The last stumbling block

[This article first appeared on Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review]

A breakthrough in the Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal negotiations is the last step in clearing the path for India and Iran to help Afghanistan in its quest for strategic autonomy

Negotiators from the P5+1 nations and Iran are working to reach a political agreement on the nuclear deal by March 31st 2015. These talks that will determine the interlinked fate of Iran’s nuclear programme and the economic sanctions imposed on the country. The urgency for coming to an agreement stems from the events unraveling in Iraq. More importantly though, from India’s perspective, a successful conclusion of this deal will also clear the path for India and Iran to work in tandem in Afghanistan on a scale that has never been possible before.

Stability in Afghanistan has long been contingent on the stability of the balance of power between the various geopolitical actors in the region, including India and Iran. And it is likely to remain so in the near future given the weakness of the current Afghan State. These geopolitical actors can be theoretically classified in two alignments, depending solely on their shared interests, even if these alignments do not translate into formal camps or alliances as of today.

The first alignment comprises of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China. The fulcrum of this alignment has traditionally been Pakistan. Both Saudi Arabia and China have perceived Pakistan as a part of the solution to the problems in Afghanistan and have supported Pakistan’s efforts to promote dialogue and improve relations with Afghanistan. As C Raja Mohan explains in The Indian Express, the launch of a new official forum last week named “China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Strategic Dialogue” is likely to emerge as a major force shaping India’s north west frontiers. Due to the preponderance of Pakistan in this force, the objectives of this alignment have long been shaped by the objectives of Pakistan in Afghanistan. The Pakistani establishment in turn has always feared that a strong independent Afghanistan—like the one that existed up to the mid-1970s—will pursue an irredentist agenda, claiming the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. Thus, Pakistan and by extension this alignment has had a shared interest in a weak Afghan State.

The second broad group of actors comprises of Iran, India and US which have a shared interest in a stable Afghanistan. Tehran wants a stable Afghanistan for stalling narcotics trafficking, preventing an influx of Afghan refugees and stopping anti-Shia forces in the country. India sees a stable and strategically autonomous Afghanistan as the cornerstone of its foreign policy for the region. And the US, having made huge economic and military investments post 2001 to instil stability in Afghanistan, is retreating in the hope that the nascent Afghan State will gain in strength and resist occupation by non-state actors of various hues.

Despite the shared interest, even as China has tried to consolidate its alliance with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the United States has virtually blocked any joint efforts by India and Iran. In the past, US also prevented India from assuming a greater role in Afghanistan for the fear of alienating its ally in the Global War on Terror – Pakistan. And on its part, India too showed no appetite for bringing about a rapprochement between the United States and Tehran.

Luckily, two events in the past decade have pushed the US towards a rethink in its engagement with other countries in Afghanistan. First, the civil nuclear agreement signed between India and the United States in 2008 marked the end of a decades-long estrangement. Second, busting of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad made it difficult for the US to ignore Pakistan’s duplicity. The only remaining stumbling block now is Iran’s isolation. And this is why the Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal has the potential to alter the course of events, particularly for India and Iran. Though the US will not be able to work openly with Iran in Afghanistan at this point of time, it can, at the very least, promote a stronger India-Iran front.

It is important to realise that though unprecedented, the opportunity provided by a possible breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations will be short-lived as China and Pakistan will seek to resolve their respective internal issues and consolidate their position in Afghanistan. The new “China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Strategic Dialogue” is an effort to consolidate their position. Thus, coming together of Iran and India on this issue becomes all the more important an urgent. If the Tehran-Washington rapprochement takes place, it will allow India and Iran to quickly get off the mark on three fronts in Afghanistan.

First, the Chabahar port project, facing the Sea of Oman, can become Afghanistan’s gateway to the world, connecting the country to India as well as the extended neighbourhood. The project will end Pakistan’s monopoly as a gateway to the landlocked Afghanistan. For India, this project will also serve a secondary goal of attaining ground access to the Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

Second, India and Iran can come together to prevent an Iraq like situation in Afghanistan. India can play a leading role in reaching out to Afghanistan’s northern and western neighbours to reconstitute an alliance as existed in the 90′s. Such an alliance will prevent the return of forces like the Taliban.

Third, India and Iran can play a role in expanding this partnership to engage Russia and China. With respect to Afghanistan, Russia has concerns over the narcotics trade as well as fears the rise of Islamic fundamentalism within its own country, particularly in its insurgent-riddled southern republic of Chechnya. While China has thrown its weight behind Pakistan, it is also concerned about Islamic terrorism in the wake of unrest in Xinjiang. China has previously clarified that while it supports a settlement to bring the Taliban into the political system, it opposes a Taliban government. How far the Chinese and Russians can be nudged to engage with India and Iran remains to be seen. And herein lies an opportunity.

Thus, the Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal offers a never-before opportunity that will allow India and Iran to co-operate on an unprecedented scale in Afghanistan while upholding the interests of the Afghan State — which aligns with the interests of the US. This window of opportunity is not permanent and has opened up only for a short time before China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia get their focus back on Afghanistan. So it is for the US and India to seize this golden opportunity and construct an alliance that ushers Afghanistan to peace, stability and prosperity.

[This article first appeared on Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review]

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