Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Flexible and Pragmatic Bilateralism Is the Best Approach

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Flexible and Pragmatic Bilateralism Is the Best Approach

Article excerpt

Complexities in India's engagement with Iran arise from the complications that exist in relations between Iran and the US, the GCC countries, Israel, and to some extent the European Union. Bilaterally India does not have any significant problem with Iran, nor with the US, GCC countries or Israel. But before grappling with the nature of the complexities in managing India's relations with Iran, it would put things in perspective if we keep certain facts in mind.

Iran is a major country in terms of geographical area and population, eighteenth in the world in both respects. Its area is over 1.6 million km2 (about half of India) and its population is about 79 million according to the latest estimates. It is strategically located on the Straits of Hormuz, vital for the Gulf countries and the world because 20 per cent of the world's oil and 70 per cent of India's oil imports must pass through this vulnerable and narrow waterway. Apart from 10 per cent of the world's oil reserves and 15 per cent of the world's gas Iran also has significant amounts of freshwater, arable land and mineral resources - coal, chromium, copper, iron ore, manganese, zinc and sulphur.

Iranians are very conscious of their ancient history. Proud of their culture and the beauty of their language and poetry they have a strong sense of nationalism. The martyrdom of Imam Hussein about 1400 years ago is a part of the Iranian psyche. Once inspired, they can make great sacrifices for their cause, as was exemplified during the uprising against the Shah and the eight- year war against Iraq. There are many shrines in Iran which are places of pilgrimage for Shias from around the world.

In view of the frequent references to Shia/Sunni divide since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, for the sake of perspective it may be underlined here that until about AD 1500 Iran was a Sunni and not a Shia country. The Safavid rulers adopted Shia Islam as the state religion about five hundred years ago and with time Iran became overwhelmingly Shia. This decision of the Safavid kings should be seen in the context of Iran's increasing rivalry at that time with Sunni Ottoman Turkey. So some thinking and caution is required before laying too much emphasis on the Shia/Sunni divide at the expense of strategic considerations in analysing the dynamics of the present relations between the countries of the region, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

One thing should be constantly kept in view. In terms of population and natural resources Iran is better placed than any other country in the area to emerge as the most significant power of the region. Other large countries in that area, for example Egypt and Turkey, can match it in terms of population but not in natural resources, especially oil and gas, which can earn foreign exchange required for economic growth.

Since the complexities of India's engagement with Iran are mainly a result of the existing difficult relations between Iran and the US, Israel and GCC countries, it would help if we have a look at the prevailing state of Iran's relations with these countries.

Iran-United States Relations

More than any other factor it is relations between Iran and the US and their ramifications that complicate India's engagement with Iran.

While attention is currently focused on the dispute between the two sides over Iran's nuclear programme, the roots of tensions between them go much deeper. Both sides have mutual grievances. The US has still not consigned to history the ouster of its most reliable ally the Shah, and even more the taking hostage of its diplomats and their incarceration for 444 days, by people still active in Iran and wielding power. Superpowers are often conscious of the wider message that overlooking of such defiance of their power will convey to other countries. Then there are lobbies within the United States, including the Israeli lobby, which do not want reconciliation, and hope for a regime change in Iran one day, not unlike as in the case of Cuba. …

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