Iran: Balancing East against West
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For Iran, India's vote could signal a long-term strategic shift in policy, where New Delhi would ally with Washington over Iran in these ongoing confrontations. This possibility could be deeply disturbing to Tehran if it was hoping that India would become a strategic partner. Needless to say, Singh has told deputies that "confrontation should be avoided at all costs." He added that, "for this to be possible, time must be given for diplomacy to work. Confrontation is not in the interest of India or of our region." In es- sence, India is taking a middle-of-the-road approach, attempting to placate both the East and West, the former for domestic reasons and the latter for international reasons. As a result, India could be the decisive bargaining chip between Iran and the United States, with both states competing for New Delhi's affirmative support. Essentially, though, if New Delhi is to remain a leader of the NAM, India cannot support any sanctions policy without appearing hypocritical. Because it is not a permanent member of the Security Council, however, it may not be forced to make a decision. The most likely option in the wake of its pending nuclear deal with the United States is to support U.S. policy tacitly while subtly maintaining relations with Iran.
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Another growing synergy between Moscow and Tehran is bilateral trade, which currently rests at only $2 billion. The Kremlin predicts, however, that Russian-Iranian trade is poised to increase to $10 billion in the next few years. Moscow has provided Iran with consumer goods, foodstuffs, and oil and gas equipment and has assisted Iran on infrastructural projects. It has also supplied ballistic missile technology, chemical and biological programs, and a range of lucrative contracts for aircraft, jet fighters, helicopters, sub- marines, tanks, and air-defense missile systems. From the Russian perspec- tive, though, these exchanges do not advance Iran's proliferation penchants, as much of the equipment is considered outdated and obsolete. The missile systems in particular are a controversial contract. They possess an effective- ness range of up to 12 kilometers and could potentially target airplanes and drones, thereby shielding any nuclear installation from military assaults.
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There are no bells, no sirens, and no early-warning systems that signal Iran's eastward shift. After struggling to develop political and com- mercial relations with the United States and Europe, Iran has forsaken this approach. Having survived 25 years of isolation, war, and sanctions, Iran's leadership is no longer willing to bargain away its national security concerns, nuclear ambitions, human rights policy, or commercial creativity for unfavor- able Western political and trade incentives. The Iranian regime is looking to the East, where human rights violations and proliferation proclivities are considered practical matters of regime survival. Iran has searched for and found strategic partners willing to accept its nefarious activities and willing to deal with it on a quid pro quo basis. Iran's carefully cultivated relationships with China, Russia, and India are providing it with the economic and political coverage that it could never obtain from the West. From the perspective of Iran's leaders and their Eastern counter- parts, a perfect storm of interests is gathering, anchoring the strategic Silk Road and enabling these countries to circumvent the United States and Europe. This shift has been effective in light of the pending nuclear crisis, as Iran is now successfully using its cultivated commercial and strategic rela- tions with China, Russia, and India to counterbalance the threat of Western nuclear sanctions.
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With their booming economies and young consumers hungry for foreign goods, the economic synergies of the Sino-Iranian relationship are obvious. It was the Chinese that helped the Iranians build the Tehran metro system, and a second transportation project is already underway. Additionally, the Chinese are building Iranian highways and airport runways, even as China's own infrastructure development moves at breakneck speed. Furthermore, China's Cherry Automobile Company burst onto the Iranian scene in 2003 and now manufactures 30,000 cars annually. Today, there are more than 100 different projects percolating on the Iranian-Chinese stove. China's ravenous appetite will be satiated by Iranian commodities and in doing so will continue to fortify the strategic Silk Road. The conservative ideologue and editor of the traditionalist government-run newspaper Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadiari, recently described the Sino-Iranian dynamic best: "Sanctions are not useful nowadays, because we have many secondary options in markets like China."
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Clearly, Iran recognizes the delicate balancing act involved in its strategic decision to reorient its policies toward the East. Both the clerical regime and its new international allies are under significant pressure from the West to break these bonds and to acquiesce on the nuclear front. China, Russia, and India must also balance their international priorities against domestic ones. The Bush administration has used carrots and sticks to encourage Beijing, Moscow, and New Delhi to maintain a united front, albeit unsuccessfully. With these ensconced regional, commercial, and strategic ties to the East, Iran is circumventing the traditional economic leverage and appeal of the West. The Iranian nuclear showdown has demonstrated that Tehran has created options by balancing East against West. If successful, this technique may even serve as a model for other countries, that, in today's globalized world, an alternative to the United States and Europe exists with the rising economic powers of Asia.
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India is also helping Iran in its quest to become the transportation hub linking the Persian Gulf to Central Asia by building a transport corridor that will link India with Central Asia through Afghanistan and Iran. As part of this project, India will assist Iran in modernizing the southeastern Chahbahar port on the Strait of Hormuz, connecting it to the main roads. India also signed a memorandum of understanding more than a year ago with Iran and Turkmenistan to facilitate Indian exports to Central Asian countries by rail across Iran from the port of Bandar Abbas, which links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman. There also is an agreement among Russia, India, and Iran to construct the North-South International Transport Corridor. The creation of an East Corridor con- necting Uzbekistan, Iran, and Afghanistan is also being discussed.
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By 2010, India is poised to become the world's fourth-largest consumer of energy. As such, New Delhi has forged relations with countries that can assist it in its quest to secure adequate resources. It has even worked strategically with its age-old archenemy, Pakistan, in the international game of pipeline politics. India's relationship with Iran, however, goes beyond a proposed gas pipeline. Interestingly, Tehran yet again is the beneficiary of domestic and regional politicking. New Delhi too has both a commercial and military attraction to the clerical cadre in Tehran that has complicated India's decisions over Iran's nuclear flagrancies.For political, economic, religious, and energy reasons, political parties in India have encouraged relations with Iran. Principally, the Congress Party and Bharatiya Janata Party had sought closer ties with the theocratic Islamic republic to balance against Muslim Pakistan. Catering to the members of their domestic Muslim population who support their Iranian neighbors, the government has used this relationship to ingratiate itself with its Shi‘a constituency. India has the second-largest Shi‘a population in the world, and improving ties with Iran could send encouraging signals to the nearly 20 million Shi‘a in the country. Moreover, the Indian leftists see Iran as a vanguard challenging U.S. imperialism as members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).