By S.D. Muni
Iran has vigorously moved to get associated with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). A formal application was submitted on March 3 by Iran to the SAARC Secretariat for an Observer Status. This formal request underlined Iran's geographical proximity to the SAARC region, being a neighbour of two other members, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also its economic strength, based largely on its energy resources.
Iran's historical and cultural links with the region are long-standing and deep- rooted. No wonder, SAARC Secretary General Lyonp Chekyab Dorji received the application positively, saying Iran's association with SAAARC will be mutually beneficial to both.
The Iranian move has not been a sudden one. Even when the question of a regional cooperation organisation in South Asia was being conceptually debated and academic designs were being worked out in the late 1970s, Iran figured as one of the prospective members. However, Iran did not pay much policy and diplomatic attention to this idea then.
For the past couple of years however, Iran has taken a keen interest in seeking SAARC membership. This is linked with Iran's, what may be called a Look East policy, whereby in order to reduce its isolation from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) grouping and resist the pressures from the US, it has been building closer ties with the countries of South and Central Asia. With the active support of China and Russia, Iran became an Observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in April 2006.
As for SAARC, Iran has been actively canvassing for membership for the past few years. In an interaction with Indian scholars and academics at Sapru House, the Indian Council of World Affairs, in February, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi publicly expressed his country's interest in joining SAARC and disclosed that "this issue has been on the table for a long time". He claimed that Iran's association with SAARC would promote East-West connectivity.
In the same discourse, Kharazzi also declared that his country was proposing the forging of "West Asian Cooperation Bloc" including India and Pakistan. He claimed to have sounded this idea to his Indian hosts. A few months later, in Islamabad on Dec 18, 2005, Kharazzi's successor Manuochehr Mottaki, in an interview with The News, said that "Asian countries must enhance cooperation in the interest of their people," adding that "Iran has been considering having close association with SAARC since long".
The Dhaka SAARC Summit in November 2005 admitted Afghanistan as a new member and agreed to include China and other countries as observers. The candidature of Iran was also discussed informally but there was no formal request from it to take a decision on it.
Iran's association with SAARC will immensely help in energizing SAARC. Its promise of enhancing East-West connectivity fits well into the New Delhi SAARC Summit's theme of connectivity. India is facing considerable difficulty in establishing direct land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran has been helpful in reducing some of these difficulties by allowing Indian goods and services to Afghanistan and Central Asia. But real connectivity in this part of Asia cannot come unless Pakistan changes its attitude towards providing land access and transit to India.
Iran may exercise its influence and goodwill in this respect to nudge Pakistan. That is not only because that will help India but essentially because that will also facilitate a better harnessing of the South Asian market for Iran's energy products, particularly gas and oil. Energy is also a priority area for cooperation in South Asia. The convergence of interest between Iran and South Asia in energy cooperation is obvious. Iran may also use SAARC forum to strengthen its economic engagement with the rising economies of India and China.
India is strongly supporting Iran's application for SAARC. Iran's presence in SAARC may be expected to moderate Pakistani resistance towards getting its economy integrated with the South Asian region. Iran, together with Afghanistan, will also hopefully take the bilateral Indo-Pakistani equation smoothly to a multilateral level at least in the areas of development cooperation. Iran's promise of East-West connectivity can turn the face of India's western equations. And if Pakistan can be persuaded by Iran and Afghanistan to promote this connectivity, it can also help greatly improve India's economic and cultural engagement with Central Asia.
Advocacy of Iran by India may also be projected as an evidence of New Delhi's independence in foreign policy matters, particularly at a time when Indo-US nuclear cooperation (the 123 agreement) is under negotiation.
For these very reasons, Pakistan may not appear to be enthusiastic about Iran's entry into SAARC even as an observer. The presence of both Afghanistan and Iran in SAARC may also blunt Pakistan's penchant on raising bilateral issues. Even on Kashmir, Iran has on previous occasions offered to mediate. Iran's predominantly Shia identity may not be very welcome for Pakistan for a closer engagement in South Asian affairs though Iran's presence in SAARC, along with Afghanistan's entry, will augment the voice of the Muslim countries in South Asian affairs.
The possibility of Pakistan facing conflicting pressures form two of its very close friends and allies cannot be ruled; from China for getting Iran in SAARC and from the US for keeping Iran out. For China, Iran may be a balancing 'Observer' in SAARC where four other observers (US, EU, Japan and South Korea) do not constitute a comforting presence. The US will certainly do all that is possible, to dissuade not only Pakistan but other smaller SAARC countries and even India, to ensure that Iran is kept out because of the latter's defiance on the nuclear issue and its challenge to the US position in Iraq.
It may be difficult for Pakistan to openly register its opposition to Iran's entry into SAARC in view of the friendly bilateral relations between them and their generally cooperative participation in Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO). Iran's application for SAARC observer status, therefore, definitely creates a serious diplomatic dilemma for Pakistan.
Decisions in SAARC are taken on the basis of unanimity. Any one negative voice can defeat Iran's aspirations for SAARC. Who from among the SAARC members will try to block Iran's entry remains to be seen. One hopes that Iran has done its homework to ensure that its membership application is not opposed by any. In case of that happening, SAARC would look poised to enter a more interesting, competitive, dynamic and constructive phase of evolution.
(S.D. Muni is executive director (International Affairs), Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)