The Iran deal and South Asia
Last month’s nuclear deal under which Iran agreed to very substantial curbs on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic and other sanctions was a historic achievement for nuclear non-proliferation. Its strategic ramifications are likely to be hardly less important, especially for the Middle East. As expected,
Last month’s nuclear deal under which Iran agreed to very substantial curbs on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic and other sanctions was a historic achievement for nuclear non-proliferation. Its strategic ramifications are likely to be hardly less important, especially for the Middle East.
As expected, Israel has furiously denounced the deal on the grounds that it will not prevent Iran from making a nuclear weapon and that the lifting of sanctions will boost Iran’s economic and military power. For Saudi Arabia, which has also been deeply suspicious of Iran’s nuclear programme, the main immediate worry is that by freeing its frozen overseas assets, the nuclear deal will strengthen Iran in the two countries’ contest for influence in the Middle East. Beyond that, the breakthrough on the nuclear issue could lead to a wider US-Iran rapprochement to the detriment of Saudi interests.
Pakistan’s initial official reaction to the nuclear deal was given in a short statement issued by the foreign ministry. Besides welcoming the peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue, the statement also added, without elaboration, that the deal “[augurs] well for peace and security in our region”.
In subsequent comments, the government has expressed the confidence that with the lifting of sanctions on Iran in the near future, it will now be possible to complete the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline and that there will be a significant improvement in bilateral trade. Sartaj has also expressed the hope that Iran’s integration in the region’s economy will lead to “political advantages” and that the country’s “return to the mainstream” would “promote unity of the Muslim Ummah” by addressing the underlying sectarian issues.
Whether the hope expressed by the foreign ministry for “peace and security in our region” is realised, depends, needless to say, not just on Pakistan and Iran, but also on other regional countries. Afghanistan certainly stands to gain from a boost to the Iranian economy following the lifting of sanctions. Kabul could also benefit from an easing of US-Iran tensions.
But there is also another country in the region, India, which has ideas that are not so benign, as seen from the Pakistani perspective.
First, India has long sought to make Iran a partner in the strategic encirclement of Pakistan. Delhi has to a certain degree been helped in this effort by a perception in Tehran since the Islamic revolution of 1979 that Islamabad has aligned itself too closely with Riyadh against Iran’s assumed role as the protecting power of Shias around the world.
Second, India would like to restore in some form its former alliance with Iran, forged during the period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, with the aim of undermining Pakistan’s traditional links with Afghanistan. The Indian aim, obviously, is to keep Afghanistan within the Indian orbit. Delhi has recently been fretting a lot over the role played by Pakistan in the commencement of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and would like to cooperate with Tehran in limiting Taliban influence in Kabul, even though it realises that a revival of the old anti-Taliban alliance with Iran is not on the cards.
Third, having been denied transit routes through Pakistan, India sees Iran as its gateway to Central Asia. If at one time Indian policymakers discreetly defined India’s interest in the region mainly in terms of their energy security plans, they now make no secret of their wish to become a principal actor, alongside China and Russia, in the new Great Game being played out in the Eurasian heartland. Modi’s whirlwind visit to five Central Asian countries last month shows how keen India is for a great power role in the region. This is a wish that has the support and encouragement of Washington.
For all these reasons, Iran has a central place in India’s grand strategic designs. With the expected lifting of sanctions, India now hopes that it will get the necessary diplomatic and economic space to pursue those aims that it lacked as long as the sanctions were in force. But there is a catch. India will also have new competitors from European and other countries as it bids for infrastructure projects in Iran. While previously it was Iran which sought to woo India, now it is the Indian enterprises which will have to queue up and wait their turn for Iran’s favour.
India likes to regard itself as a rival of China for influence in Central Asia and has been making hectic plans to catch up with its northern neighbour. To match China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative for a network of infrastructure and energy projects to link China with Europe and the Middle East over land and by sea, Delhi has revived plans for a transit corridor to Europe and Russia through Iran. India has labelled it as the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC). It includes transport by rail, road and sea from Mumbai to Moscow via Bandar Abbas in Iran, with options for connectivity with Turkey and countries in Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, given the availability of other more viable existing and planned transit routes between Asia and Europe, the INSTC has gained little traction so far.
Even the much-hyped project for the development of the Iranian port of Chabahar, which was first conceived in 2002 to provide India with a sea-cum-land route to Afghanistan and Central Asia bypassing Pakistan, remains unimplemented. The project has a high strategic priority for India also because of the proximity of Chabahar to Gwadar in the east and to the Gulf of Oman in the west. The container and cargo terminals that India has agreed to build at Chabahar are supposed to become operational in December 2016, but there is continuing worry in Delhi that with the expected lifting of sanctions, Iran could award the contract to some other country. Chinese investors are also reported to have shown interest.
Delhi is also watching with concern as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project enters the implementation stage and as the imminent lifting of sanctions on Iran removes some of the uncertainties surrounding the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project.
At his meeting with Chinese President Xi in Ufa last month, Modi conveyed India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor one more time, pointing out that it passes through “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”, territory which Delhi claims is part of India. But India’s objections are not founded on this technical argument alone. The strategic reasons are far weightier. India is much more concerned that the corridor will further consolidate the Pakistan-China strategic partnership and act as a barrier to the expansion of Indian influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
As regards the IP pipeline, it is no secret that both Washington and Delhi would like to see it shelved. Washington has been opposed to it not only because of the Iran sanctions but because it would like instead to promote the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) pipeline which would also serve the strategic objective of increasing India’s economic clout in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
India’s opposition to the IP pipeline stems from the fear that the strengthening of Pakistan-Iran economic linkages would undercut the Indian policy of making Iran a partner in the strategic encirclement of Pakistan. These fears have now been greatly heightened by the prospect of Iran exporting gas to China through the energy network of the CPEC.
Partly in the hope of reducing the incentives for Iran to export gas to China via Pakistan, India is now reviving a project for an undersea gas pipeline from Iran to India by way of the Arabian Sea, bypassing Pakistan. This project was first mooted about a decade ago but was shelved because of the Iran sanctions and the technological problems it posed. Although such deep-water pipelines have since become feasible because of technological advances, the projected Iran-India pipeline would still present formidable challenges because it will run hundreds of miles away from the shore and across an active seismic area.
Given India’s plans, the foreign ministry’s hope that the nuclear deal will bring gains for peace and security for South Asia surely looks over-optimistic.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.