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Persian connection

Mention ‘the Great Game’ and our gaze turns naturally towards Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
May 27, 2009 12:58:17 am

Mention ‘the Great Game’ and our gaze turns naturally towards Afghanistan and Central Asia. But the origins of the Great Game go back to Persia in the late 18th century when the British Raj,concerned at Russia’s moves in Tehran,moved vigorously into the Persian Gulf.

As Iran flexes its muscle in the latest version of the Great Game in the Af-Pak region,India’s new foreign minister S.M. Krishna might want to return to the Raj tradition in Persia. Through much of the first half of the 19th century,it was Calcutta (notionally) and Bombay (directly) that ran the Great Game in Persia and Arabia. For London,Persian diplomacy was all about securing British India’s frontiers and commerce from the other European powers. London,therefore,was quite happy to let the Raj fund and direct the British diplomatic legation in Tehran. The fascinating story of Sir John Malcolm who shaped British India’s Persian policy must wait for another day. For now the focus is on Delhi’s imperative for a strategic re-engagement with Persia. During Dr. Singh’s first term,Iran became the lightning rod for attacks at home and abroad on his foreign policy.

In Washington,the non-proliferation hawks sought to use India’s relationship with Iran to derail the civil nuclear initiative. In New Delhi,the CPM insisted on making ties with Tehran the test case for India’s ‘independent foreign policy’.

In this political charade over Iran,truth was a major casualty. Dr. Singh was quite right in affirming Delhi’s strategic autonomy in dealing with Tehran for mutual benefit,but had no reason to abandon India’s long quest for international nuclear cooperation. In his second term,all indications are that he will step up India’s outreach to Iran.

Tehran summit

The importance of Iran’s trilateral summit last Sunday with Presidents Karzai of Afghanistan and Zardari of Pakistan does not lie in the verbose ‘Tehran Declaration’ that was issued.

That the summit took place,so soon after Karzai and Zardari returned from their joint Washington parleys with President Obama,is in itself a powerful signal of Iran’s growing diplomatic clout.

New Delhi would note that there has not been a murmur of protest from the Washington establishment,which had made so much noise about India’s relations with Iran in recent years,against the travels of Karzai and Zardari to Tehran. The US Congress,which is being asked to write such large checks to Afghanistan and Pakistan these days,surely could not have been unaware of Tehran’s persistent summons to Karzai and Zardari.

What has changed is the American political mood on Iran. Although many Americans are sceptical about a reconciliation with Tehran,they are willing to cut Obama some political slack for the moment. Whether Obama succeeds or not,Tehran’s international position will rapidly improve in the coming months and set the stage for India’s own strategic conversation with Iran. It is Dr. Singh’s turn to go to Tehran after Iranian presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad visited New Delhi in 2003 and 2008. After the June presidential elections in Iran,Delhi should begin the preparations for the PM’s trip to Iran.

Dreaming Chabahar

Dr. Singh’s priority in Tehran cannot be the triangular natural gas pipeline project with Iran and Pakistan. For all the political mystique that has surrounded it,the pipeline is a long way from becoming a reality. The focus of India’s new dialogue with Iran must instead be riveted on the Af-Pak dynamic. Whether the Americans stay put or leave Afghanistan,New Delhi and Tehran share one enduring interest: to prevent the Taliban from returning to power in Kabul.

Recall the cooperation in the 1990s between New Delhi and Tehran against the Taliban regime. This in turn should remind us of the profound contradiction between the interests of Iran and Pakistan in Afghanistan. Delhi and Tehran would also want to end land-locked Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan’s territory to access the Arabian Sea.

When he does visit Iran,Dr. Singh should review the progress in the joint bilateral projects to build a port at Chabahar on the Makran coast and a highway from there to western Afghanistan. If Delhi wants to play the Great Game boldly,it could encourage Tehran to hold a trilateral summit between Iran,Afghanistan and India at Chabahar.

The writer is a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,Nanyang Technological University,Singapore

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