How does India propose to get back into the game of realignments beginning to unfold in and around Afghanistan?

Iran's recent hyper-activism in neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan has caused considerable consternation in large parts of the globe. In media circles, think-tanks and world chanceries, high-browed mandarins and their well-healed affiliates are trying to make sense of the latest, seemingly inscrutable piece of the Persian puzzle.

Yet Iran's deft moves in an area that the Persians have known well for thousands of years originate from deeply deliberated and well-grounded fundamentals. Ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has been ceaselessly battling the threat of a direct American attack or an invasion by a third country that is backed by the United States. The Iraq war of 2003 brought the American forces in an eyeball-to-eyeball face-off along Iran's western borders, while the entry of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan became a potential cross-border threat to Iran from the east.

Since 2003, the Iranians have been seeking the exit of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of their aspirations have a good chance of realisation, as the bulk of the forces are slated to leave Iraq next year. The U.S. exit from Afghanistan could begin in July 2011.

While the exit of foreign forces would mark a substantial advance, the Iranians have been looking further ahead to a post-exit scenario, in anticipation of a political vacuum that is likely to emerge once the American troops depart. Viscerally opposed to any repositioning by extra-regional players , Iran is working vigorously to establish a de facto alliance of regional countries that will dominate the geopolitical arena stretching from Turkey in the west to China in the east.

It is in this larger context of regionalising the geopolitical space that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad set foot on Afghan soil on March 10. Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai — who fought running battles with the Americans who were more inclined to favour his rival Abdullah Abdullah during the recent Afghan elections — received the Iranian President warmly. Like the Iranians, Mr. Karzai has concluded that the Americans are tiring in Afghanistan and that the time has come to explore deeper alignments in an alternative camp that includes Iran, and has China, Pakistan, Central Asian republics and Russia as potential allies.

While engaging the Afghans on a new footing, the Iranians have also begun to cultivate Pakistan. A major shift in the contours of their relationship can be traced to October 2009, when the Pakistan-based Jundallah group, led by Abdolmalek Rigi, killed Nour-Ali Shoushtari, and other senior commanders of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC). Incensed by these high-profile assassinations, in the Pishin area of the Sistan-Balochistan province, the Iranians sent a few days later their Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar to Islamabad, with the demand for Rigi's handover. Subsequently, Rigi was nabbed in a dramatic fashion when the Iranians forced a Kyrgyzstan airlines plane in which he was travelling from Dubai to Bishkek, to land in the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas. Influential voices in Pakistan say that Islamabad gave the vital tip off that led to Rigi's arrest. The Iranians, however, insist that the arrest was possible on account of their meticulous intelligence work, without any foreign involvement whatsoever.

Since the 2009-10 winter war in Gaza, during which Turkey openly distanced itself from Israel, the relationship between Tehran and Ankara has been warming up. Political goodwill is being translated into significant energy cooperation and both sides, despite resistance from several influential quarters, are looking at participating in the Nabucco pipeline, which will carry huge quantities of gas to Europe.

As the geopolitical alignments ahead of the U.S. pullout begin to emerge, India's absence is glaring. Piqued by India's high profile in Kabul, Pakistan's military establishment has been looking for openings that would allow it to achieve its maximalist objective of seeking India's hasty, and preferably unseemly, exit from Afghanistan.

However, two major hurdles have been impeding Pakistan's path so far. First, the rapid improvement in Indo-U.S. ties during the Bush presidency firmly deterred it from taking India head-on in Afghanistan. Second, the Afghan presidency, closely tied to New Delhi since 2001, was hostile to Islamabad.

However, the scenario changed dramatically with the exit of the Bush administration and the emergence of Barack Obama. Focussed on an exit strategy from Afghanistan, the Americans deepened their security dependence on the Pakistanis in the hope of achieving rapid success. As a result, the Indian fortress in Afghanistan which looked impregnable during the Bush era was breached. Pakistan utilised this opportunity to the hilt.

A staunch ally of India for several years, President Karzai after his re-election last year began to exhibit unusual warmth towards Pakistan. His description of India as a friend and Pakistan as a conjoined twin during his visit to Islamabad was widely seen as a demonstration of his waning affection towards New Delhi.

There has been a significant deterioration in India-Iran ties since New Delhi voted against Tehran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the Iranian nuclear programme. In fact, the day India voted against Iran, it seriously jeopardised its project in Afghanistan. Without a geographically contiguous border, India can extend its reach into Afghanistan only through the Iranian corridor.

With its back to the wall, how does India propose to get back into the great game of realignments beginning to unfold in and around Afghanistan? It can draw some inspiration from its diplomatic conduct in the past — when it worked successfully with the Iranians, Russians and Central Asians, especially the Tajiks to unroll the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in 2001. With the recent visit of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to New Delhi where discussions on Afghanistan took place, India has taken its first major step in the right direction.

Mending fences with Iran has to be India's next major undertaking. However, in trying to rework its relations, India is left with only one weighty card, which it can play with good effect provided it begins to view its national interests independently and not through the tinted glasses of the U.S. With its huge requirements of energy, India needs to get back to the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project. But in doing so, it has to substantially modify the arrangement and turn it around to suit its core long-term interests.

Iran would, with considerable enthusiasm, welcome India's participation in this project, as is evident from the provisions included in the gas deal that was signed by Iran and Pakistan in Istanbul in March. Therein lies the opportunity for India to claw back into the arrangement and take it forward from there.

Instead of waiting for others like Pakistan to seize the initiative, India can benefit substantially by boldly and formally initiating the introduction of two significant players — Russia and China — into this tie up. The Russian gas giant Gazprom has already expressed its keen interest to participate in IPI. Gazprom's representative in Tehran, Abubakir Shomuzov, has called for the extension of IPI to China, in an arrangement that would tie Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran together in a giant project.

Russia's participation in the IPI would be crucial for India. With Russia firmly on its side, India can, with greater ease and confidence, engage with China in this cooperative enterprise. In the debate on the extension of IPI to China, the route that this pipeline can pursue would be of vital importance. If India has to take advantage of this extension, it has to insist that the pipeline passing through Iran and Pakistan should go through an Indian transit corridor and no other alternative route before entering China.

Such an arrangement would greatly help in making the IPI-plus arrangement more stable and workable. With China, Pakistan's all-weather friend as the final beneficiary, Islamabad would find it impossible to block supplies to India. In other words, the routing of the pipeline to China via India, and the interdependence that it would generate among the various stakeholders would become New Delhi's insurance policy for obtaining assured gas supplies from Iran via Pakistan.

There is a final diplomatic dimension which needs to be added if IPI-plus is to succeed. Critics of the IPI rightly point to the security problems that this project, in the current circumstances, is bound to encounter during the pipeline's passage through the turbulent province of Balochistan. A comprehensive dialogue may therefore be the way forward to resolve this problem. India, which in recent years has gone into a diplomatic shell, can take the high-ground and propose a comprehensive six-party process. Besides itself, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran can become the core participants of this arrangement. Such a forum, carefully constructed, adequately resourced and energetically led can take head-on not only the question of Baluchistan, but all other issues that may stand in the way of a lasting trans-national energy partnership.

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