by Somnath Mukherjee
There has been the usual flurry of commentary from the commentariat in the latest round of tension around Iran. Not incorrectly, much of it has been focused on how India cannot be sitting on the sidelines, as it were anymore. It is when the analyses dive a little deeper do the nasty little nuances show up, angularities that dont fit the narrative. There are fundamentally two reasons quoted why India needs to maintain equanimity with Iran:
1. India imports 12 million tons of crude oil from that country.
2. Presence of a large Indian diaspora in the region and the remittances from there.
Problem is, the first issue is hardly one of any great import. Oil is a global commodity, and prices are determined globally. Iran isnt the only country producing crude, and absence of Iranian supplies does not make either US or Western Europe, both larger consumers of crude than India, particularly oil-distressed. India therefore, should be able to replace its Iranian supplies with alternate sources relatively easily. Especially with the Saudis being ever so eager to make those deals.
The second, on the other hand is even more “interesting”. Bulk of the Indian diaspora in the Middle East is concentrated in the GCC region. Iran on the other hand, has very few Indian expats and contributes very little indeed to remittances. And countries that bring up the forefront of the global wariness on Iran are not US, or even Israel. The GCC bloc, led by the Saudis have the highest axes to grind and are working doubly hard in back channels to mobilise support for isloating Iran in world capitals. Again, if India are to be pursuing “self interest” single mindedly, we should be ideally be cutting deals with the Saudis!
Surprisingly, there is a third, and in many ways, the most important angle that very few have focussed on. Which is the fact that Iran constitutes the pivot of India’s Afghan strategy. For all the years of Taliban rule, Iran was the geographic praxis for India to retain its influence in the region. The Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan, built by India, is part of the larger Indo-Afghan route whose first leg is Indian access to the Chabahaar port in Iran. With the Americans scheduled to leave sooner rather than later, the Iranian geography would be nearly irreplaceable for India to retain strategic options.
In short, are India’s options really that “Hobson”-ian? Or is there a case of Iran needing friends, or at least neutrals more than India’s strategic imperatives? Imaginatively thought through, given India’s equity with Israel as well as with the Saudis, is there space for India to emerge as a mediator? Cant we tell Iran that while we are happy to keep half a foot outside the Western-GCC axis, there has to be a price to be paid for that? There was a time when India actively sought to “mediate”, whether in Korea or in Indo-China. Then it was primarily about our “moral heft”, an equity that had rapidly diminishing returns. Today, as a major strategic partner for all parties involved, and without the suspicions that China almost congenitally evokes in most capitals, India’s options are more.
This is the time to create new options, not lament the lack of them!