Originally Published 2005-10-03 05:30:14 Published on Oct 03, 2005
Two months back an observer had noted that "without India wanting to make it so, an impression is gaining ground that our American commitments seem to insist on intruding on India-Iran relations."
Triangles in a Relationship
Two months back an observer had noted that "without India wanting to make it so, an impression is gaining ground that our American commitments seem to insist on intruding on India-Iran relations."

The process can be traced and shows systematic planning. Early in the year prompted questions surfaced in the media about the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and received responses laced with nuances. The next stages were enmeshed in a series of denials and evasions, and of autonomy of thought and actions. The matter gathered momentum around the time of the Prime Minister's visit to Washington. Its public face remained focused on the advisability or otherwise of piped natural gas from Iran.

The Indo-American calculus has been developed on a set of parallel impulses. These are India's desire for (a) sustaining of its new rate of growth and attracting FDI to solve the problems of poverty; (b) maintaining pressure on Pakistan to check and suspend cross-border terrorism; (c) a recognition of its nuclear-weapon power status; (d) fuel supplies for its existing reactors; (e) civilian nuclear and space technology; (f) recognition as a global power symbolised through a permanent seat on the Security Council; (g) new military techniques and technologies emanating from RMA.

None of these, in Indian assessment, is attainable without the active assistance of the United States. The latter, on its part, and in pursuance of its goal of uninterrupted pre-eminence in the 21st century has indicated a willingness to concede ground on each of these, in a calibrated exercise intended to coax India to join the US-led coalition for globalisation, market economy and promotion of democracy against "Islamic" terrorism and nuclear proliferation in "axis of evil" states. Another reason mentioned by American commentators is the desire to build a counter-weight to China.

These strategic perceptions are amply reinforced by the lure of the Indian market and the ready availability of inexpensive Indian brain power. An ideological underpinning to the relationship is now being forged through the professed desire of both to preach democracy and proselytise the misguided. The un-stated major premise in the Indian thought process is the certitude that the new world order is a unipolar one and would remain so in the foreseeable future. The presence of a large and rich Indian Diaspora in the US has helped to influence elite perceptions in both lands.

The Iran factor in Indian strategic thinking has followed a different trajectory. Iran is the western neighbour of Pakistan and Afghanistan, occupies about half of the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz littoral and is a principal source of oil and gas. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties Iran was an alliance partner of the US and Pakistan and was viewed as such by New Delhi. The first signals of change were noticed after 1971.

Iran satisfied itself that India did not seek a common border with Iran through the destruction of (West) Pakistan; India, on its part, took note of the new situation in the Persian Gulf in the wake of the British withdrawal and the role that its western patrons wished to bestow on imperial Iran. The result was a healthy political and economic relationship in the 1973-1978 period.

The Revolution in Iran in 1979 took the world, and India, by surprise. Painstakingly, and notwithstanding an ingrained apathy for the mullah in many quarters, a new relationship was crafted despite the pressures of western antipathy and of the need to strike a balance in the long Iraq-Iran War. The relationship touched a low water mark in 1990 but was carefully retrieved. Steadily and on the basis of a mutuality of interests, a new foundation was laid to rejuvenate bilateral cooperation.

India and Iran cooperated actively against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Indian assistance to the Northern Alliance would have been difficult without Iranian help. In recent years and particularly after the visit of President Khatami in January 2004, a longer-term strategic dimension was added. It included (a) a road link to south-western Afghanistan commencing from the Iranian port of Chabahar; (b) a North-South corridor through Iran for access to Central Asia and Russia; and (c) longer term arrangements for cooperation in the field of energy. Each of these, understandably, can be furthered on the basis of mutual benefit and premised on relations of friendship and trust.

It is this element of trust that seems to have been dented by the Indian vote in the IAEA Board of Governors. The rationale of an affirmative vote on the EU draft is unclear and the reasons contradictory. The second EU draft was a modified version of the first draft whose specific purpose was to find Iran guilty and to refer its case to the Security Council in the context of a threat to international peace and security.

The official Indian view is that it did not agree with this but supported it nevertheless simply because the Indian request for some more time for negotiations was conceded. The time honoured practice in such cases, when a country is not in agreement with the substance of a resolution but does not wish to oppose it outright, is to abstain.

The reason why this was not done is to be found in a New York Times report of September 15. Reporting from UN, Steven Weisman quotes US officials as saying that if India fails to cooperate on the Iran resolution in the IAEA, the civilian nuclear energy agreement negotiated in July could be rejected by the Congress. Hence "the Bush Administration's insistence that a reluctant India join in the confrontation over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program." Thus a confrontation was forced, based on a presumption of guilt; and India was assigned a role in it. The India-EU Summit in New Delhi may have helped give it a final shape.

Reluctant India did join - even though neither it, not the IAEA, had any evidence of a "nuclear weapons program" in Iran. By involving India, the US achieved several objectives: sown the seeds of distrust and discord in Indo-Iranian relations, breached the consensus practice in the IAEA Board, disrupted the NAM solidarity on the same platform and, above all, created an atmosphere in which long term economic cooperation including supply of gas through the much-resented pipeline may confront tangible and intangible obstacles.

Iran has given vent to its feelings in the matter. National security adviser Ali Larijani put it simply: "India was our friend. We did not expect India to do so." Nor were good manners abandoned: "I believe friends should not be judged by a single action. Iran enjoys friendly relations with India. Of course, we have complaints about their behaviour." Given the sophistication of expression in Persian, there was no need for more. Action at other levels, elliptical but intended to cause pain, remains a possibility.

Did it have to be played this way? Did we need to exhibit our vulnerability to pressure so obviously? One is told that Indian national interest takes precedence. It does, absolutely. A small matter, of definition, however remains; more so when public and political opinion is fractured - as it was at the time of sending troops to Iraq. Then, as now, national interest was advocated with certitude.

The author is a former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, Ambassador to Iran and Vice Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University. He is presently Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Source: The Asian Age, New Delhi, September 30, 2005.
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