A rare trilateral engagement with the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, and the Afghan leader, Ashraf Ghani, in Tehran today underlines the extraordinary strategic opportunities that continue to present themselves for India in the region.
Arrangements to facilitate India’s participation in the Chabahar port project, on the south-eastern coast of Iran and the associated transport and transit agreements will form the centrepiece of Modi’s Iran sojourn. Together, they raise hopes for reordering India’s geopolitics to the north-west of the subcontinent.
But the fact that it has taken more than a decade for India to begin work on Chabahar reveals the deep-rooted internal constraints on India’s regional economic strategy.
Since Delhi embarked on economic reforms 25 years ago, the problem was less about the definition of new grand strategic objectives for Indian foreign policy. It was largely about the institutional competence to translate them into outcomes.
After 1991, which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of the old economic order in India, the general direction of India’s foreign policy was largely set: Focus on mobilising external support for India’s rapid economic development, engage all major powers, normalise relations with the neighbours, raise profile in the extended neighbourhood, and improve India’s international standing. It has also not been very difficult for India to negotiate productively on long-standing disputes, such as nonproliferation, with key international partners.
There were certainly many problems in constructing a new domestic political consensus in the reform era. The terms of ending India’s prolonged nuclear isolation, for example, were strongly contested on the left and right, when then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed the historic civil nuclear initiative with US President George W. Bush in 2005.
Even when consensus existed on some key issues and relevant international understandings were hammered out with some diplomatic skill, Delhi has struggled to implement them. Overcoming Delhi’s internal incoherence has often turned out to be a bigger challenge than the arguments within the political class.
Nothing illustrates this better than India’s relations with Iran. Part of the problem was the framing of a sensible Indian approach to the nuclear tensions between Iran and the US that sharpened just after Delhi and Washington signed off on the nuclear initiative in 2005.
As the US sought India’s support in international forums against Iran, Delhi got into a funk, debating the issue in terms of non-alignment and strategic autonomy. In the end, the UPA government was pragmatic enough to go along with the majority opinion of the international community rather than line up behind Iran and risk undermining its own nuclear deal with America.
If Delhi had allowed its instinct to posture prevail over common sense, it would have looked foolish when Iran negotiated a nuclear deal of its own with America in 2015. This involved a harsh set of compromises that Tehran was unwilling to make a decade earlier.
The real challenge in India’s engagement with Iran was not about holding up the high principles of “strategic autonomy”, but of effectively navigating the international complexities surrounding economic and energy ties and seizing upon the few opportunities that were available for building a partnership under adverse conditions. India’s performance here has been underwhelming.
Consider the case of Chabahar port. The idea of building a port in the south-eastern coast of Iran first came up when the Iranian president Mohammed Khatami came to Delhi in January 2003. While the international circumstances made engagement with Iran hard, India’s internal problems contributed to the problem.
Delhi’s vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency on the nuclear issue has done a lot less damage than India’s inability to find practical ways to advance the relationship on the ground. The UPA leadership could not muster the necessary political will to direct different ministries and agencies to work in unison to pursue declared strategic objectives towards Iran. Nor was it nimble enough to navigate the international financial sanctions that were imposed against Iran.
The PM and his transport minister, Nitin Gadkari, deserve credit for developing the necessary institutional mechanisms for India’s participation in the Chabahar project. Although India has taken long to get it off the ground, the Chabahar project has the potential to alter the hostile regional geography that Delhi had inherited in 1947. The partition of the subcontinent and Pakistan’s control of parts of Kashmir had left India without physical access to Afghanistan. Pakistan, which resented Kabul’s special relationship with Delhi, had no desire to provide overland transit rights to India or facilitate an expansive cooperation between Afghanistan and India.
Iran came into this bleak picture as Delhi and Tehran discovered a common interest in opposing the Taliban that had captured Kabul in 1996 with the support of the Pakistan army. The ouster of the Taliban in 2001 did not reduce the salience of the India-Iran partnership. The US, on its part, tried to promote the natural historic connectivity between India and Central Asia through Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Rawalpindi, however, was in no mood to relent. That, in turn, made Iran and Chabahar even more important for India. Chabahar’s significance also rose, as China began to develop Gwadar and unveiled ambitious plans for linking its far western province of Xinjiang with the Arabian Sea with a transport corridor running through Pakistan.
The successful launch of the Chabahar project allows India to circumvent the geographic limitations imposed by Partition and the enduring hostility with Pakistan. The delay in the execution of the Chabhar project, however, has exposed the big problem that India had created for itself. It is the vast gap between an expansive rhetoric on promoting regional connectivity and the lack of institutional capacity to implement strategic projects across and beyond borders. The Chabahar project, hopefully, is the first step in plugging that gap.