Iran’s geo-strategic ambitions

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Some recent moves by Iran, intensive engagement with India and a landmark mutual security pact with Saudi Arabia, provide clear indications that Tehran has at last decided to give up its post-Shah isolationist policies to play a regional role in keeping with its size, oil wealth and strategic location.

Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s high-profile visit to Iran, the first in seven years by an Indian Prime Minister, was described by the Iranian President, Syed Mohammed Khatani, as “a turning point” in bilateral ties and “a new chapter” in the field of human and international relations. In the words of Indian External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, the Tehran Declaration, was “a path-breaking one”. This was the first time that Iran and India had signed such a statement.

It will be worthwhile to have a close look at the Tehran Declaration which shows an unmistakable congruence of interests between Tehran and New Delhi. Asserting that the Tehran Declaration embodied the vision for future Indo-Iranian relations, Mr. Vajpayee emphasised, at a press conference at the end of his visit, “the strategic importance” of Indo-Iranian relations. He, however, sought to clarify that his country’s growing relations with Iran would not be at the expense of any other country, including Pakistan.

As expected, the situation in Afghanistan figured prominently in Mr. Vajpayee’s interaction with the Iranian leadership. The Tehran Declaration called for a broad-based government in Afghanistan to replace the present regime, which tantamounted to an implicit support for the Northern Alliance led by Ahmed Shah Masood. But what must have rattled Islamabad mast was the statement of Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi that Pakistan must work with Iran and India to resolve the Afghanistan situation.

The most significant part of the Tehran Declaration related to the condemnation of international terrorism “in all its forms”. Going even a step further, Iran and India castigated those nations which “aid, abet and directly support” international terrorism – a veiled reference to Taliban and Pakistan. Demanding a stronger international legal regime against terrorism, Tehran and New Delhi also endorsed the Comprehensive Convention on Terrorism currently being considered at the United Nations. It may be mentioned that Indian diplomats have been earnestly lobbying to secure international support for the proposed convention on Terrorism which is essentially New Delhi’s brain-child. The Iranian support to the Indian viewpoint on terrorism assumed added significance against the backdrop of Tehran’s support for Hizbullah in Lebanon, which has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States.

The bonhomie between New Delhi and Tehran has not surfaced all of a sudden. In the recent past there has been an increasing convergence of views and widening cooperation in multilateral fora. Indian External Affairs Minister paid an official visit to Tehran in May last year when both sides setup a joint commission to consider all aspects of bilateral relations. During Mr. Vajpayee’s visit, six agreements on energy, industry, technology, trade and tourism were signed. Revamping of Iranian industry after 22 years of sanctions, railway-signaling projects and training of Iranian defence personnel were some of the other subjects discussed during the Vajpayee visit.

An important feature of Indo-Iranian engagement which was intentionally underplayed in the India media, related to defence cooperation. Iran is very keen to build up its defence potential with the help of Russia and India. The training of Iranian defence personnel in India was discussed during the Vajpayee visit. Last month India’s Defence Secretary Yogendra Narain visited Iran whose Defence Minister Ali Shankhani said increased military cooperation between the two nations “was a must”. According to Times of India, “India and Iran have begun to exchange views on defence issues of mutual concern”.

Undoubtedly, India and Iran are quite enthusiastic about the strategic importance of their relationship. But the crucial question that remains to be answered is: Can the convergence of their regional interests sustain in the long run their strategic links in the absence of a shared world view? Or in other words, will the Indo-Iranian hostility to the Taliban regime alone suffice to act as a strategic glue to bind New Delhi and Tehran? It is obvious that the future of Indo-Iranian strategic relationship will, to a large extent, be determined by the interactions of the two countries to the world’s sole super power, the United States.

The truism needs to be repeated that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in international affairs, but only permanent national interests. A reconciliation between the United States and Iran may not be on the cards in the immediate future but it cannot be ruled out either. As a matter of fact, there are some indications that positive movement in that behalf may have already begun.

The signing of a landmark mutual security pact between Iran and Saudi Arabia has far-reaching implications for the whole region. The Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, who signed the pact in Tehran, has said that it deals with joint fight against crime and terrorism as well as money laundering, surveillance of borders and territorial water. But the most significant observation made by him was that Riyadh and Tehran “share a great responsibility for maintaining order and security in the region”.

The security pact marks the culmination of a series of high-level contacts between the two sides. Since Saudi Arabia and Iran do not have any territorial or bilateral dispute, the pact has the potential to bring the two nations closer to each other. But given the degree of US influence over the House of Saud it is inconceivable that Riyadh would have signed an important security pact with Tehran without a nod from Washington.

It may just be a coincidence that Mr. Vajpayee visited Tehran soon after his Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh had concluded his talks with the key players of Bush administration in Washington. But the fact remains that India cannot play the role of “maintaining peace and stability in the Indian Ocean and its vast periphery”, as suggested by Secretary of State Colin Powell, without the cooperation of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf-region.

Jaswant Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia in January this year, inviting Riyadh to join New Delhi “in a partnership” to strengthen “regional security”, the emerging Indo-Iranian strategic relationship, the Saudi-Iran security pact and the new momentum in Indo-US-ties may not be isolated developments but the irregularly shaped pieces that fit in perfectly with the jigsaw puzzle of the new strategic calculus.

Is New Delhi trying to play the role of an honest broker to bring about reconciliation between Washington and Tehran? At the moment it is no doubt a far-fetched question but the Indian motives for the move are not far to seek. It is no longer a secret that India enjoys US support for sharing the responsibility to guard the sealanes connecting the oil rich Gulf with other parts of Asia. Normalisation of relations between the US and Iran will facilitate the fulfillment of Indian ambition. Another important bonanza for New Delhi of US-Iranian detente, whenever it takes place, will be a corresponding decline in the strategic importance of Pakistan for the United States.

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