Can we help Washington and Tehran to get over it?

Author : Nitin Rai

As the war in Afghanistan enters what might be an endgame, it remains clear that there is broad convergence of geopolitical interests between two sets of players: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China on the one hand, and India, Iran and the United States on the other. If Pakistan achieves its ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, it benefits Saudi Arabia to the extent that such an outcome unsettles Iran, Riyadh’s regional and sectarian-ideological rival. For China, this means the United States is kept away from its south-western land frontiers, that Beijing is saved the messy business of intervening in Afghanistan and that friendly regimes help it manage the restive Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

If Beijing has masterfully managed its relationship with its natural allies, Washington has allowed a dogmatic petulance over Iran take over strategic sense. Why else would it work to undermine co-operation among India, Iran and the United States to address the unprecedented threats to international security emanating from Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex?

Imagine how profoundly the geopolitics of Asia would change were Iran and the United States to co-operate, even if it is in the limited context of Afghanistan. Remember, the Iranians collaborated with their ‘Great Satan’ ten years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, to get rid of the nearer shaitans to their east.

Since improved ties between Iran and the United States are in India’s interest, we should wonder why New Delhi doesn’t do anything to lubricate a rapprochement.

This brings us to two myths about our own relationship with Tehran. Myth No 1 is that without the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, we can neither buy gas from Iran nor really have a good bilateral relationship with it. Myth No 2 holds that the scope of India-Iran relations is limited by the tensions between Washington and Tehran. If it appears that these are ground realities, and not myths, it is because New Delhi chooses to make them so.

We don’t need a pipeline, over land or under sea, to get gas from Iran. We can purchase it as liquefied natural gas (LNG) and ship it across to regasification terminals on India’s shores.

The fascination with pipelines is part economics, part statist mindset, and part due to a belief that a pipeline can bring peace between India and Pakistan.

Shipping LNG might be more expensive than the pipeline, but considering that the IPI pipeline traverses the most dangerous territory in the world, the risk premium on the piped gas makes the project unviable without government subsidies. In other words, the taxpayer is being asked to make good what is fundamentally an unsound business case. Furthermore, even if pipelines can lock down gas supplies, Russia’s attempts to coerce Europe using its monopoly position at the head end of pipelines demonstrate that being at the receiving end can be uncomfortable.

Proponents of a ‘peace pipeline’ need to be asked whether India needs the pipeline for ‘peace’ or for energy security. Should India’s energy security be hostage to fantasies of those who want to put India’s jugular in the hands of the Pakistani military establishment? It is astounding that a project that deliberately creates a vulnerability that Pakistan can exploit at will is somehow considered part of energy security. Forget the pipeline. We must make strategic investments in LNG, enabling us to purchase supplies from anywhere, including from Iran.

On to the second myth, with India in a position to be a geopolitical swing power, India’s ties with Iran need not be hostage to the tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Some might argue that this is already the case today, but the results on the ground have been unsatisfactory. Last year, Ayatollah Khamenei included Kashmir in the list of lands that needed to be “rescued from the demonic clutches of hegemonic powers.” US pressure caused India to disallow crude oil purchases from Iran under the Asian Clearing Union (ACU) mechanism, hurting Indian importers and refiners. We are getting assailed by both sides.

New Delhi should declare India’s interest in a rapprochement between the United States and Iran and work to bring them together, unofficially to start off with, and officially when it becomes possible. Indian diplomacy must be focused on persuading the two sides to undertake confidence-building measures. The goal should be to persuade the two sides to begin formal talks, under a ‘truce’ with Washington committing to non-aggression while Tehran halts its nuclear programme. Such a proposal will be rebuffed, but that need not deter us from taking our position.

Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad may not very receptive, but let’s remember ayatollahs and presidents can change, or change their minds. If a moderate Khatami could be replaced by a Ahmedinejad, the excesses of the latter could well cause a shift back to the centre. Similarly, if the United States is cozying up to Vietnam today, and even talking to the Taliban, Washington is not totally devoid of realism.

So things can change. Especially if New Delhi musters the imagination and resolve that distinguish statesmanship from mere diplomacy.

The author is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review

The article has appeared in the Business Standard 11 July 2011
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