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

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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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