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India’s Options in Afghanistan – The Iran Factor

While The WikiLeaks “revelation” has not uncovered anything radically new, it has highlighted the prevailing intricacies and complexities of the conflict. Pakistan’s “offer” of negotiating a deal with the Taliban and the Haqqani network has regained prominence. Former Canadian diplomat Chris Alexander’s disclosure of Gen Kayani’s plans of demolishing Indian consulates in Kabul has re-emphasised the importance of the Afghan theatre in the Indo-Pak equation. India’s perennial attempt to carve out a niche in Afghanistan has suffered many set-backs.

With such limited options, India should look at its potential partners to ensure that its national interests are safeguarded across the Durand Line. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali Fathollahi’s recent visit to India illustrates this change in the diplomatic mood in New Delhi. This visit followed the 9 July joint commission meeting between India and Iran where Afghanistan was a key point agenda was under discussion.

New Delhi and Tehran have enjoyed a fairly comfortable relation with few contentious issues. The two countries had supported the Northern Alliance after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. India has been a victim of the Talibanisation of Afghanistan, when it was used as a haven for training camps for spurring militancy in Kashmir. The case of Kandahar IC-814 hijacking further accentuated Delhi’s acrimony towards the fundamentalist elements in Afghanistan. While Shia majority Iran has the benefit of influence on the Hazara tribes in Afghanistan, it has no conviviality with the Sunni-Pashtun Taliban’s control on its borders. Additionally, Iran’s animosity towards the Taliban was further fuelled by the killing of 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, which sparked a military conflict. As such, the strategic interests of India and Iran have conjoined in terms of Afghanistan.

In the present context, both countries have not fully embraced the idea of reconciliation process with the Taliban, as proposed by the Karzai government. They continue to stand unconvinced about the advantages of the process owing to the horror of a renewed wave of Islamic fundamentalism on their periphery. This feeling is also shared by Russia, which holds similar fears about heightened Islamic fundamentalism near its borders and those of the Central Asian Republics.

Iran has qualms with regard to almost the three million Afghan refugees it hosts,  who may have connections with Taliban and may use Iran as a substitute to Pakistan as it ensures a net of safety due to strained Iran-US relations. On the other hand, India is wary of Pakistan’s military-ISI nexus that is inflaming the insurgency in Afghanistan and using the Afghan Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network as proxies to target the Indians in Afghanistan. While India has set conditions to facilitate the Taliban’s reintegration, it continues to remain leery about the result. The suspicion is also due to the fear that the Pakistan-friendly Afghan Taliban would obstruct India’s access to Central Asia. Similarly, Iran has voiced out its opposition stating that there can be no differentiation between “good and bad Taliban.”

Recent developments testify that Pakistan holds the main key to Afghanistan’s future, which visibly remains an unpalatable fact for the New Delhi administration. With few options to exercise, India approach towards working with Iran to counteract Pakistan’s influence is inevitably important. Interestingly, Islamabad is working towards a better relation with Iran as well and has even highlighted its “good” deed of helping Iran in the arrest of Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of the Baluch Sunni rebel group Jundollah. Despite this step, Iran-Pakistan relations continue to be plagued by tenuousness. This is more so because of Pakistan’s comfortable equation with Saudi Arabia and Iran’s rival, the United States, both of whom are opposed to Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran is a strategically essential player for India and Pakistan’s thawing relationship with Iran would worsen the already almost lost situation. Iran’s geographical location is a plus point for continuous engagement in Afghanistan. Its long border with Afghanistan and its long-standing cultural ties are imperative to exercise geo-political and geo-strategic influence in the region. India’s trump card in the situation is Iran’s Chabahar port, which will provide New Delhi direct access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The port would minimise New Delhi’s need to negotiate with Islamabad for any access to Afghanistan. The last Indo-Iran talks have highlighted the need to expedite the operationalisation of the India-aided Chabahar port. As noted by Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury in India Today, the port is strategically important because it is placed barely 73 km from Pakistan’s Gwadar port, which has been built with Chinese assistance. The already constructed Zarang-Delaram road in Afghanistan, when joined with the Chahar-Milak road (being upgraded with Indian assistance and will connect a bridge on route to Zaranj) would bestow upon India and Iran a higher degree of access to Afghanistan, ensuring greater influence in the region and also bypassing Pakistan.

While India is emphasising on “structured, systematic and regular consultations” with Iran, one should understand that it is not a win-win situation. In the recent past, India-Iran relations have been affected by turbulence, mainly because of India’s support for the US-driven IAEA resolution that condemned Iran over its nuclear programme and led to sanctions. Another point of contention may arise in the future owing to Iran and India’s contrary stance on the NATO forces in Afghanistan. While India’s strategic need prefers continued US presence in Afghanistan till a reasonable degree of stability is achieved, Iran desires an immediate withdrawal of the US-NATO coalition forces. Even though this posture of both the countries has not led to any friction, one cannot rule out such an eventuality in the future. Therefore, it is important for India to have a realistic assessment and cooperate with Iran to find a middle ground, which favours both New Delhi and Tehran. With potential odds at play, the perennial US pressure on India to support sanctions against Iran would continue to overshadow India-Iran relations.

At this juncture, India needs to define its national interests and choose options to safeguard them, rather than distance its potential partners in order to coddle the Obama administration. Pakistan is US’s present preference in the region and is likely to remain so in the coming future. India’s diplomatic proximity with Iran may also force the US to have a re-look at its priorities in Afghanistan and may stimulate the Obama administration to think about India. However, expecting Washington to take a U-turn and undermine Islamabad’s role in the Af-Pak region would be highly idealistic. Therefore, New Delhi needs to shun its long-practiced apprehension and take a firm stand militarily and strategically. India should move with a sense of reality and bring into shape its own Af-Pak policy, one that safeguards its own interests.
Source: http://www.claws.in/index.php?action=master&task=622&u_id=119

Courtsey: Indian Defence Review (online edition), 11 August 2010.

Source: http://www.indiandefencereview.com/2010/08/india’s-options-in-afghanistan-–-the-iran-factor.html

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