Why India should avoid landing in hot waters of Hurmuz (Comment)
As Iran and the United States move towards a standoff in the Strait of Hurmuz, India is going to find itself in a serious dilemma because of its close relations with both the countries. To use the old Greek mythological term, India will be caught precariously between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis.
The US response to Iran's threat to block the Strait of Hurmuz could be diplomatic or military, but it would spell trouble for India's foreign policy. Why? Because then India will be forced to take sides, which it has brilliantly avoided so far by clubbing together a special foreign policy stance on the ongoing US pressure on Iran about what it sees as its nuclear weapons ambitions.
Considering its close energy and economic relations with Iran and its own nuclear weapon tests, India has so far refused to directly side with the US on its position that Iran must not be allowed to make the nuclear bomb.
India's stated policy has been that Iran is a close friend and has every right to develop nuclear energy but it should not make a nuclear bomb because it has already signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And when questioned about its own nuclear bomb, India's argument is that it was justified in testing the bomb because New Delhi never signed the treaty.
So far this has proved to be a very smart policy. But now if the Iran/US situation grows suddenly into a stand-off in Hurmuz, then India will be compelled to do something it has avoided - take sides between Iran and the US.
India's relations with the US have never been closer. Especially after the Indo-US nuclear pact that allows India to buy nuclear fuel for its power plants from any member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Club. Considering India's efforts to develop blue water navy, there has also been a lot of discussion in Washington on how it can use India's help in keeping the Ocean lines in South Asia secured and open and also to put an end to the piracy in the Indian Ocean.
So there is no doubt that if push comes to shove in the strait of Hurmuz and the US moves its navy to prevent Iran from closing the international passage, it will need, and definitely ask for, India's help. And that is when India will be in hot waters because that will mean a direct defiance of Iran. And although Iran also needs India badly in Afghanistan, especially after the US troops leave in 2014, its relations with India obviously will be affected adversely if India took a stance against Iran in the Hurmuz crisis.
Besides trade worth billions of US dollars with Iran, New Delhi's relations with Tehran have also been based on shared geopolitical interests and security issues and also on India's latest strategic quest for 'energy security' to maintain its more than seven percent growth rate. India has invested heavily in Iran's gas fields in its strategic efforts to control the global oil and gas resources.
Also, following President Barack Obama's decision to wind up the Afghan mission by 2014, India has sought Iran's crucial help in ensuring that its interests in Afghanistan remain unaffected after the US pullout. Iran also has a justifiable interest in Afghanistan being its neighbour and has already made inroads into the Hazara region of Afghanistan.
Obviously, despite the not-so-good relations that currently exist between Iran and Pakistan, Indian strategists are wary of possible Iranian policy shifts towards Pakistan.
So, with so much at stake, officials in New Delhi's South Block should be working overtime to tweak India's foreign policy in a way that it doesn't have to offend either the US or Iran. And only the coming weeks will tell how India emerges from this tight rope walk -- one of the tightest in international relations and regional diplomacy.
(01.01.2012 - Ravi M. Khanna is a Washington-based observer of South Asia. He has headed the South Asia Desk at Voice of America newsroom. He can be reached at email@example.com)