http://dailypioneer.com/columnists/item/50758-bridging-the-persian-gulf.html Author: PR Kumaraswamy Iranâ€™s attempt to undermine Sunni Arab states is not in Indiaâ€™s interest. We may override Israeli and US concerns, but we canâ€™t ignore the GCCâ€™s apprehensions. Iran is not just a regional power but has been showing signs of being a hegemonic power. Capitalising on its hydrocarbon reserves and geo-strategic importance, the ideologically-driven Islamic Republic has been trying to influence events well beyond its national boundaries. There are clear signs that Iran is bent upon Persianising the Gulf. Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, it has been trying to influence political events in Baghdad. Post-Saddam Hussein democratisation meant the emergence of Iraq as the first Shia Arab state. The impending American withdrawal by the end of this month would be the consecration of the Iranian power and would pave the way for a greater Iranian role in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, the winding down of American presence in Afghanistan would also enhance its role and influence in that troubled country. Furthermore, the â€˜Arab Springâ€™ offered additional avenues when the majority Shia population in Bahrain protested against their prolonged exclusion and marginalisation. The Saudi support for the beleaguered Al Khalifa family increased the Iranian stakes in the island. Through its influence over militant groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, Iran has found a pivotal place in Lebanese and Palestinian affairs. The celebrations over the 2005 Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon proved short-lived. Today nothing is possible in that country without having Hizbullah (by extension Iran), on board. Likewise, the victory of Hamas in 2006 considerably enhanced the Iranian role in Palestinian affairs. These developments come against the backdrop of the Iranian determination to pursue a confrontational policy towards the West, especially the US. Despite international disapproval and isolation, the Iranian leadership is not ready for a compromise. The defiant stands adopted by the Ayatollahs are facilitated by a host of factors. Iran is one of the largest and most populous countries in West Asia. It has the fourth largest known oil reserves (after Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Canada) in the world. It also has the second largest gas reserves after Russia. Thus managing Iran has been a serious challenge for many countries. Since the dawn of the Islamic Revolution, the US is struggling to evolve a meaningful policy towards the Ayatollahs. More than three decades after the hostage crisis, Washing-ton, DC remains clueless. Neither engagement nor containment proved to be effective. If the former lacked irresistible incentives, the latter lacked teeth. Hence, from Ronald Reagan to Mr Barack Obama American Presidents continue to pursue an ineffective policy towards Iran. The same holds true for other countries, including China. The economic incentives offered by Iran are in conflict with political problems posed by the Islamic Republic. India is no different and has been trying to manage Iran. One can even argue that Iran has been the most serious foreign policy challenge facing New Delhi since the end of the Cold War. On a host of issues, there is a genuine convergence of interest between the two countries. Iran is important for Indian interests concerning energy security, access to Afghanistan and Central Asia and its policy towards Pakistan. At the same time, both sides are at variance over a number of concerns. Perceived proximity with Tehran has often come in the way of emerging India-US friendship. While the American pressure is often cited for problems with Iran, it is often ignored that much of the energy problems with Iran are inflicted by the latter. Even without American interference, Iran has proved to be a tough and even unreliable customer on the energy front. The Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline is struck over security concerns. The LNG deal remains on paper because Iran lacks critical technology. Oil explorations are proving to be unattractive as Iranian laws grant royalty not ownership to foreign oil explorers. In short, potential energy cooperation with Iran is not reflected in the incentives accruing to India. The Iranian position on the vexed West Asia peace process has been at variance with Indiaâ€™s. While former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami was prepared to accept a Palestinian political settlement with Israel, under Mr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran has returned to the revolutionary rhetoric of Ayatollah Khomeini. His foot-in-mouth disease has made more enemies than any violence could. His periodic statements against Israel, its existence and calls for its destruction proved controversial even for some Iranians. His Holocaust denial spree, for example, did not go well among prominent Iranians, including former President Khatami. The Iranian support for military groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah are principally driven by its anti-Israeli agenda. On the critical nuclear issue, their differences are obvious. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament in February 2006, a nuclear Iran does not serve Indian interest. While there are differences over the means, all major powers, including China and Russia, do not admit the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear programme. Despite their anti-American rhetoric both of them have continuously voted against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency and United Nations Security Council. While the September 2005 vote against Iran in the IAEA is widely commented by the Indian critics, the voting pattern of China and Russia rarely received closer scrutiny. More importantly, Indiaâ€™s Iran policy would have to consider its vital interests in the Arab world. The Arab countries, especially the littorals of the Persian Gulf, are vital. Bulk of Indiaâ€™s trade is with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially Saudi Arabia. A major portion of Indiaâ€™s energy supplies come from the Arab countries not Iran. Above all, around six million Indian expatriate labourers are productively employed in the Arab countries. Their presence partly addresses the unemployment problems in India but also results in substantial remittances. Recent estimates of the International Monitory Fund put the annual total foreign exchange remittances of the expatriate labourers at $50 billion, with bulk of them coming from the Gulf region. Seen within this wider strategic context, Iranian rhetoric against the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, goes against larger Indian interests in the Persian Gulf. While Iran is important, the Arab countries are equally â€” and in some cases more â€” important. When push comes to shove, India can override the Israeli and even American concerns vis-Ã -vis Iran. But it will not be able to override the Arab concerns over Iran. Internalising this elementary logic would serve Indiaâ€™s interests in the Persian Gulf. The writer teaches contemporary Middle East in Jawaharlal Nehru University.