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India & Iran: 'Look beyond energy needs'

By Vijay Dandapani
Last updated on: September 29, 2005 20:59 IST
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As September draws to a close, New York City's residents seem to have let off a collective sigh of relief.

Not just from having escaped the ravages of the unending hurricanes pounding the southern shores of the US but also due to the exit of some 170 world leaders after the UN summit and a gab-fest sponsored by former President Clinton that promised to address virtually every burden on the world's shoulder.

PM at the UN: Complete coverage

However, that sense of relief is unlikely to be felt either at the Indian mission to the UN or in New Delhi's South Block as moves to refer Iran to the Security Council develop further traction. India initially resisted US pressure to join Western nations in censuring Iran in what, by now, looks to be a futile attempt at stopping that country from becoming a nuclear weapons state. South Block, in awkwardly attempting to recognize its many strategic partners in a variety of areas, has urged restraint on the world's sole superpower.

Iran vote: In the national interest?

While it is a question of time before Iran is referred to the Security Council, India's stand should be guided purely by strategic interests that go beyond energy needs. That should include the recognition of a possible clash of faiths quite unlike the Islamic-Western divide posited by Huntington; an animus that runs deep within the Muslim world, between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Surrounded by hostile and overwhelmingly Sunni States one of whom, Pakistan, has nuclear weaponry, Iran has, for centuries, been wary of their baleful eyes. To the Iranians nuclear weaponry is perceived as an insurance policy not only against their immediate and more visceral enemies but also against a fate akin to what befell Iraq in 2003.

The war in Iraq

Although the probability of the US using a military option to stop their nuclear ambitions is close to zero, few rational assessments would discount Iranian fears of hostile actions from the Sunni states, near and afar.

With more than a passing interest in the tumult prevailing in Iraq, the betting amongst the Iranian ruling class is an eventual sundering of the Iraqi nation as the insurgency leads inexorably towards a full blown civil war. The Shia state in the south of Iraq that could result will do more than merely unsettle the most prominent and powerful Sunni nation in Iran's neighbourhood, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal, in a recent speech at the Council for Foreign Relations in New York, noted that if Iran were to get involved more directly in such an outcome, he expected the rest of the Arab (Sunni) world to intercede.

While the scenario the Saudi prince painted was one of rank chaos, his response to another query on the Shia minority in his country's displayed the characteristic contempt with which Sunnis view the 'heretical' Shias. His tart answer was 'What do you expect? They are after all are a minority!'

In the not unlikely event the Saudi royals are overthrown by extremists in Saudi Arabia, it would present a clear and present danger to the Iranians.

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However, it is with a current neighbour, Pakistan, that the Iranians have deep rooted fears and differences. Iranian-Pakistani relations may have reached its apogee when the Shah was the US's closest among its many non-democratic allies, but it has been on a downward spiral since.

The illegal sale of centrifuges by Pakistan and occasional joint military exercises have merely been window dressing meant to hide a deep rooted distrust that is at the heart of relations between both nations. When elements of the government support the frequent killings of Shias and destruction of their property, they do nothing to alleviate those apprehensions.

With a long history of oppressing minorities, Pakistan's governments and sections of society have for long singled out Shias for opprobrium and, indeed, elimination. A foreign observer could easily come away with the impression that the primary enemy in the eyes of Pakistanis is not India but its Shia minority.

Iran's dangerous double game

Furthermore, unlike the situation with other minorities in Pakistan, the Shia population has not been declining as a ratio, resulting in greater numbers than ever before. A nuclear emboldened government in Iran could end up providing passive if not active assistance to the traditionally quiescent but restive Shias of Pakistan. It is hard to estimate how those dynamics could affect India but it is unlikely to be benign.

India's current state sponsored attempts at securing its energy needs via pipelines and acquisition of assets using taxpayers' resources is founded on dubious if not fundamentally wrong economic principles.

Gas from Iran may cost India dear

Instead the potentially cataclysmic schism in the Muslim heartlands ought to be explored in terms of its implications for India on the energy and security front. With energy needs escalating on a continual basis there is little to be gained from investing in 'enduring' infrastructure projects in an already volatile part of the world that has very little to show by way of commitments either to multi-lateral or bi-lateral agreements.

Instead a more encompassing worldview that considers major geo-political shifts in the neighbourhood and beyond will serve the nation well over the next couple of decades.

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