Wednesday, 09 May 2001

Robert M. Cutler Earlier this month India's Prime Minister Atel Behari Vajpayee became only the second Indian head of government

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By BACKGROUND: A few years ago, when transit of natural gas from Iran to India was first being discusse (5/9/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

By contrast, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sought to promote an ephemeral ‘anti-hegemonic’ (read: anti-U.S.) India-Russia-China bloc, by telling Vajpayee that such quadrilateral cooperation among ‘Eastern countries’ was ‘logical and necessary’.

By contrast, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sought to promote an ephemeral ‘anti-hegemonic’ (read: anti-U.S.) India-Russia-China bloc, by telling Vajpayee that such quadrilateral cooperation among ‘Eastern countries’ was ‘logical and necessary’. Yet India's Defense Minister Jaswant Singh was received with pomp at the Pentagon during his recent visit to Washington and, while Vajpayee was in Tehran, gave an interview to the Times of India in which he declared that India-U.S. relations should stand on their own and not be a ‘hyphenated relationship’ subject to vagaries arising from either partner's relationship with third parties. In other words, from India's standpoint, neither China nor Iran is or should be a factor in India's bilateral relations with the United States.

IMPLICATIONS: Cooperation between Iran and India is destined to grow. Last year a test-run was made of a prospective transportation route for general commercial goods, a route that would go from India to Iran by water, then north across Iran to the Caspian Sea, across the Caspian to Russia and then by rail from Russia into Europe. Six months ago Kazakhstan joined this agreement to promote a "North-South" international transport corridor among Russia, India, Iran and Oman. There is no doubt that the sides are serious. During the Soviet period, India was a large supplier of consumer goods to the USSR. By this route it could be again, to Russia and also to Europe. A test shipment took just under four weeks to be delivered by this route, whereas the next shortest and now regular route (through the Suez Canal to Europe) takes more than half again as long as that.

As for the prospective gas pipeline, however, Iran does not plan to be a transit country for Central Asia gas to India (as was once proposed) but rather to be the producer country itself. No Memorandum of Understanding has yet been signed and trilateral discussions have not yet even taken place. Rather, Iran has until now played the go-between, shuttling between bilateral Iran-India and Iran-Pakistan working groups. Nevertheless, major international energy companies, including Gazprom, British Gas and Shell, have been positioning themselves to form two project consortia. Pakistan has tried to ease India's political trepidations by suggesting that bringing the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other international financial institutions into the project would by itself make an agreement binding upon Pakistan. Also, Pakistan wishes to retain the prerogative for its own gas to enter the pipeline to India, if new reserves are found that obviate its purchase of gas from Iran en route eastwards.

CONCLUSIONS: Opposing the Taleban, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere, is clearly a common cause shared by Iran and India, and it was so declared by them. Danger to an eventual overland pipeline from Iran to India comes perhaps more from religious fanatics in Pakistan than it does from the government itself. Nevertheless, a pipeline through Pakistan remains the least expensive way to deliver energy from Iran to India. From another angle, the Indo-Iranian rapprochement spells the definitive end of Turkmenistan's plans, dating from the mid-1990s, to build a natural gas export pipeline through Afghanistan into South Asia.

The developing Indo-Iranian relations mark the growing manifest complexity of international relations in Central Eurasia. South, Southwest and Central Asia are growing more and more interrelated. India, for example, is deepening its cooperation with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, particularly in the agricultural sector, while Kazakhstan has volunteered to host mediation talks among the parties to the conflict in Afghanistan.

The "North-South" transit project clearly accords with Iran's foreign economic strategy of becoming a crossroads or corridor coordinating trilateral relations with pairs of partners. As the Armenia-Iran-Greece cooperation shows, the countries do not even have to be contiguous if the cooperation involves defense issues. The U.S., for its part, is quietly concerned that India's assistance to Iran's space program may help the country's development of missile technology and spy satellites.

 

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AUTHOR BIO: Robert M. Cutler This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. http://www.robertcutler.org is Research Fellow, Institute of European and Russian Studies, Carleton University, Canada.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst All rights reserved

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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