By Talmiz Ahmed*
The signing of the Chabahar port development agreement and the trilateral trade and transit pact between India, Afghanistan and Iran during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran have the potential to significantly change strategic equations in the region. These agreements will put in place geo-economic, political and military relationships that will pull India out of the narrow straitjacket of South Asia and make it a role-player in the security and stability of its extended neighbourhood.
The Central Asian Republics, which were in the vortex of competition between the US, Russia and China a decade ago, have been anxious to see a larger Indian presence in the region.
The personal bonhomie between the Indian and the Iranian leaders, their understanding of the historic and civilisational context of the bilateral relationship, and their highlighting of the real synergies that bind the two nations constitute solid foundations for a new partnership, firmly putting behind the recurrent bitterness and anguish of the sanctions era.
While energy will remain central to the relationship, the two leaders have envisioned much broader ties. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani noted that his country was “rich in energy” while India had “rich minds”, factors that, operating in tandem, would yield achievements in frontier areas such as ICT, bio and nanotechnology, and space and aerospace.
The trade and transit corridors will enable India and Iran to contribute to Afghanistan’s economic development and its stability. They will also be able to take joint action against the scourge of the Taliban and Pakistan’s pernicious role in Afghanistan, which have destroyed Afghanistan’s integrity and threaten stability in South and Central Asia as well.
The Chabahar corridor is complemented by the India-supported International North-South Transit Corridor that goes north-westwards from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Both corridors go to Central Asia, Russia and Europe. The Central Asian Republics, which were in the vortex of competition between the US, Russia and China a decade ago, have been anxious to see a larger Indian presence in the region.
However, India’s outreach has till now been restricted by the absence of land connections, while global sanctions had prevented Iran from pursuing its interests in the region. The new corridors will change this situation dramatically: they have rightly been described by Modi as “new routes for peace and prosperity”.
Naturally, there will be other nations competing for influence in Central Asia: China will loom large, particularly with the One Belt One Road (OBOR) projects that, when completed, will recreate the old Silk Road that dominated Eurasian commerce and culture for over two millennia. Iran has a major place in these OBOR-related connections.
While some Indian commentators view OBOR as a manifestation of China’s hegemonic intentions, India should actually see an opportunity in OBOR to merge its own logistical connections with this important enterprise. For several centuries before the imperialist era, Indian economic participation in the Silk Road, with its goods and merchants, was central to the promotion of regional commerce and ultimately in the shaping of the great Eurasian civilisation that resonates to this day.
Still, there is little doubt that China is also attaching the highest importance to developing ties with Iran and the Arab Gulf states. China’s stakes in the region remain significant, primarily on account of its energy and economic interests. Again, partnership with Iran will enhance its strategic presence in the regional scenario. It has, however, avoided giving any hint of playing a diplomatic role to douse fires in the region.
India is much better placed in this regard due to its millennia-old links with the region, the high level of cultural comfort it enjoys, its crucial interests in regional stability due to its own energy and economic interests and, above all, the presence of its eight-million strong community in the Gulf.
Modi’s visit to Iran has come soon after his engagements with the Arab Gulf states of UAE and Saudi Arabia. All three interactions have reshaped political and economic ties to make them relevant to contemporary times; and, all three relationships have been imparted a “strategic” value since the countries concerned share concerns relating to extremism and terrorism and regional stability.
In Tehran, Modi affirmed this when he noted that India and Iran “share a crucial stake in peace, stability and prosperity” in the region, and also have shared concerns relating to “instability, radicalism and terror”. As in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh earlier, in Tehran too both countries have agreed to enhance cooperation between their defence and security institutions.
However, these words will have little meaning unless major players in the region with an abiding stake in West Asian security, actually take the initiative to engage actively with the region’s nations now engaged in “existential” contention. Modi clearly set out the principles of the new regional order when he said during his Japan visit last year: “Today, the watchwords of international ties are trust, not suspicion; cooperation, not dominance; inclusivity, not exclusion.”
These principles can shape the India-led initiative to bring competing Islamic giants to a discussion platform. The leaders have shown the way; it is now for officials to take up the challenge. For none of the visions of connectivity and cooperation will have much value if West Asia remains locked in conflict. Instead of altering the course of history, as Modi has envisioned, we will only witness another missed opportunity.
*Writer served as Indian ambassador to several countries in West Asia.