Iran-Pakistan Relations and India
Iran is key to India’s Middle East and Central Asia policies, apart from being a major contributor to India’s growing energy needs. In terms of connectivity, it is the major hub through which India draws strength to meet its ambition of connecting with Central Asian Republics (CAR) and Afghanistan. However, Iran is not just that. Iran today provides enormous opportunities to Indian diplomacy to find its mean in a transforming word order. What then are the challenges and can India articulate and execute “Blue Ocean Strategies” to convert the challenges into great opportunities?
There are two major challenges to unravel the true potential of Indian public diplomacy here. First, the US – Iran relations where sanctions by US have deeply affected India’s latitude to deal freely with Iran. The second is the Iran – Pakistan relations in the light of deteriorating US – Pakistan matrix which is being exploited by Russia, China and Iran to form an axis against US in the region. A similar equation holds good in view of Syria’s political turmoil leading to an impending or arrived civil war.
It is, therefore, important to study the Iran – Pakistan relation in view of the developing situation in the region keeping 2014 in mind.
Iran was the first country to recognise Pakistan in 1947. Ever since, relations between the two neighbours have seen a series of ups and downs. The Shah’s Iran was the golden period of this relationship where both countries were US allies and had joined CENTO. Pakistan army’s support to suppress the Baloch insurgency in 1970 cemented this relation further. It is presumed that Iran provided financial assistance to Pakistan for the atomic test post India’s 1974 Pokharan nuclear explosion. This trajectory nose-dived with the fall of Shah in 1979. The Shia – Sunni narrative took over to the satisfaction of Saudi Arabia and US. However the Russian invasion of Afghanistan brought Iran and Pakistan together in support of the Afghan Mujahideen. This honeymoon ended with Taliban’s control of Afghanistan where Iran supported the Tajik dominated Northern Alliance and Pakistan supported Taliban. The low point in the relationship came about in 1998 when Taliban, allegedly assisted by ISI and Pakistan army, executed Shia’s in Mazar i Sharief and Iran mobilised its Army to attack Afghanistan.
Post Taliban rule the relations improved till Pakistan’s support to US efforts in Afghanistan post 9/11 attacks in US 2001 began to create schisms again. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan joined hands with US to undermine the belligerent bomb seeking Sunni Iran. The trilateral spread of Baloch nationalists with in the southern triangular boundaries of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan blew hot and cold all along with Iran blaming Pakistan of supporting Jundalla, a Baloch insurgency for Sunni rights in Iran.
After 2010, as Americans grew disenchanted with Pakistani duplicity in Afghanistan and tightened the noose around Iran for its nuclear ambitions, the two seemed to be coming together again. Notwithstanding this, Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia for a Sunni domination of the Arab world, delinking it from its Indian past, still remains a cherished Pakistani dream. As per Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst, Iran and Pakistan seem to be finding ways to mend fences to neutralise American influence in the region with an eye for influence in a post 2014 Afghanistan. This though is a paradox as Shia – Sunni rivalry may surface to their mutual disadvantage again. Iran wants its influence North of Hindukush, a predominantly Shia area, while Pakistan wishes its signature on the Sunni Pashtun belt South of Hindukush. The obvious chaos emerging after the 2014 elections in Afghanistan may see the battle for influence grow between Pakistan and Iran.
Notwithstanding the political dimensions of the equation, Iran is looking for markets for its oil and gas under the sanctions regime. Pakistan is acutely energy deficient and its needs border on desperation. Hence the Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline. The energy game, with help from Russia (offering to build the IP pipeline), gets interesting as it marginalises US leverage over Pakistan bringing Iran and Pakistan together. This also undermines the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline proposal promoted by US to marginalise Iran’s gas sales in the region. This game in the region to the detriment of American interests is reflected in President Putin’s visit to Pakistan in September this year – a first by any Russian President. South Asian Idea has reasoned that this may not be the best solution given the impending descent into further chaos in the region (Af Pak) post 2014. However, the Russian factor may just bring the two suspicious countries to collaborate on energy and trade provided militancy in Balochistan can be controlled by both parties. Iran would not mind a growing rift between US and Pakistan and the pipeline may just do the magic trick.
The nuclear armed Pakistan polled great support for Iran’s bomb in a June 2012 Pew survey where 50% feel it is a good thing. This while support for America and the war on terror has dropped significantly. While support for an Iranian bomb is only 11% in Russia and 25% in China, the two SCO giants are imposing a veto against use of force to deter Iran. This provides Iran with adequate leverage to widen the rift between US and Pakistan. Further, the theory of “oil for nukes” is extremely beneficial to Pakistan. That AQ Khan linkages are not at work is tough to imagine.
Nitin Pai has reasoned that stability of the region (Afghanistan specific) without extra regional powers like US would depend on the alignment of power between two camps: Iran, India and Russia on one hand and China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on the other. He opines that to maintain reasonable balance of power America will have to play the swing state between the two blocks. The takeaway is that India must make reproachment possible between US and Iran – something India, US and Iran have done little about. It is a result of this growing schism between America (with Israel mounting the pressure) and Iran which is realigning anti-American forces such as Russia, China and Pakistan thus marginalising any US efforts to play the swing state. In either case, Russia, China and Iran have stepped up activity to fill the post 2014 vacuum in Af Pak. The acrimonious interplay between the “Sunni block” (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the UAE) against the “Shiite block” (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon) accentuates the regional fault lines further.
As a result, in this race for realignment, Pakistan gets to cozy up to its many times enemy Iran once again with tacit support of China and Russia. Should the Saudis too decide to join the bandwagon to support Pakistan, America and India would be left alone shifting the balance of power greatly in favour of SCO plus Saudi Arabia.
India has enjoyed civilisational relations with Iran for centuries barring a hiatus following the September 2005 and February 2006 IAEA vote by India against Iran probably contrived to convince the US that it was an ally. This “foreign policy blunder” marred India – Iran relations significantly. It still continues to cast its shadow over India – Iran relations.
Under such circumstances what are India’s options?
The first theoretical argument is for India to get US and Iran to the table and redirect the current trajectory. This alone would upstage any efforts by Pakistan to use Iran as its strategy option against Indian interests in the region. While the American intransigence based on Israeli concerns can be understood, India has as yet not made any efforts to employ public diplomacy towards this end. Apparently, the current bout of US/Israel – Iran animosity and belligerence precludes such peacemaking. Moreover the Indian delivery model, (especially after the TIME magazine article), suggests that India lacks the bandwidth to take on such a monumental task risking Indo US strategic co-operation at the cost of Indo-Iran relations. Maybe, that is why there is another school of thought which argues that India should not get involved in the US – Iran feud and let Russia and China take care of it.
Second, India has to use its lasting relationship with Russia to soften the negative impact of Iran-Pakistan alliance to its detriment. However, there is a big catch here. Americans, by their hostility towards Iran and Pakistan have given Russia and China adequate room to maneuver in these countries – politically and economically with attendant military ramifications. India’s strategic drift towards US post the undelivered civil nuclear deal and many defence deals has magnified this impression. Putin’s impending visit to Pakistan and his cozy relationship with Iran are a means towards countering American influence in the region. Till now all seems to be going Russia’s way. Russia is playing a greater role with China for dominating the Eurasian underbelly. So this would be a tough ask for India to handle without serious setbacks.
Third, India would have to manage Iran a lot better than it is doing now to soften the impact of sanctions through infrastructure development and trade. Iran is India’s answer to all the connectivity woes in near Middle East and Central Asia. This alone, leaving oil aside, is of utmost importance to India – something worth struggling for. Since dollar trade is becoming impossible and rupee trade has limited value for Iran, it is increasingly becoming important to trade in infrastructure and other barter arrangements. Balancing this with India’s relationship with US and Israel is a public diplomacy dilemma of gargantuan proportions.
Ambassador Ishrat Azziz articulates that India should stand firm in stating that the IAEA should be the agency that should deal with Iran’s nuclear profile. If an anti-Iran resolution or a resolution perceived by Iran as against it comes up for vote in the UNSC, India must abstain and avoid taking sides. If it is proved that Iran has enriched to higher percentages other than for peaceful purposes, then India might have to take a stance. Ambassador Bhadrakumar’s articulation that ‘take oil out of Indo Iran relation and it will atrophy to nothing’ is harsh. Iran is at the heart of India’s Connect Central Asia policy.
India can do little to prevent Iran and Pakistan to cooperate. But it can definitely take astute steps to ensure that this relationship is not detrimental to Indian interests in the short run. Given the historical sweet and sour relationship matrix, in the long-term, we see a Pakistan – Iran brawl in the aftermath of a violent Post 2014 Afghanistan.
India’s policy options will depend on astute political leadership and a deft dance by the foreign policy mandarins, adopting a combination of approaches, to steer it through these troubled times. America’s “rebalancing” to Asia-Pacific with India playing a crucial pivot between East and West Asia could be a good place to start with.
Paralysis is not an option.