President Hassan Rouhani will pay a three-day official visit to India on February 15. What stands out most is the timing – this visit comes at a juncture when tensions are cascading in Iran’s standoff with the US and Israel, with the White House hell-bent on bringing the Iranian regime to its knees. Without doubt, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to Rouhani signifies strategic defiance of the US.
Washington may have sensed the message already. President Donald Trump telephoned Modi on February 9 for a tour d’horizon. In a rambling conversation, they exchanged views on issues as varied as North Korea, Afghanistan and the Maldives but Trump’s intention was to mark his territory. Modi’s office is yet to give the customary readout.
Just over a month ago, Trump unveiled his 2018 National Security Strategy, which projected Iran as a threat to the security of the US and its allies in the Middle East. Simply put, Delhi is openly dissenting – and signaling that India-Iran ties will be preserved and advanced, no matter the Iran policy of the US.
The expansion of co-operation with India provides Iran with strategic depth in regional politics, given the likelihood of the US imposing more sanctions. The highlight of Rouhani’s visit will be plans for Indian investments in infrastructure projects in Iran.
Iran now figures as the third biggest supplier of oil to India (after Saudi Arabia and Iraq). Iran’s oil exports to India surged to 20 million tonnes in the first nine months of the current financial year (April to December, 2017.) Energy cooperation will, therefore, be a major topic of discussion between Modi and Rouhani. India is 80% dependent on imports to meet its oil needs and India’s economy is growing at a high rate. India-Iran energy cooperation is like a marriage made in heaven.
Meanwhile, the entry of Russian oil companies to develop Iran’s gas fields opens a new vista of trilateral cooperation. Russia has voiced interest in constructing a gas pipeline from Iran to India. Rosneft, one of the Russian companies active in Iran, acquired an Indian private refiner (Essar Oil) in a US$13 billion deal last August. Rosneft’s Indian subsidiary has ambitious plans to invest to the tune of US$30 billion to develop business in the highly lucrative Indian retail market for refined petroleum products.
Russia has high stakes in three-way Russian-Iranian-Indian cooperation in the field of energy. Interestingly, Russia and Iran are also planning to switch to using national currencies in settlements by the end of 2018. The implications are far-reaching if India aligns with the momentum of a Russian-Iranian strategic axis.
India is already tapping a transportation route through Chabahar Port, in southeastern Iran, to access Afghanistan. Last month, New Delhi also signed the Ashgabat Agreement, a concord involving Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Oman and Iran that aims at developing yet another transportation network to enhance regional connectivity. Clearly, Iran figures in the Indian strategic calculus as a hub in regional connectivity. The criticality of Iran as a strategic partner also needs to be understood against the backdrop of India’s problematic relations with Pakistan and China.
The India-Iran mutual understanding has matured to a point that neither side is making demands on the other’s strategic autonomy. India is free to cherry-pick – it can maintain ties with Israel and petrodollar states in the Persian Gulf, some of which are on adversarial terms with Iran. Similarly, Iran’s strong ties with China and its self-interest in steering ties with Pakistan harmoniously do not raise hackles in Delhi.
Both Modi and Putin are highly nationalistic in their outlook but at the same time realistic about politics being, ultimately, the art of the possible
Afghanistan will be a major topic of discussion between Modi and Rouhani. Iran has lately become very vocal about the imperative need for the US to vacate the country. Trump’s Afghan strategy, on the other hand, confers on India pride of place as the US’ key partner. But then, the rhetoric is almost entirely Trump’s. India will be striving to blend with regional opinion, especially Russia’s and Iran’s, while making its own assessments of the situation in Afghanistan.
New Delhi has neatly sidestepped US overtures to keep India inside the American orbit. Meanwhile, the traditional Indian-Iranian convergence on Afghanistan, riveted on a shared interest in fighting terrorism and religious extremism, may well find traction during Rouhani’s visit. Specifically, the two countries are stakeholders in any serious regional initiative to reach a settlement in Afghanistan.
In the final analysis, however, Rouhani’s visit by far exceeds the definition of a bilateral event. In many ways it will signpost India’s foreign-policy trajectory. Modi has, to date, taken a “pro-American” tilt and held back on his natural instincts toward engaging China constructively. But the balance sheet presents a dismal picture.
Climbing on the bandwagon of the US’ Asia-Pacific strategy and pursuit of a hardline policy toward China (at the behest of an influential coalition of pro-American lobbyists within the Indian establishment) has run its course and proved to be a road to nowhere. No tangible gains have accrued to India through the excessive zeal to be the US’ “natural partner,” In fact, the effects of hardline policies toward China over the last three years have meant pushing India-China relations to the brink of war. The US has been the net winner.
Modi understands this. An early sign of his growing disillusionment with the US was visible in the body language he exhibited in his extended visit to St. Petersburg in June last year. Modi clocked several hours over three days formally and informally exchanging views with President Vladimir Putin on a one-to-one level. The Indian premier later described it as a “very productive” visit.
Curiously, Modi and Putin are strikingly similar personalities – completely self-made people who are strong-willed and proud of their achievements. Both are highly nationalistic in their outlook but at the same time realistic about politics being, ultimately, the art of the possible.
The signs of an incipient new trajectory in Indian foreign policy were there in mid-December when India cast its vote on the western resolution in the United Nations condemning Russia on human rights violations in Crimea and Sevastopol. India had the option to abstain, but instead it voted against the western resolution and expressed solidarity with Russia in what many are seeing as an emerging new Cold War.
What is unfolding is a delicate transition and the fact that Rouhani’s visit to India was kept under wraps until the penultimate hour underscores that Delhi is mindful of shark-infested waters. After all, easing oneself from the tight handshake of a US president who prides himself on being the consummate deal-maker in the service of America First is no small matter.