A recent Track II discussion on New Delhi-Tehran ties was an eye-opener on the need for a foreign policy that is not based on the appeasement of any country

Track II meetings can be useful when participants express their views candidly, without worrying about offending the sensitivities of others. When the event is held in India, visiting think tankers take pain not to upset their hosts. Since most foreigners have rightly concluded that Indians are not only flattery prone but credulous as well, they are usually complimentary about India’s role in various situations such as in Afghanistan, Syria, Middle East, etc.

It is therefore refreshing when a visiting participant in a Track II meeting gives free rein to his views about India’s foreign policy as was the case when an Iranian expert, familiar with the official thinking of his government, spoke his mind at an event in Delhi some time ago. Other Iranian participants at the same meeting spoke in a similar vein.

‘Inclined towards U.S.’

India, he said, was anxious not to make the United States unhappy. “Your ‘qibla’,” he said, “is Washington.” India was much inclined towards the U.S. and should reconsider striking a balance in its foreign policy; India had some shortcomings and should reconsider its relations with Iran; India was not being pragmatic but opportunistic. Traditionally, India enjoyed huge social capital in Iran; it was hugely popular with the Iranian people. All that had been destroyed for generations in one stroke because of India’s anti-Iran vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency. India could not vote against Iran and claim, at the same time, that Iran was important for India; it just did not make sense. A little later in the interactive session, he reiterated his view that India could not vote against Iran and, at the same time, say it wanted to work with Iran. “I repeat this because it was a very harmful act and it is very hard for any friend of India in Iran to accept this.”

Some Indian participants, evidently upset and taking advantage of this candour, reminded the Iranian gentleman that Iran had always sided with Pakistan and asked him what it was that Iran had done for India, that Iran was buying wheat from the U.S. but was not willing to buy it from India, that Iran was spreading radicalisation among the Shia community in India, that India says Iran is important for India but Iran never says India is important for Iran, etc. Someone pointed out that Shiite Iran supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, which was a diehard Sunni movement.

The Iranian friend — we have to describe him as a friend since friends are supposed to talk frankly without worrying about offending anyone — was not nonplussed. It was not Iran which placed obstacles for Indian wheat sales in Iran; this was a matter of business considerations. He added that India could not have an unfriendly attitude towards Iran and, at the same time, expect special consideration. Iran was a land of moderation, not a land of extremism; it never exported Shia extremism to India. If there is Shia extremism in India, there is also Hindu extremism, he added for good measure. As for supporting Pakistan, he said Iran had to, since Pakistan was a neighbour and a friendly country, but Iran had never done anything against India and wanted to be helpful to both. He rubbished the reports about supporting the Taliban and added that India had been in touch with the Taliban.

On the nuclear issue, the Iranian expert said Iran was not asking for anything more or less than the rights and obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran had always been in full compliance with its treaty obligations. No section of Iranian society saw nuclear weapons as a matter of privilege or security. Islamic jurisprudence specifically forbade intentionally polluting the atmosphere. Nuclear weapons did not provide security to nuclear weapon states; the U.S. and Nato had nukes but of what use had they been in Afghanistan? Had India been able to use them against Pakistan? As for some ‘evidence’ contained in a laptop revealed in Vienna, it was fabricated and a cheap argument.

The ‘friend’ used the very point raised by the Saudis and others; India, he pointed out, could easily get oil from other sources, Iran was not really important for India as an energy source.

Instead of taking offence at his remarks, we ought to draw some lessons from them.

Unlike Iran, which never says India is important for it, Indian strategic community never tires of repeating how crucial Iran is to us for its energy resources, for alternative access to Afghanistan and for the northern corridor to Central Asia. For good measure, we often remind ourselves of the fact that there is a large Shia community in India, the assumption being that the Shias in India expect the government to be mindful of their religious sentiments while deciding on the policy towards Iran. Such talk only strengthens Iran’s attitude of being somewhat contemptuous or dismissive of India. It further makes people in Iran and India conclude that India needs Iran much more than Iran needs India, if at all.

As of today — and this must be emphasised — Iran certainly needs India’s friendship. It is true that our anti-Iran vote in IAEA has harmed our relations with Tehran, but international relations cannot forever be held hostage to past actions. We ourselves have long forgotten even the fact that many countries had voted against us in the United Nations at the time of Bangladesh’s war for independence in 1971.

The Iranian friend was right; there are other sources from where India can buy oil. Saudi Arabia would be delighted if we were to turn to it to make up the shortfall, since it would clearly be interpreted as India siding with it in the undeclared politico-sectarian war against Iran. (This is one reason why India would not want to do so.) But the number of buyers of Iranian oil is dwindling fast and Iran is hard put to find alternative buyers, even at discounted prices. Contrary to what our friend said, his Oil Minister has publicly acknowledged that Iran’s oil exports fell by 40 per cent last year.

Iran needs India’s friendship

The Prime Minister paid an official visit to Iran last year for the non-aligned summit, no doubt upsetting the Americans. The fact that he was ‘granted an audience’ by the supreme leader should not flatter us. Iran certainly needs friends like India. Would the supreme leader have ‘received’ the Prime Minister if his country did not face sanctions? Iran surely knows that India has not joined in the unilateral sanctions imposed by the West. If Iran, in the face of these facts, has convinced itself that India’s ‘qibla’ is in the direction of Washington, there is nothing we can do to disabuse it of its thinking.

The above analysis is not an argument for downgrading Iran’s importance for us and for the region of which it is a part. Rather, it is meant to keep in mind what Harish Khare, the respected columnist, recently observed: Appeasement policy does not serve national interest, in domestic politics or in international relations. His advice is aimed at the government but is equally true at the non-governmental level. International relations must be conducted on the basis of reciprocity and mutuality of interests. We also have to keep in mind that countries which at present have strained, even hostile relations with Iran, can and will change their policy at a time of their choosing; we should not be left surprised.

(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was until recently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Special Envoy for West Asia)

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