Balancing act in Iran

What exactly is India’s concern about a nuclear-armed Iran? Another nuclear power in the neighbourhood will not be in India’s interest.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s impending visit to Iran comes at a critical juncture in West Asian politics. The agenda of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit is likely to be wide-ranging, but the backdrop will be provided by three interlocked crises currently playing out in the region. India’s response to each of these will have to be crafted keeping in mind the interconnections between them.

To begin with, there is the crisis in Syria. The country is in the grip of a rapidly escalating civil war. The Assad regime has deployed every heavy weapon in its armoury and has shown no qualms about violation of human rights. The rebels’ Free Syrian Army (FSA) has demonstrated greater organisation and audacity in taking on the government forces. It has also displayed ruthlessness in targeting civilians and non-combatants. The winding up of the UN observer mission portends a period of increasing violence and uncertainty.
India is certainly concerned about human rights abuses in Syria. Of greater concern is the potential impact of the civil war on regional stability. Following the influx of foreign, jihadi fighters into Syria, the civil war has taken a distinctly sectarian turn — pitting the Sunnis against the Alawites, Christians and the Druze. This sectarian strife could easily spill over the borders of Syria. Indeed, some of the recent violence in Iraq was clearly influenced by the developments in Syria. More importantly, the sectarian violence in Syria has wider geopolitical overtones as Shia Iran stands by the Assad while the FSA is armed by the Sunni duo of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If this trend continues and intensifies, then India’s wider regional interests — especially the position of the massive expatriate Indian community — could be jeopardised.
India’s stance on Syria reflects this balance of considerations. On one hand, India has been critical of gross human rights violations in Syria. It supported a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning the El-Houla massacre. India also voted in favour of a UN Security Council resolution in July that threatened the Assad regime with sanctions (short of the use of force) if it failed to pull back its forces from population centres and stopped using heavy weapons. On the other, India has been uneasy about attempts by external powers to force Mr Assad out of power. New Delhi holds no brief for the man, but believes that external intervention will exacerbate the ethnic divide in Syria and lay the ground for further turmoil. This is not some abstract concern: think of Iraq and Libya. Any solution to the problem, India believes, should emerge from within Syria. So, India abstained in a recent General Assembly vote on a resolution that condemned violence but also demanded the ouster of Mr Assad.
This need to strike a balance is also evident in India’s stance on the second crisis under way in the region: over Iran’s nuclear programme. New Delhi believes that Iran should fulfil its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by refraining from developing nuclear weapons. What exactly is India’s concern about a nuclear-armed Iran? The official line is that another nuclear power in the neighbourhood will not be in India’s interest. This is trite and unconvincing, for relationships and interests are determined by politics and not by weapons. A more plausible argument is that a nuclear Iran will be emboldened (much like Pakistan) to use its proxies against its regional adversaries, which in turn would lead to instability in West Asia.
A more immediate concern is the possibility of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel, which is bound to result in Iranian reprisals. In seeking to head off this possibility, New Delhi needs to engage not just with Tehran but also Tel Aviv and Washington. To be sure, India’s ability to influence any of these players is limited. But if the situation worsens, India’s range of options will be considerably narrowed. Balancing concerns about Iranian nukes with its other interests will then become more difficult. For these interests are not trivial. Iran accounts for about 11 per cent of India’s oil imports and West Asia as a whole for 63 per cent. Moreover, Iran is important for India’s interests in Afghanistan.
This brings us to the third of the interlinked crises: Afghanistan. The stage is set for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan starting next year. But a political settlement continues to prove elusive. In order to preserve and expand its interests in Afghanistan, India will have to work with a range of Afghan actors as well as the country’s Central Asian neighbours. Engaging Iran is important in this context. Iran currently provides an important gateway for India to increase its footprint in Afghanistan. The Chahbahar port has been used by India in the recent past to send 100,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, India is committed to enhancing the infrastructure in this part of Iran and its connectivity with Afghanistan. At the same time, India has to be mindful of the fact that Iran is a volatile partner. It has the requisite assets in Afghanistan to go down a destructive route, if it perceives its interests to be in danger.
India’s standing in West Asia will, to a large extent, hinge on how it responds to the challenges thrown up by these three crises. So far, India has managed its balancing act reasonably well. But like any tightrope walker it has to move forward to avoid falling down.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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