi should pursue a policy wherein its priorities were very clear and objectives synchronised in a way India was able to stand up and face emerging situations on the international scene.
  • Iran wanted to get out of its regional isolation.

List of participants

  1. Anand S, Student, Pondicherry University
  2. Anvar S, Social Activist
  3. Chanana R N, Professor, Department of Political Science, Madras Christian College
  4. Dhanalakshmi Ayyer, ORF
  5. Francis J Col., (retd)
  6. Gnanagugu N, Publisher
  7. Hariharan R, Col (retd), ex-MI
  8. Kalpana Chittaranjan, Dr, Consultant, EFICOR
  9. Mohan Raman, Rear-Admiral (Retd)
  10. Mouli Mahendran, Student, Dr Ambedkar Law College, ORF Chennai
  11. Ramesan S, Journalist
  12. Ravimani Wg Cdr (retd)
  13. Sankhya Krishnan, Researcher, Centre for Security Analysis (CSA), ORF Chennai
  14. Sathiya Moorthy N, ORF
  15. Shanmuganathan N, Director, Benchmark Advisory Services
  16. Srinivasan D, Secretary-General, Indian Concrete Institute (ICI)
  17. Sripathi Narayanan, Student, Dept of Defence & Strategic Studies, University of Madras
  18. Subramanyam V A Brig (retd)
  19. Sukumaran Naimbiar, M N, Member, BJP National Executive
  20. Suryanarayan V, Dr, Former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras
  21. Thanikachalam V, Dr, Professor, NITTTR, Taramani, ORF Chennai
  22. Vasan R S, Commodore (retd) ORF

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