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With Iran getting ever closer to obtaining a nuclear arsenal coupled with US and EU’s economic sanctions, the Middle East once again has become the epicenter of international politics. As the balance of power tilts towards nuclear-armed Iran, possibilities of military intervention, capable of blowing it into a full-fledged war are not remote. It is at this juncture that India, considered close to Iran and its new economic partner, can play decisive role as a global power. It can mitigate the impasse and generate considerable goodwill from the international community in general, and US, EU, Israel and Saudi Arabia in specific.

Indo-Iranian Relations: the past and the present    

            Indo-Iranian relationships date back to the Neolithic period. Over the years, migration of people, culture and language has played a significant role in making the relationship better.  Today many north Indians share significant cultural and linguistic characteristics with Iranians. After the invasion of Persia by Islamic Sultans many Zoroastrians found refuge, and made India their permanent home.  This was another major factor that made Indian’s closer to Iranians. It is not surprising that one of the major center of Shiite culture and Persian studies in South Asia is located in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.

Indo-Iranian relations became sour after India’s independence, as it adopted a non-aligned policy, which was beneficial for a young country to grow on it’s own terms, yet became closer to the former Soviet Union. On the other hand, Iran had its close ties with the western countries, until the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This sourness continued as Iran backed Pakistan, while India supported Iraq during the second Gulf war.

Since 1990’s India and Iran have seen significant improvement in their relationships. They have jointly supported Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Both the countries share significant economic and cultural ties with each other. India warmly welcomed Iran’s observer status at South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). As of today Iran is the second largest importer of crude oil to India, and India is one of the largest foreign investors in the oil & natural gas industry in Iran. The relationship has also strengthened as a result of joint infrastructure projects undertaken by both the countries. The proposed ambitious natural gas pipeline from Iran to India, which would significantly help energy starved developing India is seen as a major progress in the bilateral relations. Iran’s film industry also looks towards India’s movie industry “Bollywood” as a source of inspiration and technical expertise.

The Nuclear Impasse: a threat to the peace, and power balance in the Middle East

Despite progress on numerous fronts, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are seen as an impediment to the fostering relations, especially after India voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005. As Iran’s nuclear ambitions become larger then ever, the US and EU have imposed unilateral economic sanctions on Iran. The oil based booming Iranian economy has all of a sudden come to an abrupt halt, especially since traders from Singapore refusing to trade, speculating on Iran’s incapacity to pay in the future.

US, and its key allies have not given up on a military surgical strike to cripple Iran’s nuclear program. Proponents of military action have strongly argued that a military strike is the “least bad option” looking into the US interests and freedom of action in the region. They have forcefully argued that precision surgical strike would be the best option, rather than dealing with a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran. On the other hand foreign policy pundits have criticized this approach and have emphasized on exercising diplomatic options before resorting to a military one.

Israel, who perceives nuclear-armed Iran as an immediate threat would not wait long, but strike at the first available opportunity if the sanction don’t work, as it did on Iraq, and Syria in 1981 and 2007 respectively. Iran, is significantly different from Iraq and Syria. First, it may be a republic on paper, it definitely is a pseudo democratic nation much stronger than Iraq and Syria. If Iran plans to retaliate against any muscle flexing by Israel, it would immediately pull US and other allies into the conflict, escalating the matters even further. With the US economy already under pressure, and its plans to withdraw completely from the region would fall head on. At this stage the possibility of Iran’s key sympathizers, Russia, China, and Hamas could not only isolate US politically, and economically; it could end in worsening the economy even further, or start a decade long war.

India: non-aligned opportunistic to a key player in global politics.

Amidst the mounting pressure, Iran has turned towards India to make it its key economic partner, and help keep its economy running. Energy hungry and opportunistic India on the other hand has decided to take full advantage of the situation. It has decided to barter crude oil from Iran in exchange of wheat. Although, China has also decided to continue importing crude oil from Iran, but partnership with India is more fruitful and productive for the Islamic republic. India has even compelled Iran to sell crude oil for Indian Rupees instead of US Dollars, the standard currency for Oil trade.

India has justified its stand by maintaining it was not obliged by any mandate not backed by the United Nations. India has not only increased its crude oil import, overshadowing China and has become the largest customer of Iran. Not deterred by the sanctions, and the European Union’s requests to abide by the sanction, it has planned to send a trade team to Iran to boost ties.

India, capable of throwing its weight around with a growing economy, and the world’s second largest market, should understand its international responsibilities. Emerging as a new world power, both economically and politically; it is in India’s interest to persuade Iran to get back to the negotiating table before the things get out of hand. The recent trade agreements can be made conditional, and pressure can be mounted on Iran, without India sacrificing its energy demands.

In the recent months Indian foreign policy has taken a turn and has now shifted its focus from Pakistan to China. With the $10 billion deal to procure French Rafael fighter aircrafts, and a nuclear powered submarine on lease from Russia, India is all set to strengthen its military might against China. Although these deals provide an edge to India, they do not mitigate the internal security threat from Pakistan. In the past Iran has backed Pakistan, and could very soon change its stance back. The US forces have already withdrawn from Iraq. There is also likelihood that very soon even the NATO forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. The international politics in a volatile region could take an ugly turn, and leave India in a turmoil. If India wants to keep Pakistan in check, it is in its interest to stand up and mediate Iran’s nuclear impasse, gain support and goodwill from the international community. This goodwill would later help India to put pressure on Pakistan, and if need be, China.

A nuclear-armed Iran, with its close ties with terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan backed organizations like Harakat ul-Mujahidin, Hizbul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Toiba, and Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) is not a favorable situation for India. Nuclear proliferation from Iran to any terrorist organization could be used against India. India’s foreign policy of “non-alignment” helped India in its initial years after independence, but now that India has been projecting itself as a forerunner in international politics, it needs to take a firm. The Congress government’s myopic view on the present international crisis could haunt India for decades. India’s current defiant stand could destabilize the region, and escalate tensions.

Doing a cost benefit analysis, India is capable of playing a key role. While continuing to improve its economic relationships with Iran, it could mount some pressure on Iran to use its nuclear program exclusively for civilian purposes. If Iran agrees to come to the negotiating table, it would considerably improve India’s image as a global power. If Iran rejects its proposal, which is unlikely, India could use sanctions, and threaten to cut-off economic ties, which Iran cannot afford. In such a situation energy hungry India would still be able to meet its energy requirements through Saudi Arabia, Russia and other African counties who have agreed to considerably increase their oil production in light of the Iranian crisis.

India’s emerging role in Asia under scanner

In the last two decades India has been able to project its image within the Asian continent as a growing economy and an emerging power. With the new image comes more responsibilities and obligations. One of these is to ensure its interests, and maintain peace. Smaller Asian countries have been looking upon India as a role model, and this is the appropriate time to live up to the expectations. Politics in Asia has been dominated by China in the past, but with India emerging as a new global power, it has the potential to play a vital role in shaping the politics, especially when the western countries are getting wary about China’s ambitions.

The impediment, which India faces; is it’s recently declined economic growth, and the Indian political incapacity to make firm decisions amidst the dogma of collision governments. India’s economic growth has declined in the last few months, and could dip further amid the energy crisis. But, the economic policy frames need to realize that the decline was a result of faulty economic policies, and this situation could help India strengthen its relations with Iran while finding new strategic partners in the region. The Indian polity for once has to think for the future of the country, than narrow shortsighted interests. Whatever stand India takes today will shape its foreign policy and image as a global power in the future.