The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been widely regarded as a friend of Israel. High expectations were placed on Modi undertaking an early visit to Israel. But that has not happened yet, and instead even as he completes two years in office, his main focus in West Asia happens to be on the Persian Gulf region.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) meeting with leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei in Tenhran Tueasday
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) holds talks with Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei in Tehran Tuesday

Does it mean he has put Israel on the backburner? Far from it. There can be no two opinions that India regards Israel as an almost irreplaceable partner in the West Asian region.

Other than Russia, it is from Israel that India sources advanced military technologies. The strategic nature of the Israel ties gives that country a unique status in the Indian regional policies.

Therefore, the first thing that strikes one about Modi’s focus on West Asia is that Indian regional policies are not making an existential choice here.

The Persian Gulf countries cannot replace Israel in India’s regional partnerships, or vice versa. The two sets of partnership are not mutually exclusive. Indian diplomacy has been reasonably successful so far in keeping the equilibrium.

Enter Iran. The lifting of the sanctions against Iran and that country’s impending integration with the world market introduces a new template in the geopolitics of the region.

Indeed, new fault lines have appeared within the Persian Gulf region with the Saudi-Iranian rivalries taking myriad forms. On the other hand, Arab-Israeli divide has become blurred, and new players have also appeared – Russia and China in particular.

Will a strategic re-engagement of Iran, from where India left it off in the end-1990s, be possible today?

A retrospective look at the Indian-Iranian strategic relationship in its halcyon days in the nineties is called for. Looking back, the impetus for the overture to Tehran by the government led by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was provided by three inter-related considerations.

First and foremost, India harbored a sense of isolation in the post-Soviet period. (The US policies toward India began to change only by the mid-nineties.) Unsurprisingly, India felt an affinity with Iran, which also was groping its way forward defying the containment strategy by the West.

Simply put, India and Iran felt a kinship on account of comparable pressures working on them as well as their strikingly similar aspirations. (India was one of the few countries which empathized with the mainspring of Iranian nationalism that underlay the Islamic Revolution of 1979.)

Second, India faced a critical situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the early nineties and Iran, being an important Islamic country, could be helpful to counter Pakistani shenanigans – cross-border terrorism as well as the international campaign against the Indian ‘occupation’ of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan all but succeeded in getting the UN Human Rights Council to condemn India but for Iran’s last-minute intervention as a leading OIC member country.

Third, the ascendancy of Taliban through the second half of the nineties, which was a barely disguised Pakistani military intervention in Afghanistan, posed similar threats to India and Iran. If for Iran it was the tacit support extended by the US and Saudi Arabia to the Taliban, for India, it was the Pakistani game plan to turn Afghanistan into a revolving door for its proxy groups creating mayhem in Jammu and Kashmir.

Suffice it to say, due to congruence of interests and force of circumstances, India and Iran forged a strategic axis to support the anti-Taliban resistance. Undoubtedly, this was the high watermark of India-Iran strategic cooperation.

The pertinent question as Prime Minister Narendra Modi concludes his visit to Tehran on May 23 will be whether it is realistic to try to recapture the verve of that strategic axis – or, more accurately, whether such an axis would have any raison d’etre in today’s regional and international milieu.

Curiously, India’s strategic partnership with the US compelled it to atrophy with great deliberation and cap its relationship with Iran through the past 15 years, especially the past decade. (Ironically, the US today encourages India to renew links with Iran.)

On the other hand, Iran ‘unbound’ makes a terrific partner in the economic field for India. The two economies enjoy a high level of complementarity. The main agenda during Modi’s visit underscores this – energy partnership, investment, and industrial collaboration. India cannot hope for such a comprehensive and wide-ranging economic partnership with any of the GCC countries.

What about a regional strategic axis between India and Iran? The picture becomes at once hazy. Several factors are at work – principally, Iran no longer faces isolation and has multiple options for economic partnerships even in the Asian region – South Korea, Japan, China etc. Strategically, Iran’s relations with the US are no longer adversarial, although the engagement is taking time to crystallize as cooperation.

Equally, Iran-Pakistan relations are in a state of transition, and it is highly unlikely that Iran will do anything that may jeopardize its nascent rapprochement with Pakistan. Tehran’s objective all along has been to encourage Pakistan to move out of the orbit of Saudi and US influence. Tehran appreciates that Pakistan has spurned Saudi overtures to become a participant in the proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.

Besides, Iran and Pakistan are also eyeing an energy partnership and it is within the realms of possibility that the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline may get extended to China. Again, both Iran and Pakistan are active participants in China’s One Belt One Road projects.

The bottom line is that Iran needs Pakistan’s cooperation to put an end to the cross-border terrorism that destabilizes its Sistan-Baluchistan province. Iran suspects that the terrorist groups operating from Pakistan across the border get covert Saudi support.

In Afghanistan, too, Iran will not be seeking an axis with India although the two countries may have common concerns over the threat of terrorism. Iran has specific interests in Afghanistan and it no longer views the Taliban as an enemy.

The fact that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed as he was returning to Pakistan after a visit to Iran testifies to the extent to which the two erstwhile rivals have harmonized over the Afghan problem. All things taken into account, therefore, while India and Iran have shared interest in Afghanistan’s unity, stability and independence, an Indian-Iranian axis to challenge Pakistan on the Afghan turf can be ruled out.

However, the Iran-India cooperation to develop a transit route to Afghanistan via Chabahar Port does have strategic overtones. A highlight of Modi’s visit has been the signing of an India-Iran-Afghanistan trilateral agreement on transit. No doubt, the transit route will provide an extremely crucial access route for Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistani territory and reducing the over-dependence on the traditional route leading from Karachi Port.

All in all, India has done well not to frontload the developing relationship with ‘post-sanctions Iran’ with heavy geopolitical baggage. In the ultimate analysis, as and when the economic partnership becomes robust and critically serves mutual interests, the two countries are bound to realize that their commonality of interests and the similarity in their national aspirations, especially their respective accent on preserving their strategic autonomy, make them natural allies in regional politics.

Quite obviously, there are variables in the emergent matrix. The trajectory of Iran’s relations with the US remains unclear. Most certainly, India will not want to get entangled in the Iran-Saudi rivalries. The good part is that Iran is not making any demands on India as regards its hugely consequential ties with Saudi Arabia – or Israel and the US.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

(Copyright 2016 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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