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India’s Iran rationale

Dr N Janardhan (Point of View)
Filed on February 23, 2012

Amid the ongoing developments involving Iran, Israel, the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, India’s foreign policy is once again under the scanner.

Though Iran’s role in the recent bombing of an Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi remains unconfirmed, India is under pressure to join the growing international isolation of the Islamic Republic.

Some are even asking India to choose between Iran and Israel on the one hand and between the GCC countries and Iran on the other over the latter’s nuclear policy and the perceived threat emanating from it. As much as India’s policy is being viewed with confusion in some quarters, New Delhi’s non-flamboyant foreign policy indicates a degree of maturity that is difficult to find in today’s hyperactive diplomatic world.

Any clarification takes us to the foundations India’s foreign policy that were laid during its freedom movement. In addition, India has succeeded in establishing a network of mutually-beneficial bilateral relations with almost all countries, one that is commensurate with its own national and security interests.

It is within this context India’s balancing act in the Middle East (or West Asia, as India’s coinage goes) should be understood. Each of the four players involved in the region’s saber rattling is India’s strategic ally and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

First, a natural development after the end of the Cold War was India’s strategic partnership with the United States. This radical shift, without ignoring Russia, paved way for the US-India civil nuclear cooperation deal. This, in turn, ended India’s decades-long isolation from the nuclear mainstream and technology facilitation.

Second, the GCC countries are currently the fulcrum of India’s energy security. They contribute about 50 per cent of India’s oil imports, apart from Qatar being the principal gas supplier. The GCC is India’s number one trade partner in terms of economic groupings, with an estimated tag of $120 billion in 2011. There are also about six million Indians in the six countries. These commercial-people ties were upgraded to a ‘strategic relationship’ with Saudi Arabia and India signing the Riyadh Declaration in 2010.

Third, India considers Iran as a part of its “proximate neighbourhood”. Its large Muslim population of about 180 million also means that its Shia population is among the largest in world after Iran. Yet, Tehran has not played a role in India similar to what it is accused of in the Middle East.

Strategically, with Pakistan denying India access to Afghanistan, Iran is the window not only to Afghanistan, but to Central Asia too.

Realising that Iran’s nuclear programme could destabilise the Middle East, the Riyadh Declaration urged Iran to “remove regional and international doubts about its nuclear weapons programme.” In fact, India has even endorsed the Arab call for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East.

For those questioning India’s opposition to Western sanctions against Iran, the answer lies in its long-held view that broad-based sanctions hurt the common people, not the government, especially since they add to UN-imposed sanctions. This, and its strategic interests, mean that New Delhi has made elaborate trade and barter arrangements to pay for Iran’s oil supplies.

Finally, Israel is India’s second largest arms supplier after Russia. Apart from defence and security, the links have diversified to include collaboration in agriculture, tourism, science and technology. Yet, New Delhi has stood steadfast with the Palestinian demand for a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, as endorsed in the Arab Peace Initiative and relevant UN resolutions.

In such a milieu, the only area that India could have, perhaps, done better or can attempt to do in future is translating its growing stock in the international arena into robust diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts in various hotspots. This includes proactively encouraging Asian mediation in the GCC-Iran conflict.

This would, no doubt, test India’s diplomatic skills, but it should feel confident in being one of the few countries that is capable of simultaneously pursuing normal ties with Iran, Israel, the United States and the GCC countries.

Dr N Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst and author of “Boom amid Gloom – The Spirit of Possibility in the 21st Century Gulf”


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