Difficult friends

Both the US and Iran are essential; there is little wiggle room for any middle path and to expect totally win-win solutions is a little unrealistic

The whistle stop at Kolkata by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, during her three-day visit to India in May was ostensibly to meet and express her admiration for West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who had uprooted a deeply entrenched Left Front government which had held unchallenged sway in the state for more than three decades.

Diplomatic courtesies over, Ms Clinton came to the point quickly — amongst other issues relating to trade and commerce between the two countries (some of which Ms Banerjee had vehemently opposed), Ms Clinton made it known that the US will view with extreme disfavour any Indian attempts to violate the US regime of economic sanctions against Iran by continuing to import oil from that country. As an extreme contingency, it was not unthinkable that the US might even impose sanctions against selected Indian interests as well. This demarche was later repeated directly to the Government of India at New Delhi, an unambiguous placing of goal posts even as bilateral relations between the two countries was sought to be developed to the “next level”.
India’s immediate response to the peremptory American demands has been an 11 per cent reduction in its oil imports from Iran, which seems to have been accepted by the US as a satisfactory mea culpa. Threats of sanctions have been lifted, though India has been left desperately treading water in its efforts to explain that the reduction of oil imports from Iran was a separate issue not at all connected with the visit of Ms Clinton, a story which has very few takers.
Juxtaposed on the same day was the visit of an Iranian business delegation, a low-key event, whose significance slipped through the cracks in public attention. But it conveyed Iran’s assertion that it was also a significant factor in the geopolitical dynamics of South Asia, which India ignored at its own peril, especially in respect of Afghanistan, where Indian interests stand in an adversarial face-off with Pakistan.
The statement by Ms Clinton has placed India in an unenviable cleft stick of conflicting national compulsions which require positive relationships with both the US as well as with Iran. Both are essential; there is very little wiggle room for any middle path and to expect totally win-win solutions is a little unrealistic.
India’s major strategic thrust in Afghanistan has been of massive economic assistance in post-war recovery where it has provided $1.2 billion to date, but its delivery is critically dependent on surface transport communications between the two countries. All of these transit through Pakistan, and are vulnerable to blockade and interference. This was graphically demonstrated when Pakistan indicated its displeasure by peremptorily shutting down Nato supply lines to Afghanistan, after a misdirected US airstrike killed 24 Pakistani paramilitary troops in November 2011. Pakistan refused to reopen these routes unless the US apologised for its action and met its demands, amongst which was an increase in transit fees for Nato/Isaf supply convoys from $250 to $3,000 per vehicle, undoubtedly a huge windfall for many, including in the Pakistan Army.
Afghanistan has been the homeland of continuous jihad, first against the Soviets during 1979-89, and then against the US since 2001. The entire AfPak region is awash with fundamentalism sponsored by Pakistan. India, in its own interests, would like to see a moderate and stable Islamic democracy assume office in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops by 2014. Pakistan looks upon Afghanistan as its region of strategic depth against India and has sponsored hardline fundamentalist subsidiaries aligned with Pakistan, like the Taliban and other terrorist organisations, to control the country by proxy war.
India is strategically at a disadvantage with regard to Afghanistan and must look for alternate routes to that country which bypass Pakistan completely. The only feasible option available is a link via Iran, commencing at the port of Chabahar in the Persian Gulf, and thence by road through the Zaranj-Delaram road system on the Iran-Afghanistan border, constructed by India’s Border Roads Organisation for precisely this purpose. India has also invested heavily in development of the Chabahar port and road infrastructure leading from it. Iran is, therefore, vital to India’s national interests on all issues concerning Afghanistan, something which India must
convey unambiguously in its discussions with the US.
Oil imports from Iran are an important factor in building India-Iran bilateral relations, and have drawn the special attention of the US secretary of state. Iran has always provided a dependable source of crude oil at reasonable prices. India procures 80 per cent of its requirements through imports, of which 16.5 per cent totalling 21 million tonnes come from Iran alone, the second highest amongst the countries exporting crude oil to India. India has invested heavily in establishing a chain of refineries almost exclusively for processing crude imported from Iran. The largest amongst them is the Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd., which refines 142,000 barrels daily.
There is also a small but growing profile of Indian military involvement with its Afghan counterparts, though no active deployment of Indian troops in terms of “boots on the ground”. Like all undertakings of the Indian Army, it has been of high quality and well accepted by the Afghan National Army. The US, too, is said to be keen on a more active military presence by India. It has been nudging India on this issue but India has not accepted it so far. Possibly, it is a wise decision. The Pakistan Army is, of course, dead set against any Indian involvement and will oppose it by all means at its disposal, including covert military action.
Ms Clinton’s visit has unambiguously endorsed former US President George Bush — “Either you are with us or against us.” Now India must make its own choice.

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