Opinion

US and Iran could become strategic allies – with India's help

Tighter sanctions and military threats haven't swayed Iran over its nuclear program. What the West really needs is genuine rapprochement – the kind that India is especially suited to facilitate.

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The standoff with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program continues. While Washington is arming its Gulf Arab allies in a process of ‘strategic containment,’ hardliners are seeking tighter sanctions and even military options to coerce Iran into compliance.

But these options remain untenable. The "Gulf Security Dialogue" simply postpones the inevitable, neglecting Iran’s unconventional strengths. Sanctions antagonize Tehran, while Russia, Turkmenistan, China, and even smugglers fill the void in Iran’s energy sector. Military strikes and sabotage may set-back but not end Iran’s nuclear program, and provoke Iran to take countermeasures like mining the Strait of Hormuz – not to mention the political backlash. Regime change by support for anti-Tehran militant groups only aggravates Iran, while Iran's democracy movements are calling for civil rights, not government overthrow. And with America trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran could easily play spoiler.

There is a better option: a genuine rapprochement.

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As the US withdraws from Iraq, stability there and in the Levant is contingent on Iranian cooperation. In Afghanistan, more than 70 percent and 40 percent of NATO’s supplies and fuel, respectively, pass through northern Pakistan. This is the only transport link between the Arabian Sea and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan, keeping the West beholden to Islamabad’s every whim and its supplies subject to attack within Pakistan.

Multiple benefits

A transport link through Iran would reduce this vulnerability, while easing Islamabad’s own security burden. Coordination with Iran would help bring the Afghan warlords in Tehran’s sphere of influence into the political process, and open up a stable trade route to Central Asia.

A US-Iran understanding would also distance Iran from China, countering the Chinese “string of pearls” strategy in South and Central Asia – a greater imperative in light of China’s recently inaugurated Turkmenistan-China pipeline and talk of an Iran-Pakistan-China energy link.

Even Iran would benefit from a US détente. With three million opium users, Iran is the greatest victim of the Afghan opium trade, while the Taliban that threatens the West is similarly anathema to Iran. By partnering with US forces, Iran can direct its influence toward shared strategic aims: countering narcotics trafficking, intelligence cooperation, and stabilizing Afghanistan. The Iranians would also be assured that America would not use Iraq or the Gulf to attack them.

Iran’s geography, petro-power, and Islamist credentials inevitably empower Tehran. America would only benefit if this influence aligned with its own interests. Engaging Iran also opens up its 77-million-strong population to foreign trade and contact after decades of sanctions, strengthening civil society. A lack of engagement, however, leaves the field open for competitors like China to fill the gap.

But the biggest obstacle to a détente today is Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

The US has flanked Iran from the east in Afghanistan, the west in Iraq, the north through US troops in Azerbaijan and Central Asia, and the south via the Gulf States. For the Iranians, the best way to resist a hostile United States is an opaque nuclear program – one that is only likely to come clean when American antagonism is gone.

But American “overtures” to this end have been half-hearted at best. American support for anti-Tehran groups like Jundallah and the Mujahideen-e-Khalq continue, while military plans and sanctions have always been the go-to option, limiting the political space for a détente. Tack on Iran’s missile tests, and refusal to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or to end belligerency in Iraq, and it’s easy to see why the debilitating stalemate continues.

How India could help

Enter India, Washington’s new strategic partner.

In the 1990s, many saw a burgeoning “New Delhi-Tehran Axis” in India and Iran’s enhanced economic and strategic ties, including shared opposition to the Taliban. But under American pressure after 2005, India repeatedly voted to condemn Iran in the IAEA.

While failing to coerce Iran, these votes harmed Indo-Iranian relations: Indian plans to expand Iran’s Chabahar Port, connect it to the Indian-built Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan, and develop Iran’s first liquefied natural gas plant have all fallen by the wayside. Washington even opposed the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) natural gas pipeline, touted as the “peace pipeline” that would unite India and Pakistan, because it would benefit Tehran. Recently, Western pressure brought about the Reserve Bank of India’s largely symbolic decision to prohibit companies from using the Asian Currency Union to pay for Iranian oil – a move that was opposed by Indian business and government ministries.

Notwithstanding these setbacks, India and Iran share cultural ties that go back millennia, and strategic interests and economics remain strong points of confluence. Both seek an alternative to the Pakistan-backed Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as a new transport line to Central Asia. In 2008, India-Iran trade reached $30 billion, considering third-country intermediaries. In 2009, Iran became the second-largest supplier of crude oil to India, while Indian firms seek to develop Iran’s gas fields, with investments of more than $11 billion over the coming years.

And despite being one of the world’s largest petroleum producers, Iran lacks a significant refinery infrastructure of its own and depends on imports for over 30 percent of its consumption. By some accounts 40 percent of Iran’s imported gasoline comes from Indian refineries – no insignificant matter. This trade and the leverage it brings are threatened by American sanctions that harm India and accomplish little in the way of pressuring Iran.

Indian investment in Iranian hydrocarbons and transport infrastructure, along with strategic alignment with both the US and India in Central Asia and elsewhere, would be a powerful incentive for Iran to make its nuclear program transparent. Washington should use New Delhi’s good offices to facilitate a rapprochement with Iran that focuses on mutually beneficial futures, not carrots and sticks.

Neil Padukone is a strategic affairs analyst and author of “Security in a Complex Era.” He is writing a book on the future of conflict in India.

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