06 August, 2011

The Great Game in Central Asia

Geopolitics, August 2011, pp 66 - 68, 



Will the SCO expand itself to accommodate the aspirations of a ‘pariah’ Iran? Will India show enough energy to sneak into the organisation which may antagonize USA? The geopolitical calculus seems to be murky.

At the 11th Summit meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) in the second week of June 2011 at Astana, Kazakhstan, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, predictably, roared thus: “Which one of our countries (has played a role) in the black era of slavery, or in the destruction of hundreds of millions of human beings?”

In the same venue, he called for a post-Soviet security alliance against America-backed West. He has made it a habit, in tune with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, to lambast the US (specific leaders in particular) at important platforms. His personal traits notwithstanding, domestic pressures and internal discontent could be assumed to provide the necessary fillip for such explosive demagogy.

In 2009 at Yekaterinberg, Russia, the Iranian President had echoed similar sentiments, with special emphasis on a single currency for intra-SCO trade and an exclusive ‘energy club’. If STRATFOR’s analysis is to be relied upon, “Iran spent the better part of the past decade using its nuclear program (or the threat of one) to try to get a primo spot at the world's geopolitical table.” In case of Iran, STRATFOR further contends:

"Highly publicize your progress on a nuclear program, stir in a reputation for irrational behavior — you've got a brilliant strategy for getting concessions from major powers."

Nevertheless, it is clear that Iran strongly aspires to be SCO’s 7th full member: a desire the cocooned SCO doesn’t really seem to relish. Iran currently holds an observer status in the group and had applied for full membership in a request filed on March 24, 2008. From a geopolitical perspective though, a bonding between Iran and the SCO could only benefit the regional cartel. Iran is world’s 2nd largest natural gas producer and if clubbed with SCO, would enhance the energy capabilities of the group and hence uplift its negotiating powers with the rest of the world.

Moreover, an expansion of SCO is overdue and with Iran expressing an earnest desire, it seems logical that the glue must be searched. More so, since the primary (unstated) objective of SCO was to erect a security alliance vis-à-vis North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which was apparently stated through the aim of addressing religious extremism and border security in Central Asia.

In the post-1979 era, after the Khomeini-led Islamic Revolution in Iran, and furthermore with the ascension of Ahmadi-Nejad, it seems somewhat certain that it would be difficult for Iran to forge a ‘workable’ relationship with USA, at least in the foreseeable future. And in the unholy backdrop created by Washington’s maneuvers to the extent of browbeating a defiant Iran, the bilateral equation of the two countries does not appear to be analytically solvable. In such a scenario, Iran as a full member could only provide fillip to SCO since the latter’s primary motive was to construct a multi-polar world, challenging US dominance.

Additionally, since Russia may act as a viable mediator in the 5+1 party talks with Iran with regard to its allegedly ‘clandestine’ nuclear programme, inclusion of Iran in SCO can only provide ‘negotiating leverage’ to Russia and by group extension, to China. Such a measure, due to its natural fallout, would also strengthen the strategic objectives of these two countries in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Hence, it was no wonder that the Deputy Head of Tajikistan's Center for Strategic Research, Seifollah Safarov underlined the positive outcomes of Iran's membership in the SCO. To quote him: "Changing Iran's membership status in the Shanghai Organization will provide further grounds for cooperation among the organization's members in confronting security threats that have targeted the region.”

According to Wan Chengcai, a Chinese expert on Russian foreign policy, SCO is constantly growing in stature which is understood from its appeal to countries like Mongolia, Iran, India, Pakistan and of late, Afghanistan.

Despite the apparently favourable bonding parameters, all is not well between Iran and SCO. Russia and China do not want a rhetorically violent Iran with its ‘pariah’ tag. That is why Russia has ‘urged’ Ahmadi-Nejad to conform to the guidelines of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and get on with the 5+1 party talks. It is veritably clear that the SCO doesn’t prefer to openly antagonize the US, at least at the present juncture. On the other hand, the elasticity of the SCO is being challenged.

India’s equation with the SCO

While putting into effect Indian foreign policy, there has been an incessant conflict between idealism and realism, with the former winning on the majority of occasions. An obvious criticism has been that India led too much focus on idealism at the cost of national interest. It is also a fact that power projection has never been the adopted methodology for New Delhi.

Sunil Dasgupta and Stephen Cohen in their paper for The Washington Quarterly are correct to assert that ‘strategic restraint’ has been India’s doctrine. They conclude thus: “Linear projections of current trends do not predict India abandoning its strategic restraint; for that, it will require a major and unforeseeable disruption at home or abroad.”

On bilateral terms, India’s relations with Russia have been more than cordial. Even after the fall of communism, and post 9/11 American dominance in the world order, Indo-Russia ties, especially in defence has leapfrogged. With Central Asia, (after 1991) India has remained tentative; mainly because of the ‘territorial disconnect’ due to the presence of Pakistan and also because the former being a land-locked region.

Nevertheless, as and when opportunities existed, like during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (1979-89) and after 9/11, India has skillfully projected its ‘soft power’ in Afghanistan and tried to use the ‘land of Abdali’ as the launching pad for Central Asia. However, New Delhi has been diffident to even accept the making of an Air Base at Ayni near Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

However, as far as joining SCO is concerned, India never expressed its desire earnestly. Like Iran, India is an SCO-observer, but has never been overly ambitious to claim a permanent membership, unlike Iran. In the Summit-meetings of SCO, India’s Prime Minister had been hardly visible, except in Yekaterinberg, 2009. Finally, after sufficient dilly-dallying, India at last expressed its intent of being a permanent member in 2010.

Will the SCO expand?

In an article in the Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst (August 2009), Richard Weitz posits a viable reason “why the SCO has not designated new members since its founding, or new formal observers since Iran’s accession in 2005, is that, despite numerous attempts, the SCO governments have been unable to define the legal basis for such expansion.”

Moreover, SCO, for obvious reasons is keen to pull in the energy-rich Turkmenistan into its fold, whereas the latter has always exhibited diplomatic coyness. Ashgabat is part of the Central Asian geopolitical framework, both in terms of topography as well as history. So, if the SCO has to expand, its first preference must be Turkmenistan and not Iran. India, on the other hand, might not be a distant proposition, till Russian persuasion exists. But the obvious impediment to include India would come from three quarters.  

First, India itself, as New Delhi’s strategic restraint doctrine would hardly enable it to free the holy gyves of Nehruvian dogma and openly adhere to Realpolitik. Furthermore, it might not be prudent for India to displease the US by joining a security framework which is basically antithetical to US interests.

Second is the China-Pakistan factor. SCO has made it almost clear that if India has to be co-opted, then Pakistan would come as part of the ‘package’. China insists on such a configuration as it would not allow the rising Asian power to challenge its authority in the SCO; in conjunction with Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, would prefer a scenario in which India joins the SCO without Pakistan. But it has to be kept in consideration that any extension of SCO to integrate South Asia, naturally must go through Afghanistan and Pakistan. India may not appreciate such a formation, but it is to a large extent, inevitable.

And third, the SCO members must be wary of the inherent discord between India and Pakistan. Interestingly, at the 11th Summit of SCO, India’s External Affairs Minister had to face verbal bombardments from the Kazakh president regarding the progress in Kashmir dispute. These are ominous signs for India. India had nonetheless fought bilateral issues with its ‘childhood enemy’ Pakistan in multilateral forums; viz. in South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), but that is a platform where India reigns supreme, both politically as well as economically. However, in an ‘expanded’ SCO, India might not get such an advantage and to what extent the present Indian political dispensation is ready to take up challenges of such genre is perhaps not difficult to fathom.

On the other hand, a recent RAND study alleges that Iran continues to provide ‘measured’ support to Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and also maintains close relations with the same Afghan central government that is battling Taliban forces. The research rules out any abatement in confrontation between Iran and the US. In such an atmosphere, it seems highly unlikely that the US would welcome any moves by the SCO to accommodate Iran.  

Interestingly, Iran and India have shown similar modus operandi in Afghanistan. Both the countries provided support, (military aid by Iran and logistical help by India), to the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, as a counterweight to the Taliban. Moreover, both the countries have pumped in major investment projects in infrastructure and education for Kabul. It won’t be preposterous to assume that these two states would harbour roughly similar mode of operation in Central Asia through the SCO. In that sense, SCO provides a decent platform for interaction to both these nations.

However, there are other impediments. Inclusion of Iran, India and Pakistan into SCO can further complicate matters for the regional block. Iran suspects that Pakistan abets the Sunni-insurgent group Jundallah, which wreaks havoc at times within Iran. And the plethora of bilateral matters plaguing India-Pakistan ties may come to the fore in an extended SCO.

Such factors can easily dissuade the region-specific issues of Central Asia and make SCO an unnecessary bickering ground for ‘outsiders’, as far as the original members are concerned. At the same time, however, an enlargement of SCO can broaden its scope and widen its reach in the global geopolitical chessboard; with a resurgent Russia and intimidating China gaining most of the fruits.

What’s in store for the future?
Since independence, India has hardly deviated from its non-committal position in aligning with power blocks. Perhaps that is the perpetual backdrop which adumbrates India’s incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s articulation: “India is too large a country to be boxed into any alliance”. Iran, on the other hand, presently is a Mullah-dominated theocracy, the rudders of which are with a vociferous President.

Till Iran is under the umbrella of Shi-ite Mulla-ism and India holds the banner of its age-old foreign policy paradigm, a ‘strategic bonhomie’ between the two nations is an unlikely outcome; prevalent may be in the writings of academicians and in the domain of wishful thinking.

Even if India and Iran share the same dais through the SCO, it is a definite possibility that India would keep a safe distance from Tehran and not antagonize White house to any significant degree. Both nations want to be a part of the SCO for reasons specific to each. But a bilateral strategic partnership is not seen to be evolving out of the SCO.

Before that occurs however, Iran’s asymmetric military doctrine (allegations of aiding Hezbollah and other Shi-ite insurgent groups in Middle East) and India-Pakistan outstanding bilateral problems would continue to ensnare the SCO-veterans to allow a smooth direct entry for these two nations. 

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