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Iran-India Strategic Partnership Needs Resuscitation

Paper No. 5813                                 Dated 03-Nov-2014

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Strong imperatives exist in the context of the emerging situation in Afghanistan, volatility in Pakistan, India’s energy security and India’s access to Central Asian markets through Iran for resuscitating the Iran-India Strategic Partnership.

The Iran-India Strategic Partnership was envisioned in the New Delhi Declaration signed on January 25 by Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee and visiting Iranian President Khatami as the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day Parade 2003. The New Delhi Declaration of 2003 was preceded by the Teheran Declaration of 2001 signed again by PM Vajpayee on his visit to Iran. Both these Declarations testify to the fact that both Iran and India wished to establish a well-bonded and structured Strategic Partnership.

With another BJP Prime Minister in power in New Delhi and as an assertive and dynamic one too it would be in the fitness of India’s security imperatives that this Strategic Partnership is pursued and restored to its full vigour. The Modi Government has yet to establish its footprints in the Middle East and Iran with which India has centuries old civilizational ties would ideally and strategically be the best place to commence this process.

India’s privileged relationship with Iran was unceremoniously ditched by the succeeding Congress Government buckling under United States Congress pressures to salvage the Indo-US Nuclear Deal as a quid pro quo.

Strategically ironic is the fact that the United States which held the Iran-India Strategic Partnership as hostage for the conclusion of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal should itself now be attempting to pursue Iran for the progress of US-Iran nuclear negotiations despite US Congressional pressures and more importantly in securing Iran’s assistance for the United States confrontation with the menacing SIS threat engulfing the Northern Middle East.

A vibrant Iran-India Strategic Partnership despite the Cold War gladiators on US Capitol Hill would neither be a threat to the United States or Israel’s national security interests. On the contrary it may prove to be beneficial for Middle East regional security when the predominant regional power in the Gulf Region works and cooperates closely with India not only as the regional power in Iran’s contiguous region but also as an emerging power in its own right.

Needing emphasis is the strategic reality that Iran is the foremost regional power of the Middle East along with Turkey. If Iran could withstand for nearly four decades the United States threats of military intervention is in itself a measure of Iran’s military potential to unleash multi-dimensional ripostes. That has held back the United States so far.

Let it not be underplayed that the Iran-India Strategic Partnership was a logical follow-up to the strategic convergences that existed between these two prominent nations in the context of Afghanistan and Pakistan and Pakistan’s Talibanisation of Afghanistan and its export of Islamic Jihad.

Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to be major strategic concerns for both India and Iran in 2014 too, even after a decade, when strategic uncertainties hover even more strongly and menacingly with the announced exit of US Forces from Afghanistan and in its wake the reactivation of the Al Qaeda, Taliban and possibly the ISIS as some reports suggest.

Afghanistan which has made strides towards democracy and development stands endangered with the revival of Pakistan Army’s imperial pretensions in the unfolding exit of US military presence from Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq where one is witnessing the incremental return of US military forces to pre-empt the ISIS threat, any such repeat is unlikely in Afghanistan’s case should Pakistan Army ‘s proxy disruptionist  destabilisation operations succeed.

Iran enjoys a unique geostrategic location in that it is geographically contiguous to both Afghanistan and Pakistan and that imparts certain strategic and military leverages to keep Pakistan in check.

Both Iran and India have significant stakes in the security and stability of Afghanistan and both these nations involvement in Afghanistan in the past decade and a half has been a benign one. Strategic logic therefore dictates that both Iran and India join hands to ensure that they make concerted efforts to ensure that Afghanistan rises as a successful nation-state and stands on its own two legs to confront disruptionist threats.

Iran and India notably had a strategic convergence in supporting the Northern Alliance against the Pakistan Army-propped Taliban regime in Kabul.

 The vehicle for both Iran and India to achieve their common strategic objectives in Afghanistan would be a well-bonded Strategic Partnership.

Energy security is another critical area of interest for India in relation to Iran. India needs to reduce its oil-dependency on oil producers within the Gulf. Iran also offers the shortest route for oil supplies to India without passing through any choke-points.

India’s significant strategic and economic stakes in Afghanistan and Central Asia can only be furthered through Iranian cooperation as Pakistan continues and would continue to deny land route access to India. All these years if India could succeed in completion of billion dollars development projects and economic activities in Afghanistan it was facilitated by access given by Iran through its Chah Bahar port and development of link highways to the Afghanistan roads grid.

Two points need to be made here with the first being hat even with India buckling to US Congress pressures to downgrade its ties, Iran continued to provide access to India to pursue its political and strategic objectives in Afghanistan. Secondly, on a larger plane it needs to be highlighted that at the height of US military intervention in Afghanistan, Iran unlike Pakistan did not destabilise Western Afghanistan to US strategic discomfiture which has a long contiguous border with Iran.

Chah Bahar port’s speedy joint development by Iran and India seems to have been a casualty of India’s downgrading strategic ties with Iran in the middle of the last decade. With China making glaring intrusive operations in the Indian Ocean and taking over the Pakistani port of Gwadar, India needs to pick up steam to fast-track the upgradation and expansion of facilities in Chah Bahar port to serve its economic and strategic needs.

Besides India’s significant strategic and economic stakes in an effective Iran-India Strategic Partnership there is another vital aspect that cannot be ignored and that is India’s Shia affinity with Iran. Some reports suggest that India has the fourth largest Shia Muslim population in the world of which Iran is the spiritual leader of Shia Islam. This makes for an important spiritual and political linkage between the two countries.

On all counts therefore India needs to vigorously resuscitate the Iran-India Strategic Partnership. India values its strategic partnerships with the United States and Israel too. Israel has been a good strategic friend of India. However, both the United States and Israel need to recognise and India also needs to appreciate that India’s national security and strategic imperatives are paramount as and should predominate its policy formulations even as it concurrently values its strategic partnerships with others.

Further, in the process of India striking a well-bonded Strategic Partnership with Iran, the national security interests of both the United States and Israel possibly could be better served.

Concluding, to substantiate the above assertion, one would like to quote from a Harvard University Policy Brief written some time back that: “If the United States reaches a point at which it will engage Iran in some capacity, India could provide a helpful role. New Delhi’s close relationship with Iran, the United States and Israel puts it in a unique position as a political intermediary, similar to China’s role in the said Six Party Talks on North Korea.”

(Dr Subhash Kapila is Consultant, International Relations and Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at