Excerpts from a Speech by Foreign Secretary at IDSA-IPIS Strategic Dialogue on India and Iran: an enduring relationship
The question often asked is how we define the importance of Iran for India in strategic terms. I shall attempt to do so. First of all, Iran is part of what has been defined as India’s “proximate neighbourhood”; secondly, it has a strategic position with a long coastline along the Persian Gulf, including the narrow entrance to the Gulf at the Straits of Hormuz – a region within the security parameter of India; thirdly, it is a major source of our energy and hydrocarbon supplies; fourthly, in a globalizing world where there are immense opportunities for Indian business and investment, and as both our societies seek socio-economic transformation, the scope for technical and economic cooperation with Iran is self-evident; fifthly, the threats we face from terrorism and extremism require intensified dialogue and cooperation between our two governments; and to round this off, we share many common interests in the multilateral sphere. The narrative of our relations against the background of our long-standing civilizational ties, is therefore one of fundamental complementarities and natural affinities.
It is certainly true that the civilizational relationship between India and Iran is unique in the world. Speaking in Tehran in 1958, India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said that he doubted if there are any two countries in the wide world which have had such close and long historical contact as Iran and India. It is true that when we look at our monuments, our culture and our language, our cuisine and literature as also our intuitive societal reaction to the world around us, there is much that is in common between our two nations. And, where links between our two peoples are concerned, India and Iran are particularly blessed, because of the close people-to-people connection and constant interaction that has spanned centuries of trade and commerce and cultural exchanges and journeys of the mind. Most importantly, ties at the popular level remain vibrant, driven by not just businessman, students and tourists but also the millions of people in both countries who may have never set foot in the other country, but are conscious of their rich shared heritage, and have an instinctive feeling of goodwill towards the other.
This then provides us the bedrock on which to build our contemporary relations. I would argue that the India-Iran relationship will become even more important with the inevitable rise of both India and Iran in this century, which has been dubbed by many as the Asian century. Most scholars foresee a resurgence of the Asian Continent, not just in economic terms, where India’s economy is among the fastest growing in the world, but also in science and technology, in new and renewable energies, and in all the fields that are at the cutting edge of human innovation and progress.
The challenge we face is the following: First, how do our two countries grasp the strategic opportunities for cooperation between India and Iran? Second, how do we build a pragmatic, and therefore enduring relationship, rising above hoary ideological positions, ensuring that our multi-faceted ties are not held hostage to merely one or two issues? Thirdly, do we have the tools to leverage such a relationship to benefit our people and their standard of living, which is ultimately the goal of our foreign policy?
Let me say that India desires to promote and enhance relations with Iran in a way that serves the interests of our two countries. Our approach to Iran is embedded within the rationale that defines our foreign policy – our developmental priorities, our independent national interest, our commitment to multi-polarity over uni-polarity, our consciousness of the inequities in the global order today. Our relations with Iran are a fundamental component of our ‘Look West” policy in our immediate region, just as our “Look East” policy has propelled our relations with the countries of ASEAN and East Asia.
If we consider the specific areas where our interests converge and potential for cooperation is the greatest, the most important is regional stability. India and Iran shared a common border till 1947. We are both neighbours of Afghanistan and Pakistan and have both long suffered from the threat of transnational terrorism emanating from beyond our borders. India, like Iran, is supportive of the efforts of the Afghan government and people to build a democratic, pluralistic and peaceful Afghanistan. Neither of our countries wish to see the prospect of fundamentalist and extremist groups once again suppressing the aspirations of the Afghan people and forcing Afghanistan back to being a training ground and sanctuary for terrorist groups. Our vision of Afghanistan as a hub for economic activity, trade and transit linking South and Central Asia is shared by the Iranian side. India and Iran also share an interest in the stability of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. It is but natural that our assessment of the regional situation is very similar. We need to move beyond mere articulation of positions as the Afghan conundrum deepens and could have a deleterious impact on our two countries and the region in case the forces of extremism and obscurantism are made arbiters of the fate of the Afghan people. Our cooperation and information sharing on counter-terrorism must be the subject of more intensive focus and attention in the future.
I had the pleasure of having detailed discussions with my Iranian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Fathollahi, during my visit to Tehran this February for Foreign Office Consultations. I sensed on many of the above issues, a convergence of views with my Iranian colleagues. I would today reiterate the need for structured, systematic and regular consultations with Iran on the situation in Afghanistan. It is also important that we build upon the progress already made on our joint cooperation projects in the region, and put in place mechanisms for carrying forward our cooperation in these areas. I would like to mention, in particular, the Chabahar Port Project, and the need for accelerating our joint efforts to fully realize the potential of the Port as well as the associated railway project. These are projects that are in the common interest of India, Iran and Afghanistan, but also the countries of Central Asia. Improving the connectivity of Chabahar Port to the Zaranj-Delaram Highway (which was built with Indian assistance despite terrorist threats and with the sacrifice of Indian and Afghan lives, and has transformed the economy of Nimroz Province in Afghanistan) will open up the Indian market to Afghan agricultural and other exports. It will also help in combating the scourge of illicit drugs production and export which has affected Iran more than any other country, and assist the trade, transport and transit network of Iran. It will help India transport its goods, including humanitarian supplies, to Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond.
This project is thus at the heart of the common vision that India and Iran have for Afghanistan and the region as a whole, of increased and easier flow of goods, and creation of a network of transport routes and energy pipelines that will bind our people together in an arc of stability, prosperity and peace. The International North South Corridor Project, which also includes Russia and the Central Asian Republics in addition to India and Iran, is also a concept awaiting operationalization on the ground. We would welcome greater interest on part of the Iranian government and private sector in realizing these projects, which should be seen not only as commercial but also as strategic in nature, not just for India, but also for all the countries in the region.
Iran is a country extremely important to India from the perspective of energy security. There is a natural complementarity between the needs of energy-hungry India which hopes to grow at a rate of 8-10% in the coming years and Iran which is home to third largest proven oil reserves and second largest gas reserves. Iran is not only located relatively close to India permitting transportation of oil and gas at relatively low cost over sea as well as land, it also has the potential of being a transit country for supply of third country energy to India given its increasing links in this field with the landlocked countries of Central Asia. The Iran- Pakistan-India; Turkmenistan-Afghanistan- Pakistan-India and SAGE undersea pipeline projects deserve special mention in this regard. These projects, if realised, have the potential of making Iran an important element of a large energy corridor stretching from Central Asia to India. India has repeatedly made clear the fact that accessing energy resources from all parts of the world is absolutely critical to the continued growth of its economy and Iran has the potential to play an important role in this regard.
Economic relationships, including in the energy sector help develop further complementarities and interdependencies, which are, in the modern world, more valuable than any number of political sermons or speeches of goodwill. We must strive to nurture these relationships, with a strategic perspective in mind. Our bilateral Joint Commission, headed by our External Affairs Minister and the Iranian Minister for Economic Affairs and Finance, will be meeting from July 8-9 to discuss a range of bilateral issues which are of direct benefit to our two peoples. The Indian side looks forward to these discussions and the follow up meetings to instill fresh momentum in India-Iran relations, particularly in the strategic areas that I have identified above.
Another potential area of cooperation for our countries is in maritime security. Indian interest in the Indian Ocean region and the proximate neighbourhood of which both our countries are a part, focuses on the need for regional peace and stability, mutually beneficial relations with littoral states, accessibility of oil and gas resources, the freedom of navigation through the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, and access to regional markets for our goods, technology, investment, labour and services. The Indian Ocean touches both our nations, and we cannot remain immune to the challenges that we face, including an increase in piracy off the coast of Africa, and beyond. We welcome suggestions from the Iranian side on how to carry forward a dialogue on cooperation in this area. We would welcome Iran’s participation in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium.
I would like to briefly touch on the Iran nuclear issue. India’s position on the issue has been consistent. We support the right of all States to undertake peaceful uses of nuclear energy consistent with their international obligations. We have conveyed to our interlocutors that all concerned should adopt a flexible approach to achieve a comprehensive solution to all issues. India has always supported dialogue and avoidance of confrontation.
The IAEA continues to provide the best framework for addressing technical issues related to the Iranian nuclear programme. We are justifiably concerned that the extra-territorial nature of certain unilateral sanctions recently imposed by individual countries, with their restrictions on investment by third countries in Iran’s energy sector, can have a direct and adverse impact on Indian companies and more importantly, on our energy security and our attempts to meet the development needs of our people.
As in the case of all multi-faceted, constructive relations between old friends, it is natural that we may have differences on one or the other issue, but I would submit that the areas of convergence far outweigh any differences. It is vital that we keep the larger picture of our relations in mind, in particular the strategic potential of our ties. I am confident that in the coming decade, the impulse in both our countries towards similar positions on a whole range of economic, political and strategic issues will remain strong. We are of the region and will belong here forever, even as outsiders come and go. Our region is, moreover, one that is rising, though yet to realize its full potential. It is in this long-term context that we must see India-Iran relations.
I extend to our Iranian guests the warmest good wishes of the people and government of India and through you to your leadership and your government. The India – Iran relationship is good for the people of our two countries, for the region and for the world as a whole, and it is our historical responsibility to further enhance these relations.