By Vinay Kaura
With Iran eventually moving toward getting unshackled from crippling sanctions, it is time India took a closer look at the mineral-rich and energy-abundant Central Asia and expanded its strategic horizons partly as a natural expansion that any rising power attempts, but also partly as a response to China’s growing assertiveness in international fora. If the deal with Tehran is finalized by June end, it will have far-reaching implications on the geoeconomic and geostrategic landscape with regional balance of power shifting in Iran’s favour. Turkey is the first to acknowledge this reality.
The Western countries have a vested interest in promoting rapprochement with an Iran who abandons its nuclear ambitions, opens its huge domestic market to foreign direct investment, emerges as an alternative to Russia as energy supplier to Europe, and helps find solutions to the terrorism challenge coming from the so-called Islamic State. On the other hand, Iran’s entry into mainstream international politics will revive its economy and alter the nature of its domestic politics.
Iran, which is not detested and ostracized by the Western powers, is also likely to play a positive role in the stabilization of strife-torn Afghanistan. More importantly, a thaw in Iran-US ties is likely to end India’s isolation in Central Asian region, which is critical for its energy and security needs. It needs no mention that Iran is a key source of energy imports for India. The strategic location of Iran further lends it substantial importance, in terms of both India’s interests in the Persian Gulf and India’s efforts to tap into the resources of Central Asia. A key irritant in robust Indo-Iranian relationship has been Tehran’s nuclear program. However, the success of the current framework agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations will help India and Iran to come together in substantive manner to cooperate in energy, economic and security domain.
India is upgrading Iran’s Chahbahar port and its transportation links with Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries. Chahbahar port, located on the Makran coast of the Sistan and Baluchistan province of Iran, is already connected to the city of Zaranj in Nimruz province of Afghanistan. Often referred to as the ‘Golden Gate’ to the landlocked Central Asian republics and Afghanistan, Chahbahar will considerably increase India’s economic footprint in these regions. Besides, Bandar Abbas port of Iran, envisaged as the hub for the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), is the shortest and most cost-effective route from India to Central Asia and Russia. Now India should grab the opportunity to make the INSTC a reality by working closely with Iran.
India and Iran have in the past cooperated in strengthening the resistance to the Taliban. A strong relationship with Iran is thus vital to preserve India’s interests in Afghanistan, which is the most proximate country in India’s extended neighborhood. What are India’s interests in Afghanistan? Some of the vital interests are: Afghanistan’s strategic location between Central and South Asia, the threats posed to Indian security from disturbing events in Afghanistan, and the necessity to ensure that Afghanistan’s internal vulnerability is not exploited by its immediate neighbour Pakistan.
Post-Taliban, New Delhi’s emphasis has been on cultivating strong political ties with Kabul and its major instrument in pursuit of this objective has been economic and developmental assistance. India wants to facilitate the economic integration of Afghanistan with other South Asian countries. It is in the interest of Afghanistan to become a platform for cooperation in a vast region that extends from India to Azerbaijan. The Ghani administration needs to connect Afghan economy to the countries of Central Asia and South Asia, to China and to Europe.
Turkmenistan, which has the fourth-largest natural gas reserves in the world, shares deep cultural and historical linkages with India. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s first visit to Turkmenistan in early April has resulted in fast-tracking the ambitious $10 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project. The TAPI gas project is a 1,680-km pipeline with design capacity to supply 3.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per annum from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The success of TAPI would permanently alter the pattern of Central Asian connectivity and enable India to deepen its economic partnerships with the Central Asian republics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to visit Turkmenistan in July and several projects are likely to be finalized during his visit.
Indian and Kyrgyz armed forces completed a two-week joint military exercise in Kyrgyzstan in the last week of March. While the joint exercise was relatively small, the very presence of Indian forces in Central Asia will revive its ‘Connect Central Asia policy’.
India needs to have a strong presence in Central Asia primarily for energy security and military security. But there is no escaping the fact that India has lost much ground in comparison to China, which is cultivating the political leadership of most Central Asian republics by investing billions of dollars in building their vital infrastructure to increase connectivity of its markets in Asia and Europe. Beijing is very active in the region with its ambitious plans to advance Asian connectivity through overland and maritime routes. That is why China’s economic influence has been rapidly growing in the region.
Why India has not been able to benefit from the economic and trade dynamics in the Central Asian region? The major reason is Pakistan’s continued refusal to see the tremendous economic potential in permitting India a transit route to Central Asia. The persistence of political and security problems between India and Pakistan has prevented a cool assessment of the benefits of economic integration between South Asia and Central Asia. Economic affairs always have win-win logic. It is easy to see how cooperative exchange can benefit materially to all parties. But if political differences have a national security angle to them, it is not easy for the logic of economic integration to assume dominance.
Pakistan should not see India’s involvement in Afghanistan and Central Asia in zero-sum terms. If Pakistan has truly abandoned its discredited policy of gaining so-called ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, as is being claimed by some of its prominent leaders and strategic thinkers, then the development of infrastructure in Afghanistan by India must be seen as complementary to its own efforts at defeating the terrorists and Afghan government-Taliban reconciliation.
Presently Pakistan seems to be placed in a better position to shape events in Afghanistan to its own advantage, but a shift in the regional balance of power in Iran’s favour will make sure that Pakistan will not have a cakewalk in Afghanistan. India and Iran are not likely to accept a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan that serves as a facilitator for Pakistan’s ill-conceived strategic designs in the region.