Iran-India Energy Relations: Strategic Dimensions
Ambassador Lalit Mansingh
Iran is an enigma in the Asian region and a key player in the Middle East vis-a-vis the Palestine-Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq crises. India and Iran share civilizational bonds dating back to ancient times. Can India, however, establish a strategic partnership with Iran considering: a) Iran has consistently acted against Indian interests on the Kashmir issue, b) acted against India's nuclear programme, and c) entertains linkages with countries antagonistic towards India. With regards to the Indo-Iranian pipeline, is it merely a commercial enterprise, or is it a prelude to a greater partnership between the two countries?
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar
The basis of this discussion is Soviet-American relations, dating back to the early days of the Cold War. At the heart of the conflict lay the West vs. East struggle to possess energy (oil) resources. Today, the Russian economic resurgence (thanks largely to the upward swing in the price of energy), is perceived as a threat to US hegemony. The ongoing struggle to dominate energy resources could consequently herald a new Cold (Energy) War.
Within this context, Iran has emerged as a key regional player, thereby complicating the matter further. Certain distinguishing features make Iran the only viable regional power: a) Population base, b) Level of technological advancement and the capacity to absorb technology, c) Human resource development, d) Oil and gas reserves and e) Strategic geographical location.
From an American perspective, Iran is the last frontier of energy resources in the Middle East. Iran and Russia possess over 40 percent of the world's natural-gas reserves and Russia, realizing the economic and geo-political benefits of cooperating with Iran, has agreed to share energy-related influence around the Caspian Sea, thereby thwarting any American effort to arrest Russian (or Iranian) influence. Americans consequently fear being locked out of gas reserves in the region, depriving them of much desired political-economic supremacy. It is this fear that has propelled the US to "play up" the Iranian nuclear crisis, and enter into a nuclear deal with India (the latter being viewed as an extension of the US policy of containing Russia).
Western, especially European, countries like Austria and Switzerland, however, do not share US qualms. Iran is well-placed to offer EU countries direct pipeline routes to natural gas rich Central Asian countries. In contrast to the US who does not favour the Burgas-Alexandropoulis pipeline project, the aforementioned countries have reached an understanding with Iran concerning the supply of Iranian gas for the Nabucco pipeline via the existing Iran-Turkey pipeline. In fact, Russia and the EU are financing this project.
In order for an Asian energy market of producers and consumers to emerge, Russia and Iran must cooperate. Such cooperation could see a natural-gas market bringing together Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan. This was the motive behind Vladimir Putin's recent visit to India - to negotiate prospects for energy (gas) collaboration.
Against this background, questions surface regarding possible Indo-Iranian cooperation and energy collaboration. India struggles to understand Iran. Past rhetoric emanating from Iran needs to be separated from ground-realities; there is no indication of direct Iranian participation in the Kashmir crisis, although the rhetoric was vehement.
India needs to actively engage in dialogue with Iran to better understand the geopolitics of energy. If we assume India and Iran to have a common Asian identity, then it is clear what Iran is attempting to achieve by way of an Indo-Iranian natural gas pipeline. On a more positive note, Iran, for various reasons, has taken a preference to the Asian region, as is evident from its decision to sell gas at significantly lowered prices to its South Asian neighbours (including Pakistan and India).
In the end, a pipeline will develop out of Iran towards the Eastern Asian market, but the question that remains to be answered is whether India will be a part of that market or not.
Questions and Comments
Emergence of a multi-polar world and India's foreign policy ideology
The world is no longer uni-polar or bi-polar, it is multi-polar. Assuming that Indian foreign policy has a specific American or Russian angle is inaccurate. India does not face an either/or situation between the US and Iran. India is not 'boxed-in' by the West and does not suffer from ideological hang-ups. India wants both gas from Iran/Russia and nuclear technology from the US. Today's favourable international situation enables India to reach out to all possible sources to pursue its national interests.
Iranian nuclear threat is 'real', and not 'imagined'
Iran maintains that it does not harbour any intentions of developing a nuclear weapons programme. An Iranian nuclear weapons programme, is healthy neither for regional security nor for Indian security. The argument that the US "plays-up" the Iranian crisis is inaccurate; if that were the case, then Russia and China would not have voted against Iran in the recent Security Council Resolutions. The IAEA and NPT allow countries who are signatories to the treaty to have access to nuclear enrichment technology. Iran and North Korea are signatories and yet flout the agreement. Safeguards to the NPT should be developed and complied with. Iran should allow the IAEA access to its nuclear facilities in order to prove beyond doubt there is no clandestine programme.
Iran and the Shia-Sunni equation
The Iranians are actively playing the Shia card, and this suggests an anti-secular development within Islam. Iran wants to develop a Shia coalition or a Shia crescent, between itself, Syria and Lebanon. The strife between Sunnis and Shias is a cause for concern as it could affect oil/gas supply. It is also quite possible that the US is capitalizing on the Shia-Sunni divide as a part of its game-plan to divide and rule the Middle East.
US ambiguity and the 'great-game' today
If the US could reach an agreement with North Korea, what is preventing it from doing so with Iran? It is clear the US wants to dictate to Iran. It has also to be remembered that Iran has previously invited the West to come and inspect its nuclear facilities. How much does the present (energy) conflict between Russia and the US form a part or extension of the 'great game' and to what degree is this 'game' complicated by China's involvement?
Iran has always wanted to negotiate with the US (and the rest of the international community) on nuclear and other issues without enduring humiliation and indignity. American diplomats and scholars too have acknowledged that in the past that the US' policies have embittered US-Iran relations.
On the question of Iranian role in the Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq, it has to be remembered that Iran is profoundly embarrassed at being identified as a Shia country. It is conscious of the fact that its interests are best served by being a member of the 'Islamic' community and not as a Shia leader. Hence, Iran does not propagate a leadership role for the Shia community. In fact, it should be noted that Iran supports the Hamas in Palestine which is a Sunni organization. The concept of a Shia crescent therefore greatly injures Iran's standing and reputation. This theory was first articulated by King Abdullah of Jordan immediately following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then championed by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, to counter Iran's potential rise as an Islamic leader. The West too is playing on the Shia-Sunni divide by labeling Iran a Shia country. The US objective is to put together a phalanx of countries which will isolate Iran and mitigate Israel's political decline.
The 'great game' involves a triangular relationship between the US, China and Russia. Today, US-China-Russia relations are becoming increasingly interlocked and interdependent. Consequently, one nation cannot be brought down without the interests of the others also being harmed. Russia does not want to be caught in the same position that the former Soviet Union found itself in when confronting the US. China realizes its most significant relationship within the international community is that which it shares with the US and both Russia and China are conscious of the fact that they do not have the ability to confront the US. Consequently, their interest is best served if they are able to develop a collegial approach in world forums, to resolve international issues. This interdependency explains the Russian and Chinese stance against Iran in the recent Security Council Resolutions.
On the feasibility of a gas OPEC, there are serious intellectual and political difficulties which arise from grouping countries into cartels.