New Delhi: Wary of Pakistan’s increasing influence in Afghanistan, India is tweaking its foreign policy and growing closer to Iran in a bid to protect its strategic stakes in the war-ravaged nation.
Boosting relations: External affairs minister S.M. Krishna looks on as minister for new and renewable energy Farooq Abdullah (right) and Iranian minister for economic affairs and finance Seyed Shamseddin Hosseini (left), sign an MoU on cooperation in new and renewable energy on Friday. Kamal Singh / PTI
India hosted an Iranian delegation led by finance minister Seyed Shamseddin Hosseini last week, and signed bilateral pacts on energy, air services and anti-terror cooperation.
New Delhi also used warm words to describe ties with Iran and publicly admonished the US for imposing a new set of economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, in a speech to Indian and Iranian think tanks, spoke of the “unique” civilizational ties between India and Iran before highlighting shared strategic interests.
“If we consider the specific areas where our interests converge and potential for cooperation is the greatest, the most important is regional stability,” she said, adding energy and maritime security to the list of common interests.
Ties between India and Iran had cooled in recent years due to New Delhi’s warming relations with Washington. India angered Iran by voting alongside the US and its allies at least twice to censure Iran on its controversial nuclear programme at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
So Rao’s rebuke to Washington for a separate set of strictures against Iran last week, on top of UN sanctions, came as a surprise.
A senior foreign ministry official, requesting anonymity, described this as “recalibration” of policy—a nuanced change allied to the “scenario unfolding in Afghanistan and India’s determination to secure its national interests”.
But former ambassador to Washington Lalit Mansingh said Rao’s remarks were an indication to Washington that “there are certain red lines they cannot push us beyond” and of the “importance of Iran in India’s Afghani plans”.
“India and Iran can play a big role (together in Afghanistan) if they join hands. It is not in Iran’s interest to have the Taliban dominate Afghanistan. Logic dictates that Iran cooperate with India,” Mansingh said.
Rao’s comments also signal that “India is ready to be considered a global player, in the big league”. That has been the thrust of India’s foreign policy for more than a decade, he said. “Part of that role is in India’s extended neighbourhood—Afghanistan.”
India’s moves to improve its relations with Iran are understandable as it tries for “a flexibility in relation to its options vis-a-vis Afghanistan,” said Rahul Roy-Chaudhary, senior fellow for South Asia at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), in emailed comments.
In recent months, New Delhi has been feeling left out despite its $1.3 billion (Rs6,084 crore) assistance to rebuild Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban by US-led forces in November 2001.
While India and the US, which has 140,000 troops fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, agree on the need to defeat the Taliban and strengthen democracy, there are differences on how to achieve this.
“India is keen that US forces stay on in Afghanistan... There are differences on the growing influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan in terms of its links with the Afghan Taliban… and, on occasion, differences over India’s role in Afghanistan, with elements in the Pentagon (US defence department) seeking a reduced Indian role to placate Pakistani sensitivities,” Roy-Chaudhary said.
Pakistan, whose military spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is alleged to have channels of communication with the Taliban, has offered to broker a power-sharing deal between the group and the US-backed regime in Kabul.
This will end the war in Afghanistan and allow battle-weary troops from the US and other countries to return home beginning July 2011—a key US foreign policy goal.
But the return of the Taliban—with links to the ISI and the larger ruling establishment in Islamabad—to power in Kabul is not how India wants the war to end. New Delhi has bad memories of the earlier Taliban rule, when Afghanistan was used as a base for training camps for militants fighting in Kashmir.
That the India-friendly Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also been recently lending a ear to senior Pakistani military and intelligence officers is worrying New Delhi.
Hence the call by Rao to have “structured, systematic and regular consultations with Iran on the situation in Afghanistan”.
“Neither of our countries wish to see the prospect of fundamentalist and extremist groups once again suppressing the aspirations of the Afghan people and forcing Afghanistan back to being a training ground and sanctuary for terrorist groups. Our vision of Afghanistan as a hub for economic activity, trade and transit linking south and central Asia is shared by the Iranian side,” she said.
India is developing Iran’s Chabahar port project, which will link the India-built Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan. This will open up an alternative trade route for India and Afghanistan to access each other’s markets—other than through Pakistan—besides transporting Indian goods further to Central Asia.
Should India and Iran team up again, it could be a repeat of the cooperation between the two between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban controlled Kabul.
Shia-dominated Teheran shares uneasy ties with Sunni-majority Pakistan and its pro-American military. It is also wary of Islamabad’s close ties with Saudi Arabia besides being opposed to the Taliban after the 1998 killing of many of its diplomats in Afghanistan.
But some are sceptical about whether the same degree of cooperation is possible a decade since then.
“Today, India’s top foreign policy priority is its relationship with the US which is not acceptable to Teheran,” IISS analyst Roy-Chaudhury said. “In effect, it is unlikely that India will cooperate with Iran in a manner that makes it difficult for the US to operate in Afghanistan.”