Ahmadinejad’s visit – India intensifies global energy game

By John Stanly, IANS,

Iranian President Mohammad Ahmadinejad’s brief but significant visit to India and his cautious criticism against the “bullying” policies of the “rulers of the world” (read the US and its European allies) make one point clear – New Delhi has finally come out of its strategic confusion.

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When India sent a strong message to the US ahead of the Iranian president’s visit saying the “two ancient civilizations” needed no guidance in dealing with each other, Ahmadinejad, seemingly understanding the sensitivity of India-US ties, did not use the platform in New Delhi to hit out at his “enemies” in the same fashion as he often does in other capitals. This guarded approach from both sides set the stage for broader India-Iran cooperation in the rapidly intensifying global energy game.

New Delhi’s decision to welcome Ahmadinejad must have taken at least a few of India watchers by surprise. It was just two years ago that India, under pressure from Washington, voted twice against the Iranian nuclear programme in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Since then India’s ties with Iran had not been as warm as they used to be. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has often been criticised both at home and abroad for not showing real interest in the proposed India-Pakistan-Iran (IPI) gas pipeline. Besides, bilateral ties between the two countries hit a new low earlier this year as Israel blasted off a spy satellite with the help of India. Iran’s envoy to India even went public criticising New Delhi over the issue.

Then why this turnaround?

This could be seen as part of India’s changing energy policy. According to a recent New York Times report, cosy relations with Iran are important for India at least for three reasons. Iran is India’s second largest oil supplier after Saudi Arabia, is a potential source of natural gas in the future and wields influence in Afghanistan, a gateway for New Delhi to enter Central Asia’s rich oil and gas fields. Still, India had been reluctant to engage Iran, particularly after the US intensified its campaign to isolate the Islamic Republic. The rumours of a possible US attack on Tehran have also pulled India back from going ahead with its ambitious energy plans.

Now, with the US bogged down in Iraq and the possibility of an attack on Tehran looking remote, New Delhi is back on front-foot in the energy game. With oil prices skyrocketing, India does not have many options but to enter into comprehensive energy cooperation with resource-rich countries. The supply-demand mismatch in India has already sent out warning signals across the ruling class.

India, which imports more than two- thirds of its oil needs, fears that the demand would rise by 90 percent by 2030. According to a recent report, India’s average gas supply between April 2007 and January 2008 was 37 million standard cubic metres against the requirement of 77 million standard cubic metres.

This rising demand of oil and gas across the world has already set the stage for a resource war at the global level in which countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia will become key players. The global scenario demands a tough policy decision from any emerging power like India.

This realisation at the top level was visible when India took another diplomatic U-turn and welcomed the Myanmar military junta’s second most important person, General Maung Aye, earlier this month. Myanmar, with proven gas reserves of 19 trillion cubic feet and vast unexplored areas, could become a potential partner in India’s energy projects.

If External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said India was against imposing sanctions on Myanmar’s junta ahead of Maung Aye’s visit, it was National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan’s turn to signal the thaw in India-Iran relations ahead of Ahmadinejad’s visit. Speaking at an international strategic conference in New Delhi, Narayanan said the Iran issue should be handled diplomatically, not with force. This change in Iran policy seems to have come at the right time.

Iran is no longer an isolated, untouchable republic as what the US wants it to be. Its clout is increasing across the Middle East. It has good relations with Iraq and Syria and enjoys the loyalty of Hezbollah, which virtually shattered Israel’s plans in the second Lebanon war in 2006. Tehran extends moral support to the Palestinian Hamas and stands as an inspiration to the political Islamic movements across the region that challenge the cultural and military hegemony of the West.

After all, India must be calculating that a new president in the White House in 2009 January, possibly a Democrat, will have better ties with Tehran than the Bush administration. Besides, Ahmadinejad’s visit would help the UPA government counter the criticisms at home that it was acting as a client state of Washington. The UPA, which is preparing for the next year’s general election, could use the improving India-Iran ties (if it happens) as a barometer of its “independent foreign policy”.

However, the worst is not yet over. Although both Ahmadinejad and India’s Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon expressed optimism over the $7.6-billion IPI pipeline, several questions remain unanswered. Even if the price issue is settled, India’s main concern would be the security of the pipeline. India wants two assurances from Islamabad and Tehran – Pakistan should ensure security to the pipeline, which runs through the troublesome Baloch area, and both Islamabad and Tehran should guarantee the continuous supply of gas irrespective of the political developments in those countries.

New Delhi is also planning another pipeline project aimed at taking out gas from Turkmenistan via Iran and Pakistan to India. Talks about this project took centrestage as the earlier proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project looked impossible given the security situation in Afghanistan.

Plans galore. But could New Delhi deliver?

It is a tough test for India. It has to draw out policies to meet its energy requirements without antagonising its strategic allies. Relationship with the US remains the top priority of the policy makers in New Delhi. Israel is India’s second largest supplier of defence equipment after Russia. How would India draw out a clear Iran policy without disturbing the existing equations? That is the major test New Delhi faces.

(John Stanly is a research scholar with the Centre for West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be contacted at [email protected])