The unending Iran impasse

In his book titled, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, Robert D Kaplan states, ‘Iran will be pivotal to the trend lines in the Greater Middle East and Eurasia, and it may dictate how it will be pivotal, but it cannot dictate for what purpose it will be pivotal. That is up to the decisions of men’.

In the context of South Asia, Tehran’s relevance is quite evident both in the context of economics and geo-politics. It has been interesting to see both India and Pakistan making it clear to Washington, that breaking ties with Iran is not an option for either. For India, the reasons are driven not only by economics, but also by geo-political imperatives. Apart from oil, India needs a reliable conduit to both Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Thus India has invested heavily in the Chabahar Port which is likely to be its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Pakistan facing a severe energy crisis is going ahead with the ambitious Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which would run 1,200 miles, in spite of warnings from the US. The project was inaugurated on 11 March by Asif Ali Zardari in spite of the US issuing a clear warning that going ahead with the pipeline would lead to sanctions. Iran has also offered Pakistan $500 million loan for financing the project. It would be pertinent to mention here that only last week, Victoria Nuland, the spokesman of the State Department had stated that, ‘If this deal is finalised for a proposed Iran-Pakistan pipeline, it would raise serious concerns under our Iran Sanctions Act. We’ve made that absolutely clear to our Pakistani counterparts’. The US Ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, had also made it unequivocal, that Washington was opposed to the pipeline. While the cynics argue that the inauguration of the pipeline was an electoral gimmick by Zardari with two objective; firstly, to send a message that the PPP is serious about addressing the country’s grave energy crisis and secondly, to show that he did not bow down before US pressure.

Whatever the reasons, the fact that Islamabad has gone ahead with the pipeline in spite of repeated warnings from the US means it is serious about the project and ties with Iran. Interestingly, Tehran will also be setting up a refinery at Gwadar and there is speculation that if these two projects kick off, then Beijing may seriously contemplate laying an oil pipeline from Gwadar to the western part of China. It is not only Pakistan, which has been defying Washington with regard to Iran. India too has given some strong indications of the importance it gives to its ties with Tehran. Last year in July, the Indian prime minister made it a point to attend the Non Aligned Summit (NAM) in Tehran. The reason for doing so was to send a clear message that New Delhi can not afford to close channels of communication with Iran. During the course of the summit the prime minister discussed the Chabahar project apart from discussing issues pertaining to security in Afghanistan.

More recently, the President Pranab Mukherjee spoke about the importance of New Delhi-Tehran ties, in the context of both geo-politics and economics, while welcoming a Parliamentary Delegation from Iran, led by its speaker Ali Larijani. The President spoke about civilizational linkages, saying that ‘Throughout history, both countries have seen an inter-mingling of people and cultures.’ He also spoke about the economic potential of both countries stating that ‘India and Iran have a strong bilateral economic relationship and it needs to further deepen for the benefit of peoples of both countries. With regard to India, Pakistan and the US a few issues remain unanswered. Firstly, for how long will India be able to communicate its position to Washington on Iran. Until now it has been able to do a balancing act and ensured that it keeps Uncle Sam in good humour, by reducing oil dependence on Iran, pulling out of what was originally the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (IPI). Yet, relations with Tehran too have been kept intact.

Secondly, many argue that President Zardari being a Shia is cultivating Iran, would a new regime headed by Nawaz Sharif of PML-N – who is close to the Saudis – bring about any change of policy towards Iran. While it is true, that Sharif’s party has not opposed Zardari’s overtures towards Iran, it remains to be seen how he will behave when in power.Finally, will pragmatism prevail in Washington over Tehran.

A more flexible policy will not only increase its strategic options and give it the opportunities to tighten the screws on the GHQ (Rawalpindi) on the one hand, but will also give an impetus to the US vision of ‘The New Silk Road’ which has been overtaken by a Chinese version, due to Beijing’s pragmatism and astuteness. It remains to be seen whether Washington exhibits sagacity or sticks to its belligerent approach vis-à-vis Iran. If it continues to adopt the latter approach, it would reduce its own options, and the biggest beneficiaries would be Beijing and the Pakistan army.

The author is a foreign policy analyst
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