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Territorial Integrity Reconsidered

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One of the defining features of today’s international system is the prevalence of the norm of territorial integrity. This concept and its implications have become especially evident recently with disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea and the Crimean Peninsula.

Simply put, territorial integrity as envisioned in the present world is the strict idea that a country’s borders cannot be changed by force. Boundaries are sacrosanct can cannot be violated or modified due to warfare.This concept has found its way into international law, through uti possidetis, the principle that whatever territory a state owns at the end of a conflict or era (as provided for via war or treaty) is thus formalized as its permanent territory. Since this principle has taken effect in 1945 after the Second World War, it has become taboo to change borders by force and countries have had their boundaries frozen since. Furthermore, newly independent countries have had to live with their borders, even if those borders were totally arbitrary and followed no clear ethnic or geographical logic, as was the case of many African countries. The International Court of Justice rationalized this, ruling in Burkina-Faso v Mali (1986) that 

[Uti possidetis] is a general principle, which is logically connected with the phenomenon of obtaining independence, wherever it occurs. Its obvious purpose is to prevent the independence and stability of new states being endangered by fratricidal struggles provoked by the changing of frontiers following the withdrawal of the administering power.

All this is in stark contrast to the prevalent understanding of norms of territorial change before the First World War. It was quite common for countries to lose and gain territory before this time. Such a strict interpretation of territorial sovereignty and integrity has numerous downsides to it, as has been recognized by multiple statesman and thinkers. In 2001, Prince Hans of Liechtenstein said

Let us accept the fact that states have lifecycles similar to those of human beings who created them. Hardly any Member State of the United Nations has existed within its present borders for longer than five generations. The attempt to freeze human evolution has in the past been a futile undertaking and has probably brought about more violence than if such a process had been controlled peacefully. Restrictions on self-determination threaten not only democracy itself but the state which seeks its legitimization in democracy.

One of the most obvious downsides to the concept of a permanent territorial integrity is that it prevents the “natural” emergence of new states when old states have failed, as was the case with Somalia, making it difficult for Somaliland to obtain recognition. It also prevents the emergence of new states due to successful rebellions because the rump government can strongly insist on the norm of territorial integrity and prevent the recognition of the new state. It also de-incentivizes the rump government from signing any treaty recognizing the new state since it has a strong moral and legal argument for holding onto all of what it considers its sovereign territory, in theory.

Most importantly, it delays the transformation of a de facto territorial situation into a de jure situation, where one country controls territory that is claimed by another country.The result is frozen conflicts and border disputes lasting decades instead of both countries formalizing the de facto control they have over various territories and recognizing reality. There was a certain logic to pre-contemporary treaties that still is application to the present- the formal cessation of territory in writing allowed two countries to get onto the business of peace and trade without the continuous ambiguity and conflict created by a decades long unresolved territorial dispute.

This is not to deny that there are many benefits of the norm of territorial integrity. It creates a stable international order in allowing a country to focus on internal development instead of worrying about its very existence. It has allowed various countries to exist that would not have had a chance of existing in a less favorable international legal environment. Nonetheless, as pointed out previously, it is important to recognize the downsides of the norm of territorial integrity without advocating a brutal world where countries frequently conquer or are conquered. Such an unstable situation is not to anybody’s benefit.

Instead we should turn back to the lessons of 17th, 18th, and 19th century politics, in which conquests occurred gradually via a formalized framework that generally limited radical change or rapacious acquisitions while still allowing for changes. An element of this system was a notion of the balance of power, which is useful for visualizing the world even today. More important, we have to turn back to the thought of Metternich. Metternich, an Austrian diplomat and statesman in the Napoleonic Era argued that instead of giving a carte blanche to unlimited conquest in the style of Napoleon, countries ought to change territories via a more legitimate process in which the defeated country would recognize the facts on the ground via a treaty that would deprive it of territory within reason and without the radical alteration of the newly acquired territory’s customs. Metternich made a distinction between what he called conquests via facti by which he meant illegitimate territorial acquisitions without treaty and conquêtes consommées, which refer to territorial acquisitions made through treaty, whether through diplomatic processes or through losing a war.The United States itself was born in this way via treaty after a successful war. The current insistence on countries to refuse to recognize the facts on the ground is closely bound with the norm of territorial integrity which deems a country’s boundaries to be sacred. If countries and rulers thought more realistically about this norm, perhaps they would be more amiable to de jure recognition of facts on the ground, without necessarily acceding to unrealistic demands.


Written by Akhipill

May 14, 2014 at 9:29 PM

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The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan- Book Review

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The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 is a new book by the noted historian Margaret MacMillan that explores the origins of World War I as well as the social, political, and economic milieu in Europe before the war. Additionally, concepts such as the role of technology and philosophical ideas in contributing to the war are also considered in this book. Thus, MacMillan’s work is an interesting and articulate analysis on the causes of the First World War, or the Great War as it was referred to at the time. An analysis of the book reveals lessons about the origin of the Great War while also shedding light on present day issues and the nature of war and military technology.

Why War?  

Margaret MacMillan’s book is a book about war. While it is specifically about why the Great War occurred, it is also a larger study about why wars and major events occur. MacMillan takes the view that “very little in history is inevitable.”[1] This important statement applies to both those who would argue that war was (or is) impossible because the structure of the system, or because certain values, technologies, or economic interconnectivity have made it unthinkable as well as to those who argue that war in certain cases is inevitable. Certainly, many historians have argued that the Great War was inevitable for a variety of reasons, many of which focus on the role of Germany. MacMillan argues that while certain forces did make war more likely, ultimately the decision to go to war, like any war, was the result of a complex series of decisions and factors.[2] It would be a mistake to seek the consolation of a simple answer for the cause of the Great War, as many historians and political scientists have done so in an attempt to create a tight thesis for the causes of the war have done. A simple argument, such as blaming Germany, provided politicians and historians with a convenient way of downplaying the role of their own countries in creating the tensions that led to the Great War. Ultimately, MacMillan argues that the Great War arose through the complex interplay of many factors which, while heightening tensions, did not lead inevitably to war, which ultimately was the result of a series of bad choices in 1914.

MacMillan demonstrates how the policies of all the major European powers:  The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the French Republic, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire all heightened tensions with each other and lead to war, instead of the war being the fault of Germany as many historians have alleged. If anything, Germany felt isolated and surrounded by hostile powers- France to the west and Russia to the east with a potential blockade by the British.[3] France’s obsession over the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine and its hatred towards Germany pushed it almost automatically towards making alliances against Germany that would undoubtedly heighten Germany’s sense of siege.[4] Austria-Hungary’s policies were recklessly expansive for an empire that seemed to have already reached its limits. As things stood, it had difficulty containing the nationalist sentiments within its own borders, without trying to acquire yet more ethnic minorities, such as those who would join the empire through the annexation of Bosnia in the Balkans. Russian policy lacked consistency, wavering between allying with and allying against Germany- a country which did not threaten its interests- while swinging between competing against Great Britain in Asia or Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. This is not to say that Germany was only the victim. In many ways, such as its incompetent foreign policy under Kaiser Wilhelm II, its construction of a large navy, its insistence on a plan that was wedded to a bureaucratic momentum that necessitated a two front war against Russia and France, and its unqualified support for Austria-Hungary, Germany also pursued a series of strategies that caused discomfort in other countries. Ultimately, the various great powers in Europe swung from tension to tension until they ended up at a point when tensions could no longer be contained. These international tensions combined with various currents of thought, such as Social Darwinism, and beliefs of technological superiority, made war more likely.

Despite this, some liberals, socialists, and businessmen thought that war was unlikely for technological and economic reasons or because civilization had progressed beyond the savagery that characterized previous eras. This theme is an important and interesting part of MacMillan’s analysis.

Is War Ever Impossible?

One of the greatest works written on the general causes of war is the book War in Human Civilization by Dr. Azar Gat. Gat’s work, which is based on empirical research in the social sciences, including the fields of economics, psychology, anthropology, and archaeology shows that warfare of some sort or the other, whether tribal skirmishes or massive interstate conflict, is a near constant of the human experience, one that is unlikely to change. Gat argues that, contrary to some recent speculation about human nature being a blank slate, humans do have some general tendencies that are reflected in all societies, though culture also plays a role.[5] Consequently, it is a constant fact that societies will almost always face conflict with each other, because it is in human nature to 1) be tribal in some sense, 2) compete with other tribes whether for prestige or resources.[6] Modern conflicts are just an extrapolation of these basic conditions onto states and the international system. Conflict and competition are resolved through peaceful means or violent means depending on which is more beneficial to a society at a given moment.

It was not until industrialization made war an expensive endeavor vis-à-vis other methods of resolving competition that the incidence of war declined. This view was expressed by Norman Angell, an Englishman, in his 1909 work The Great Illusion.[7] Angell argued that war no longer paid because the winning power would gain nothing by it in the modern era.[8] The past rationale of war, which often involved carting off the spoils, would not make sense in the modern era, as there would be no benefit in destroying one’s trading partners.[9] A similar argument about the inefficiency of modern warfare is made in Steven Pinker’s book on the history of violence. In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker makes the argument that proportionately, conflict has become less violent in the past two centuries than ever before and only seemed to be more violent because of technological advances. As a result of changes in the economic and technological capabilities of humanity, countries began to resolve competition more through diplomacy than ever before, leaving many 19th century Europeans very hopeful of a peaceful future.[10] Gat notes this, but argues that nonetheless, countries will still engage in war if they feel resources and prestige are at stake and the costs are not too high since the urge to resolve conflict decisively through violence is a primeval urge that is never too far from the surface of any society. As Angell himself noted, “a majority of Europeans still believed…that war was sometimes necessary.”[11] Thus despite the compelling rationale for peace, Europeans still perceived that war might sometimes be desirable. This goes to show that societies will always attempt to make war an option for themselves. This also explains the Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMAs) in the 20th century, utilized by states or other interests in order to cancel out the advantages of previous military developments and make military victory an option again.  In other words, the point was to develop the capacity to make war pay again. Thus, RMA I was developed in part to overcome the military strategies and technologies that predominated in European armies at the start of the Great War. The United States used RMA IV technology to help it overcome the mostly RMA I conventional army of Iraq. It is likely that if RMA III (nuclear weapons) are ever countered by a future RMA, war between nuclear armed powers will become much more of a possibility.

It is important to consider these views because MacMillan shows in her book that despite the view of many contemporary 19th century Europeans, war was in fact a possibility, one not to be discounted merely because of economic integration, family ties, or technological advances. It is important to learn from these views, because in today’s world, a common argument is the similar view that weapons of mass destruction and globalization all but make war impossible. The lead up to the Great War, a time when many people also thought that war was not a possibility, is an enlightening period to study because it demonstrates that the possibility for war should never be discounted despite conditions to the contrary. The impossibility of war was exactly what some contemporary Europeans of the belle époque (the period between 1871 and 1914) believed that the economic and technological improvements of their times would in fact make war impossible. Certainly, the long period of peace and progress in Europe that ensued after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 made such a view seem credible.[12] One such individual who believed that war was impossible was Ivan Bloch. A major Russian banker and railroad financier, Bloch spent a significant portion of his life and wealth spreading his views that future warfare was futile. Bloch argued that contrary to the prevailing cult of the offensive that permeated European militaries at the time, “modern industrial societies could put vast armies into the field and equip them with deadly weapons, which swung the advantage to the defensive.”[13] These weapons included “more accurate and rapidly firing guns” which made it “almost impossible for armies to attack well-defended positions.”[14] These well-defended positions would be strengthened by modern defensive technologies such as reinforced steel and barbed wire.[15] While men were at war, wartime production at home would fall, due to the shortage of labor, Bloch argued, failing to anticipate the fact that women would soon begin fill in for men.

Bloch also argued that a general war would lead to revolution and destroy all political institutions.[16] This argument proved to be partially correct. Certainly, based on Bloch’s experiences with the shaky Russian political system, this was a fair prediction to make, which turned out to be true. However, in more stable countries with strong institutions and democratic processes, such as the United States and Great Britain, revolution was never a serious possibility. More mildly autocratic countries or unstable democracies could have gone either way. Both France (1917) and Germany (1918) experienced mutinies during the war, though only the German one was successful in ending the war. Nonetheless, despite the fact that this argument was acknowledged by some statesmen, many officials, such as the Tsar and Russian ministers concluded that rather than overthrowing the system, war provided the chance to fully unite the people behind the system.[17]

Ivan Bloch’s argument that the wars of his future would turn into long, bloody stalemates turned out to be true in the case of the Great War, though his argument that “there will be no war in the future,” did not come to pass because he failed to take into account the fact that countries would adapt their strategies and technologies to counter the negative effects of the industrial warfare that characterized the first few years of the Great War.[18] The result was the first RMA of the 20th century. The strength of Bloch’s argument lay in demonstrating the disastrous effects of technology on the near future but its weakness lay in not realizing that in all cases, countries changed their tactics in order to outwit their enemies and that a stalemate situation in war might not lead to the conclusion that war was impossible but to the conclusion that a nation must innovate to break the stalemate. Nations that overemphasized certain ideas such as the cult of the offensive such as France saw their limitations in the Great War but then alternatively overemphasized defensive strategies as a result, which failed as a strategy to protect the country in the Second World War.

Lessons not learned

Thus MacMillan demonstrates that war was never impossible and that there were strong strategic imperatives for major European powers to at least consider war, despite the obvious negative possibilities of industrial warfare. In addition to these basic strategic arguments, MacMillan lays out certain other arguments pertaining to technology for explaining the Great War, which will be considered shortly. Additionally, MacMillan also makes the interesting and convincing argument that the Great War was the result of lessons not learned. One such lesson not learned was to the lesson of learning from previous crises. When one considers the number of times Europe almost went to war in a variety of different alliance configurations, it seems as though the outbreak of conflict in 1914 just happened to be the one time that European leaders were finally unable to manage a conflict and prevent the outbreak of a general war. Taken from this view, the Great War can be seen as the result of chance. On the other hand, given the large number of such chances- near misses of war- it also seems probable that eventually one conflict would not be diffused in time. War could have broken out any number of times. For example, in 1878, war could have broken out between Russia and Austria-Hungary over the division of the Balkans after a Russian victory over the Ottoman Empire.[19] War could have broken out in either 1906 or 1911 over Morocco.[20] The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 could have turned into general wars.[21] In all these cases, European powers become too complacent, believing that they could always diplomatically work their way out of a great war without setting up mechanisms for doing so or diffusing the underlying tensions that led to all these crises.

In the realm of wars of different combinations of alliances, had a war broken out merely a few years before 1914, it could have been possible that Britain and Russia would have found themselves on different sides instead of the same side. Both countries had long been at odds in Asia, engaged in a “Great Game” over the control of Central Asia and rivals in Persia (Iran).[22] Furthermore, Britain took the side of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War, just a mere couple of years before the entente of 1907 was concluded between Russia and Britain.[23] Britain’s alliance with France was by no means completely solid in the period between 1904 and 1914, as suspicions remained between the two countries over issues such as their colonial rivalry, which brought them dangerously close to war in 1898 over Fashoda in southern Sudan.[24] Even afterwards, many in Britain were wary over being dragged into a general conflict by France and the French were uncertain over British commitment to their alliance as the result of lackluster support over the Moroccan Crisis of 1911.[25] The alliance between France and Russia was firmer but resented by many in Russia who felt that Russia’s natural ally was Germany since they had no geopolitical rivalry and shared a commitment to the same political system.[26] Russia and Germany came close to allying on several occasions.[27]

A second lesson not learned that led to the Great War was the fact that European countries did not learn from previous examples of industrial warfare: the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Russo-Japanese War as well as various other wars such as the Boer War and Russo-Turkish War. European observes unfortunately dismissed the lessons of all three wars for a variety of reasons. The American Civil War featured long, bloody campaigns not too different from those that would characterize the Great War. However, European military strategists did not believe that there much to learn from the Americans, for both technical and nationalist reasons- Americans didn’t know how to do things right like the more “advanced” European nations. While the Civil War dragged on for four years, previous European wars of the 19th century were generally short: the Austro-Prussian War lasted seven weeks for example.[28] The Prussian strategy of swift mobilization and transport via railroad seemed more indicative of the future of war than the Civil War, which was mostly fought in the non-industrial agrarian South, whose terrain did not reflect the densely packed industrial populations of Europe. Other wars such as the Boer War were interpreted as being “aberrations” due to different terrain.[29]  One gets the impression that military planners preferred to focus on optimistic scenarios to the exclusion of more drawn out wars. After all, modern warfare did not accord with classical European military thinking they prized heroic qualities in a warrior, such as Alexander the Great, whose valor allow him to defeat larger armies.[30] Military commanders were loath to embrace the new reality that “three men and a machine gun can stop a battalion of heroes.”[31] Additionally, embracing a new method of fighting was difficult from a bureaucratic point of view as “changing such things as tactics, drills, or training methods is time-consuming and unsettling.”[32] MacMillan also notes that the militaries of Europe were trained to solve problems so being able to think through and figure out a strategy for victory was considered a given. Provided the right strategy was hit upon, a strategist could overcome the problems of modern warfare.[33]

Although the classical view was driven by wishful thinking and nostalgia, there was also a sound empirical basis to it that at least made it plausible. The idea of offensive war was based on the belief that militaries that boldly took the offensive had an advantage by maintaining momentum and as a result, would defeat more immobile, static armies. A swift offensive victory was desirable because it would quickly end a war on favorable terms for the victor. In terms of planning and execution, military staffs also believed that there would be more ideas for offensive rather than defensive strategies as “it is psychologically easier to think in terms of action.”[34] Another motivation was the dream of acquiring territory, whether to deny the enemy resources or for the sake of conquest. Many segments among the French population and government were obsessed with the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine from Germany, which was to be reconquered.[35] The recent empirical cases for planners that seemed to justify this continued focus on offensive warfare included the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War, in which the Prussians and Japanese both successfully went on the offensive and won in a short period of time. Indeed in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, European observes admired the manner in which the Japanese initiated the war and took the offensive.[36] On the other hand, European observes tended to overlook any lessons about the nature of industrial warfare partly due to racial theories about Eastern nations, whether the “oriental” Japanese or the Asiatic Russians. Thus evidence for the nature of industrial warfare from the long siege of Port Arthur (1904-1905) was glossed over as was evidence from the Franco-Prussian War which demonstrated the limits of the offensive when “48,000 Germans held a line of some thirty-five kilometers against 131,000 French [who were attacking].”[37] Thus, European military planners vastly underestimated the changes new technology wrought on the conduct of warfare as their thought tended towards older paradigms.

New Weapons

As previously noted, the growth and development of industrial technologies changed the nature of warfare faster than military thought could catch up. MacMillan argues that the failure of militaries to understand the impact of new technologies was related to their failure to prevent the Great War as they were either unaware of or dismissive of the deadly changes the new weapons had on the nature of warfare. It would take the example of the Great War for militaries to fully note and begin to counter the new technologies that the 19th century made possible. For example, “soldiers in Napoleon’s time had muskets, which, with good training, they could reload- standing up- and fire three times a minute, and which were only accurate up to forty-five meters.”[38] Only 55 years later, by 1870, soldiers had rifles which were accurate up to almost half a kilometer that could be loaded five to six times per minute lying down.[39] By 1900, rifles were accurate and lethal over a range of up to a kilometer.[40] Improvements in artillery were especially devastating as technology improved from a cannon being fired across a battlefield (a range of half a kilometer) in the Napoleonic wars to a range of seven to ten kilometers in 1900.[41] Attackers in such a situation would have “had to survive several kilometers of shell fire then several hundred meters of intense rifle and machine-gun fire on their way towards the enemy.”[42] This made traditional, heroic battlefield initiatives almost impossible. Given the swift changes, it is easy to understand that military strategists had difficulty comprehending or accepting the impact of technology on modern warfare, especially as such technology overturned hundreds of years of strategic thinking. Ivan Bloch noted that the military was a closed circle, resistant to change and proud of their accumulated traditions.[43]

Another technological change was the railroad. This, however, was considered advantageous by military planners, and unlike advances in weaponry which could have dissuaded many from war, advances in railways often made militaries more confident of their ability to wage war. The Industrial Revolution allowed larger armies and trains were the means by which there giant armies were to be delivered to the front on time.[44] This essentially meant that whichever nation was able to effectively utilize and construct railroads would have a decisive advantage in war, as was demonstrated in the Franco-Prussian War. It was for this reason that French finance in Russia directed the construction of railroads towards the German border so as to make Russia’s mobilization on its western frontier with Germany more effective and swift.[45] Germany, of course was considered the exemplar of the use of railroads for warfare, and because of its confidence in its administrative capabilities, it was confident of itself in war. Germany’s railway efficiency was demonstrated in 1914, when it was able to transport fifty-four cars long trains over a bridge at Cologne every ten minutes.[46] It was impossible to provision a large modern army without the quantity of supplies that only a modern rail system could transport; thus, it was necessary to have an effective railroad system. Russia’s ineffective Trans-Siberian railway helped it lose the Russo-Japanese War.[47] Thus, despite the potential for disaster, the potential for railways serving as a means of bringing ever larger armies to the fronts was a temptation that made warfare more likely because every army hoped to outmaneuver its rival.


An important lesson from MacMillan’s book is that greatest economic interconnectivity or technological developments do not necessarily prevent war. Military planners might not understand the full consequences of these changes until it is too late or may believe that they can overcome these developments through the adoption of new strategies, technologies, and economic systems.

Ultimately, the major lesson and analytical take away from MacMillan’s work is that in the end, war is not inevitable but it is also not inevitable that there be peace. To think war impossible is no more of a certainty than to think it to be the only choice. As MacMillan writes at the end of her book, “there are always choices.”[48] The specific series of events that led to the outbreak of the Great War after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 are the results of those choices. However, before 1914 the factors that made war more likely were also the result of choices as were the choices of how to interpret understand the lessons of previous wars and new technologies. Thus, it is important to realize that the previous lessons of war, its administration, weaponry, and strategy all have to be studied to as to make informed decisions about engaging in future wars. It may never be possible to totally abolish war, but lessons should be learned from past wars so that future wars are only entered into rarely, and with the utmost thought and preparation, and an emphasis on minimizing damages, so that an entire generation does not so casually stumble into another great war with tens of millions of casualties.


[1] MacMillan, Margaret, (The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. New York: Random House, 2013), xxix.

[2] Ibid.

[3] MacMillan, 59.

[4] MacMillan, 149.

[5] Gat, Azar, (War in Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1-10.

[6] Gat, 11-56.

[7] MacMillan, 292.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] MacMillan, 288.

[11] MacMillan, 293.

[12] MacMillan, 288.

[13] MacMillan, 290.

[14] MacMillan, 291.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] MacMillan, 368.

[18] MacMillan, 290.

[19] MacMillan, 408.

[20] MacMillan, 378-403 and 439-465.

[21] MacMillan, 466-500.

[22] MacMillan, 197.

[23] MacMillan, 175.

[24] MacMillan, 146.

[25] MacMillan, 457.

[26] MacMillan, 200.

[27] MacMillan, 205.

[28] MacMillan, 7.

[29] MacMillan, 329.

[30] MacMillan, 326.

[31] Ibid.

[32] MacMillan, 329.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] MacMillan, 372-375.

[36] MacMillan, 328.

[37] Ibid.

[38] MacMillan, 326.

[39] MacMillan, 327.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] MacMillan, 319.

[45] MacMillan, 157-158.

[46] MacMillan, 320.

[47] Ibid.

[48] MacMillan, 645.


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Written by Akhipill

February 26, 2014 at 10:39 PM

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Future of Nuclear Power in India

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Nuclear power in India has significant potential for growth and for providing an increasingly large percentage of India’s energy needs. However, due to a combination of various factors including security concerns, safety issues (especially in conjunction with the potential for natural disasters such as cyclones and earthquakes), and domestic governmental and legal environments, India will probably not achieve its full nuclear energy potential over the course of the next two decades although there will be some growth in nuclear energy.

India has significant nuclear know-how due to its nuclear weapons program. Nuclear power in India has a potentially strong future due to the enormous energy needs of India as well as its neighboring countries, some of which it can export power to. In 2012, only 3.6% of India’s energy needs were provided by nuclear power, meaning there is potential for enormous growth, especially since a significant portion of its populations is not yet electrified.[1]While India has significant deposits of coal and there is hydropower potential in its Himalayan states, as well as in Nepal and Bhutan, geographical and demographic factors mean that for large parts of the region, nuclear energy has the potential to provide much of the energy needs of the population.[2]

India is likely to experience a growth in nuclear power over the next couple of decades, as a result of increasing energy demand as India continues to develop and industrialize. At the present, India has 20 nuclear power plants in operation, 7 under construction, 18 planned, 39 proposed, and 5 research reactors.[3] As such, it is currently one of the emerging centers of nuclear energy in the world, with plants currently in operation than China (17).[4] India also has the potential to be fairly self-sufficient in producing its own nuclear energy, without the need to import material or equipment because of its uranium and thorium reserves, the latter of which are vast.[5]

One major factor that could fuel India’s nuclear power growth is its integration into the global nuclear system. India has long been outside the global nuclear order as a result of not signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). “It could not become a nuclear-weapon state under the treaty, which limited admission to the nuclear club to the five states that tested before 1967. By testing after that date and by continuing to pursue nuclear weapons rather than accede to the NPT, India has long been a nuclear outlier. As such, it has been kept outside of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and until recently barred from international nuclear commerce.”[6] India’s integration into the international nuclear system began with the US-India nuclear pact of 2006, under which India separated its military and civilian nuclear programs, opening up the way for foreign investment in India’s civilian nuclear sector.[7] In 2008, the NSG issued a waiver to India, which enabled India to be supplied by member countries of the NSG.[8] Since then, India has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Canada, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Namibia.[9] Indian companies since then have also said that they would invest over US $50 billion in expanding their manufacturing sector, incorporating new technologies and materials.[10]

These highlight the fact that India now has multiple steady sources of both nuclear material such as uranium and nuclear technology from developed countries. Even countries that had been previously averse to normalizing nuclear relations with India, such as Japan and Australia, have been exploring deals with India.[11] Of particular note is the deepening of relations between Japan and India, which has come about due to the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies aimed at strengthening ties with other Asian nations in order to balance China. Japan, which has experience with dealing with safety issues due to a history of earthquakes and tsunamis and the Fukushima incident, can be especially invaluable in helping India address its nuclear security concerns.[12]

India has major security incentives to nuclearize its energy. Among major countries, it is especially dependent on energy imports to a greater extent than China, Russia, or the United States primarily because of its small hydrocarbon reserves.[13] India must import 90% of its oil.[14] In order to offset its dependence on foreign energy, the Indian government has pursued numerous diversification strategies such as bidding for oil concessions throughout the world, especially in Central Asia and Africa.[15] However, in many of these cases, India has been outbid by Chinese companies and is still, in any case, largely dependent on the shipment of hydrocarbons to India, and as such is vulnerable to security issues in the Indian Ocean such as piracy or to the fluctuation of oil and gas prices. In all these scenarios, increasing the percentage of its energy that is derived from domestic nuclear power plants seems wise.

However, nuclear power in India faces many problems that may impact its ability to build further plants and attract foreign investment. Despite the benefits that nuclear energy would bring India, a lack of coordination and strategic foresight in India’s government and among its political parties threaten to retard its nuclear growth. Like many other industries and projects in India, land acquisition is difficult and lack of safety measures a potential hazard. Furthermore, acquiring land and safety issues often lead to protests, even when proper procedures are followed. In a populist democracy such as India filled with opportunist politicians and a slow bureaucracy, protests can often cripple projects, seriously hurting India’s ability to develop infrastructure at a steady pace. For example, India’s largest automobile producer, Tata Motors, was forced to abandon its production of the Nano mini car in the Indian state of West Bengal in 2008 due to protests and attacks by villagers over the acquisition of land for its factory.[16] A series of haphazard and contradictory actions on the part of the government and the judiciary did not provide a predictable legal environment for the operation of the factor. Furthermore, protestors were agitated by the then opposition political party in West Bengal. Situations like this are common throughout India and can impact the construction of nuclear power plants in India.

A model for this sort of behavior is already being provided by the ongoing protests over the last two years over a nuclear power plant in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu. The Kudankulam plant has come under major criticism and protests by locals due to its proximity to the sea, as they fear a repeat of the Fukushima disaster and are upset by the failure of the government to compensate them for land near the reactor.[17] India’s already vibrant environmental activists have been instrumental in keeping up strong protests and discussing safety issues in the public domain.[18] However, as with many other populist movements in India, the government failed to act in a predictable and consistent way, with the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha first backing the protestors and then the nuclear power plant whenever each option seemed more favorable for attaining votes.[19]

Some of the safety concerns of activists over India’s nuclear energy are valid given the state of India’s nuclear technology. This may also be an obstacle that needs to be surmounted for India’s nuclear energy to reach its full potential. Because of the origin of India’s nuclear program- as a military program- the main focus was on the eventual creation of nuclear weapons and not security in the event of an earthquake or tsunami hitting a nuclear plant. Due to its exclusion from the international nuclear community, India’s safety technology is not as advanced as other natural-disaster prone countries, such as Japan.[20] Countries with much greater nuclear expertise than India have still had nuclear disasters, such as the United States, Soviet Union, and Japan, and given the clumsiness of other Indian rescue and evacuation operations in recent history such as during floods this summer in Uttarakhand, there is a genuine possibility that a nuclear disaster in India would be mismanaged. This knowledge might give protesters, both in the present and future more fuel for their actions as well as be a factor in the government’s somewhat slow approach to dealing with protests and fast-tracking new plants as it might be waiting for appropriate contracts from companies from the developed world with good safety records, such as France.

The Kudankulam plant also reflects another weakness of India’s legal protections for nuclear power, namely that of its nuclear liability law. Due to this law, India has recently failed to go through with a deal with Russia to set up two new power plants at Kudankulam.[21] This law “gives Indian nuclear plant operators the right to seek compensation from suppliers for a period of five years, and not for the entire lifetime of a nuclear reactor.”[22] However, this and other concerns have led to many global companies raising serious concerns over the liability laws, which they claim are too strict and not in compliance with international norms.[23] Due to internal policies in India, it is highly unlikely that the law will be amended anytime soon. As a result, it has played a role in preventing many American companies from doing business in India’s nuclear industry.[24] This is highly ironic given the enormous effort made on the part of the United States to bypass international norms and push for India’s acceptance into the nuclear club. Furthermore, Prime Minister Singh risked his political career in 2005 to push through the nuclear agreement with the United States in India’s parliament. Despite all this, India’s political situation makes it almost impossible for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to push through changes that would make foreign companies more comfortable investing in India’s nuclear sector. As a result, India has as yet failed to reap the full benefit of its nuclear cooperation with the United States and other countries.

Although India has enormous potential for becoming a major nuclear energy power, it is unlikely this potential will be met in the next two decades. India’s political and legal systems are largely gridlocked and have been so for the past few years. Even if this gridlock is overcome at the national level after the next elections in 2014, it is unlikely that India’s culture of political opportunism and populist agitation will simply recede in the next decade or so. As such, any further projects will probably proceed slowly through the bureaucracy and political system, current projects will be delayed, and planned projects pushed back, as most infrastructure and laws are in India due to an abundance of vested interests and governments too fragile or unwilling to risk their necks in order to push through changes.

India’s governments have a history, especially in recent times as coalition governments have become more common, in failing to pursue policies deemed beneficial, such as implementing new FDI schemes, the lack of which has driven away investment by Walmart and other large companies that could modernize India’s infrastructure. Even though India’s government has declared the expansion of the Kudankulam power plant to be “necessary for the welfare and economic growth of India,” it has failed to take steps to facilitate this, despite it being its prerogative to do so.[25] Furthermore, many writers assert that India’s leaders are not actually planning to utilize their nuclear power potential due to its effort and controversy and see its civilian nuclear program primarily as a tool to improve relations with the United States; and there are cheaper and more effective ways of providing more energy for India, such as importing gas from Iran.[26] Such a solution would appeal to political classes in a democracy where short term planning is preferred and more feasible than more strategic, long term planning which is difficult in a political system that is somewhat chaotic.

The results of such policies is that India will most likely continue to play it safe and avoid controversy and derive the majority of its energy from coal,  oil, and gas, though the share of nuclear energy will gradually expand. However, despite the efforts made on the part of India and by other countries, India will probably not experience a giant boom in nuclear power plant construction and foreign companies won’t be doing exceptionally brisk business in India as was expected in the late 2000s. A leading nuclear authority, Arjun Makhijani has asserted that in the near term, India’s nuclear sector will contribute at most 10-12% of its energy needs.[27] However, it is vital enough both as a source of national pride and energy that it is unlikely that nuclear power in India will go the way of Germany and be phased out.

This is unfortunate, as India has both the potential and need to derive a greater percentage of its energy from nuclear power. From India’s point of view, it is absolutely necessary that it cleans up and rationalizes its confusing and indecisive political system in order to provide a more stable environment for investors. Furthermore, politicians ought to be more responsible and consistent in their public positions on various issues including nuclear power and infrastructure. For example, both of India’s main parties, the BJP and Congress tend to oppose the same policies they supported when in power, making it hard for them to agree to pass important legislation in a coalition driven parliament.  It will take enormous political courage on the part of India’s politicians to push through reforms and to not change tack after every protest. From the point of view of other countries and foreign corporations interested in doing business with India, it is important that they continue lobbying or advising the Indian government to provide more confidence for investors as well as a more stable and predictable environment. Not only will this assuage concerns but it will help India acquire the technology and efficiency needed to address domestic concerns about safety.


[1] “Nuclear Share Figures, 2002-2012.” World Nuclear Association. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Facts-and-Figures/Nuclear-generation-by-country/#.UmcM_FCThzV

[2]“IEC 2013: Securing tomorrow’s energy today: Policy and Regulations: Long Term Energy Security.” Deloitte. http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-India/Local%20Assets/Documents/IEC%202013/Long_Term_Energy_Security.pdf 4.

[3] “Asia’s Nuclear Energy Growth.” World Nuclear Association. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Others/Asia-s-Nuclear-Energy-Growth/#.UmcOVFCThzU

[4] Ibid.

[5] Deloitte, 5.

[6] Painter, Daniel. “The Nuclear Suppliers Group at the Crossroads.” The Diplomat. 10 June 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://thediplomat.com/2013/06/10/the-nuclear-suppliers-group-at-the-crossroads/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Nuclear Power in India.” World Nuclear Association. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-G-N/India/#.UmcYKlCThzV

[11] Fensom, Anthony. “Atomic Allies?: India and Australia Explore Uranium Sales.” The Diplomat. 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.http://thediplomat.com/pacific-money/2012/11/01/atomic-allies-india-and-australia-explore-uranium-sales/

[12] Mian, Zia, A.H. Nayyar and M.V. Ramana. “South Asia’s misplaced confidence in nuclear technology.” Global Research. 21 April 2011. Web.  21. Oct. 2013. http://www.globalresearch.ca/south-asia-s-misplaced-confidence-in-nuclear-technology/24431

[13] Deloitte, 4.

[14] Kugelman, Michael (editor). “Foreign Addiction: Assessing India’s Energy Security Strategy.” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. October 2008. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/FINALASIA_SpecialReport_142_rpt2.pdf, 1.

[15] Kugelman, 3.

[16] “Ruled by Lakshmi.” The Economist. December 11, 2008. http://www.economist.com/node/12749719

[17] Harikrishnan, K.S. “Protest Never Ends at Indian Nuclear Plant.” Asia Times Online. 5 Feb. 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/OB05Df01.html

[18] Deloitte, 21.

[19] “The Kudankulam Conundrum.” The Economist. September 15, 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/21562972

[20] Mian, Zia et al. “South Asia’s misplaced confidence in nuclear technology.”

[21] “India, Russia to Sign 5 Agreements; Kudankulam Pact Unlikely.” The Times Of India. 20 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-10-20/india/43220396_1_liability-law-rosatom-kudankulam-nuclear-power-project

[22] Sharma, Rajeev. “India’s Nuclear Logjam.” The Diplomat. 21 Nov. 2011. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://thediplomat.com/indian-decade/2011/11/21/indias-nuclear-logjam/

[23] Ibid.

[24]”After US, India’s Nuclear Liability Law Trips Russia Kudankulam Deal.” Firstpost. 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. http://www.firstpost.com/world/after-us-indias-nuclear-liability-law-trips-kudankulam-deal-with-russia-1183791.html

[25] “Kudankulam: India Nuclear Plant Begins Operating.” BBC News. BBC, 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 23 Oct. 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-24619985

[26] Kugelman et al., 4.

[27] Ibid.


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October 13, 2013 at 10:31 PM

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Islamic Economics: Strengths and Weaknesses

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The conceptualization of Islamic Economics by Dr. Khurshid Ahmad of Pakistan is an innovative and interesting departure from contemporary, standard Western economics. This is primarily because his conceptualization is based on different premises than contemporary Western economic thought. Overall, the strengths of his conceptualization of economics outweigh the weaknesses if interpreted in a holistic perspective and on balance it is definitely worth a shot.

According to Dr. Ahmad, developmental and economic policies in developing world and in Western economic theory have been largely value neutral; in the case of Muslim countries, this means they have been neutral towards Islam.[1] Development in this sense has been geared towards goals such as increased growth, industrialization, and productivity which are not particularly related to the economic and moral growth of individuals or society. In fact, aiming for increased development in this sense entirely ignores the teleological purpose of Islam. Thus, according to Dr. Ahmad, the purpose of Islamic economics is to replace the value neutrality of contemporary economics with the value fulfillment goals of Islam.[2]

This line of thinking is similar to the understanding of other Islamic thinkers such as al-Faruqi in viewing Islamic society through the lens of Tawhid, or oneness, which holds that Islam is a comprehensive system, holistic and applicable in all areas of life.[3] Since Islam deals with the problems of man, it cannot separate economic problems from other problems. This is, however, exactly what has happened. The Pakistani thinker Abu Mawdudi noted that

 the economic problem of man which was, indeed, part of the larger problem of human life, has been separated from the whole and looked at as if were an independent problem by itself. And gradually this attitude has taken such a firm root that the economic problem has come to be regarded as the sole problem of life.[4]

Viewed through this lens, in a psychological sense, Dr. Ahmad’s conceptualization of economics is strong. It should be noted here that other than the obvious concerns about crime and national security, the primary concerns of most governments and societies today are economic. In developing countries, the goal is to achieve greater growth and development while in developed countries; economic concerns of growth or distribution of wealth are of extreme importance. Therefore, public discourse and policy is largely taken up by issues of an economic nature. Growth is pursued without a thought given to other aspects of life, despite the costs of growth.[5] If the individual sees a public square increasingly devoid of non-economic value, public and social life could become increasingly transaction oriented and mechanistic, contrary to the seemingly more social nature of people or harmful to the quality of public discourse which would increasingly be less oriented towards the pursuit of existential issues. An economy which revolves primarily around growth can produce high levels of stress among its individuals. Individuals would not have as much time to pursue cultural and interpersonal activities and a society that is value neutral will often find itself facing the question of what its goal and purpose is.

Thus, it is advantageous to have an economy that is rooted in values and is tied to goals, though to the rational economist, these may seem arbitrary. However, as pointed out by Mawdudi, solving economic problems might not solve other problems one faces in life, such as philosophical or social problems, and in fact, some economic solutions may lead to other problems for people. Therefore, if a system does attempt to solve economic problems in a way that it solves other problems as well in the process, this can only be beneficial in a social and psychological sense. If the purpose of human existence is for the individual to be fulfilled and happy, then is follows that material comfort is simply not enough for this to come about.

In addition to this very important strength of Dr. Ahmad’s conceptualization of Islamic economics, there are numerous other strengths to his views. Related to the psychological strengths, Dr. Ahmad’s conceptualization contains an important strength in terms of methodology. He rightly points out that the methodology of the natural sciences has increasingly been applied to the social sciences over the past two centuries for a variety of reasons despite the fact that human beings have “their own will, volition, choice, motivation, perception, options” and as such, studying human behavior is different than studying physics.[6] Therefore, it is important to keep in mind the normative aspects of social science. Modern social sciences such as economics unfortunately, for the most part, do not take a holistic or normative approach towards their field of study and even if they do, they make assumptions about human nature such as self-interest and rational choice that may not be applicable in a wide variety of cultural and social settings. Dr. Ahmad’s approach is thus more grounded in daily reality than the field of contemporary economics which is increasingly dominated by abstract mathematical modeling with very little regard to the actual humans themselves. By wedding together the fact that people in Islamic societies will largely have normative viewpoints derived from Islam with an economic system based on Islam, Dr. Ahmad’s conceptualization welds together an economic system with its social base (normative assumptions) which, from a methodological point of view, makes a lot of sense since it provides a better model of human behavior than a model that would operate on assumptions divorced from social reality.

Another strong point of Dr. Ahmad’s conceptualization of Islamic economics, related to the previous ones, is the idea of man as the deputy (khalifah) of God on earth; the practical benefits of this concept are that it moves the focus of the economic system more closely towards individuals rather than production and growth and that it emphasizes the societal aspects of the economic system.[7] By placing man in such an exalted position, it decreases the role of ideas of socioeconomic forces in determining the economic and social future of societies. While these forces may well be real, they need not be deterministic or self-fulfilling prophecies.[8] In other words, if enough people adopt the attitude that certain economic values are to be desired, then it is unlikely such a society will easily adopt an alternative or alien system. Furthermore, the concept of a khalifah establishes the principle that individuals, as deputies of God, have obligations to each other and to property in general. Such a system could be more environmentally conscious and conducive to social cooperation and interrelationships with each other.[9] As people, by nature tend to be social animals, an economic system that takes into account mutual obligations might come more “naturally” to people than one envisioning people as atomized individuals competing for scarce resources.

Whether or not this conceptualization of Islamic economics is strong or weak is largely contingent on what one believes the ends of human life are. If the ends are normative and value oriented, as Dr. Ahmad, Mawdudi, Faruqi and others believe, and then it is likely that this conceptualization of economics will seem attractive. On the other hand, if one believes that life or economics are value neutral propositions, then this conceptualization of economics may not be as attractive. Firstly, some may simply not wish to accept the premises on which it is based- the normative system of Islam or at least the non-theological and ethical aspects of Islam, those dealing with economics and the like. However, the main weaknesses of a system of Islamic economics derive from the fact that a modern system of Islamic economics has not yet been fully implemented and it is as yet unknown whether such a system would work, from an economic perspective.

An economic system not based around the concepts of growth and production might not be able to produce enough wealth to adequately provide for the material needs of a population. On the basis of numerous cases, a certain amount of industry and services are necessary for a modern economy, which necessities a move away from traditional modes of production. It is unclear how Dr. Ahmad’s theory of Islamic economics can be reconciled with the assembly line type production or institutions such as modern finance. Many of the wealth creating policies of governments and banks involve economic processes that utilize lending and debt; it is hard to imagine a modern economy without some transactions that are in violation of Islamic principles. Furthermore, it should be noted that the Western growth and developmental model has been successfully implemented by non-Western countries such as Japan which has managed to retain much of its native culture and traditions, so it is not entirely impossible for Muslim countries to pursue a standard developmental model while retaining their cultures, though this might require a reinterpretation of Tawhid.

Another disadvantage of Dr. Ahmad’s conceptualization of economics is that certain aspects of Islamic economics such as the dependence of mutual cooperation are from a legal standpoint, hard to enforce and not inspiring of confidence. Stable and predictable property rights is held to be one of the prerequisites of a successful economy on the basis of the idea that people will invest in property they knew is theirs. This idea, however, is somewhat contradicted by Dr. Ahmad’s concept of Islamic ownership which holds ownership to be an act of stewardship, which if misused, can be taken away.[10] The potential for this idea to be improperly applied and for the idea of misuse to be misinterpreted for the advantage of certain people is a weakness of this conceptualization of ownership.

A final disadvantage in the Islamic approach to economics is that it could run the risk of becoming a set of narrow rules and regulations based on traditional jurisprudence and interpreted by ulama whose education and experience does not extend beyond traditional studies. This is contrary to the expressed wishes of Dr. Ahmad and other Islamic thinkers such as Faruqi that Islamic economics ought to be a framework and value-pattern for individuals and professionals (and policy-makers) to formulate and understand development rather than a specific list of rules derived from particular verses of the Qur’an.[11]


[1] Gauhar, Altaf, (The Challenge of Islam. Chapter 18: Islam and the Challenge of Economic Development by Khurshid Ahmad. London: Islamic Council of Europe, 1978), 342.

[2] Gauhar, 341.

[3] Esposito, John L., and John O. Voll, (Makers of Contemporary Islam. Chapter 2: Khurshid Ahmad: Muslim Activist Economist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 50.

[4] Esposito and Voll, 49.

[5] Gauhar, 343.

[6] Abu Rabi’, Ibrahim M, (Islamic Resurgence: Challenges, Directions, and Future Perspectives, A Round Table with Khurshid Ahmad. Tampa: World and Islam Studies Enterprise, 1994), 77.

[7] Gauhar, 346.

[8] Gauhar, 344.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Esposito and Voll, 51.

[11] Esposito and Voll, 49.


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Written by Akhipill

September 14, 2013 at 10:19 PM

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The Roots of South Asian Instability

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Stability, according to Kenneth N. Waltz is defined as the durability of a system and its ability to peacefully adjust to changing circumstances.[1] Thus, the stability of a country, a region, and relations between states is achieved when, in any of these systems, there is an element of predictability and a high probability of peaceful, legal recourse for the resolution of any issues should the need to solve a dispute arise. Instability, then, is the converse of this description: it is characterized by unpredictability, an increase in violence and the use of force, and the decreased likelihood of order and cooperation.

As per this definition of instability, the region of South Asia is unstable on both the interstate and intrastate levels. There are several causes for this state of affairs in South Asia: interstate conflict is found in the form of continued tensions between India and Pakistan while intrastate conflict persists because Afghanistan and Pakistan both face terrorism and insurgency. These two causes of instability in South Asia are in fact related to each other and closely linked, primarily because the major source of militancy in the region is an insecure Pakistan, which often nurtured militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir in order to counter its rival, India.

The root cause of instability in South Asia is the conflict between Pakistan and India, which itself feeds numerous other types of conflicts in the region. This conflict is rooted in a territorial dispute over the region of Kashmir but has acquired a more general strategic dimension. One aspect of the conflict between India and Pakistan which causes instability is the nuclear weapons competition between both countries. Of course, it should be noted that nuclear weapons do not necessarily lead to instability; it is possible that rival states with nuclear weapons will continue to carry on normal relations.[2] This is the case with India and China, which, despite nuclear and strategy rivalry, have not been engaged in destabilizing each other and have been increasing their volume of trade over the past decade.[3] However, Pakistan’s nuclear program has been a destabilizing factor in South Asia, as noted by S. Paul Kapur.[4] Kapur noted that Pakistan’s nuclear program has made it more likely to pursue aggressive behavior since nuclear weapons shield it against all-out retaliation.[5] In fact, soon after Pakistan’s first nuclear test in 1998, Pakistani soldiers infiltrated Kargil in Indian Kashmir in 1999 with the intention of using their newly nuclear weapons status to their advantage by restraining India’s response and drawing international attention to the Kashmir issue.[6] Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have also shielded it against Indian retaliation in 2001-2002 in the wake of terrorist attacks against India’s Parliament traced to an extent back to Pakistan as well as during the 2008 Mumbai attacks.[7]

In response to Pakistan’s nuclear program, India has adopted measures that further destabilize South Asia. Pakistan as a state feels deeply insecure because of its comparative disadvantages vis-à-vis India in terms of population, resources, and military might.[8] This insecurity has been exacerbated by Indian strategies such as operation Cold Start which are designed to counter Pakistan’s potential nuclear use by striking swiftly at Pakistan in the case of war.[9] As a result of these fears, Pakistan has turned to alternative strategies to balance the scales between itself and India. Unfortunately, however, these strategies have destabilized both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani concept of strategic depth requires that Pakistan acquire extra strategic depth by having the option of retreating into Afghanistan in the case of a war with India.[10] This requires that any government in Afghanistan be friendly to Pakistan, if not controlled by it. As a result, certain elements of the Pakistani government have been supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has been destabilized since the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979. Certainly, one of the major factors in the continued conflict in Afghanistan has been the support of Pakistan; however, there is no doubt that the conflict in Afghanistan has taken on a life of its own for other reasons. One reason is the continued American presence in the country which galvanizes a segment of the population into supporting the Taliban. However, the main cause for continued violence in Afghanistan is the opportunity for armed groups within Afghanistan to continue to have the ability to perpetuate their violence due the structural weakness of the Afghan state, which does not have a monopoly on violence within its country. When states weaken, power struggles among leaders intensify, regional leaders become independent and run parts of the country as warlords, and ethnic groups assert themselves.[11] Individual groups also feel compelled to provide their own security.[12] In such a scenario, according to Stathis N. Kalyvas, sovereignty either is segmented and fragmented, both of which denote that the central government lacks full control over its territory, as in the case of Afghanistan.[13] There are large pockets of northern Afghanistan where sovereignty is segmented- where several political actors exercise full sovereignty over distinct territorial parts of the state- as ethnic Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek militias essentially control various fiefs.[14] On the other hand, much of the rest of the country including the south and east where the Taliban are most active fall under the category of fragmentary sovereignty, where both the central government and the Taliban partially exercise limited sovereignty over the same part of the state.[15] The result is that neither is able to fully take on the functions of a state in controlling violence or building social institutions, resulting in continuing violence.

The continuing war in Afghanistan has negative security implications for Pakistan as well because the Taliban operate on both sides of the border between the two countries and their respective branches on both sides of the border aid each other. Coupled with the rise of Taliban related militancy, Pakistan has had to deal with the exponential increase in domestic terrorist groups, a problem partially of its own making as Pakistan long nurtured jihadist groups as potential weapons against India.[16] These groups were originally intended to either cause trouble for India in Kashmir or, in the case of the Haqqani Network in the Waziristan area along the Afghan-Pakistan border, to continue to supply and aid the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to guard against Indian influence there.[17] However, according to the noted Pakistan scholar Ahmad Rashid, at the behest of the United States after its invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan lost control over some militant groups because of it conducted counter-terrorism military operations in its tribal areas aimed at disrupting Taliban safe havens.[18] This in turn led to internal militancy against the Pakistani government in Waziristan, which then provided a safe haven for training extremists from other parts of Pakistan, who have now begun fanning over the country and disrupting the country through sectarian attacks and attacks on secular institutions.[19]

As a result, Pakistan’s already corrupt and overstretched state is finding it even more difficult to put resources into economic growth and education, which may reduce the appeal of militancy for segments of its population. Instead, in addition to the disproportionate amount of money it puts into its military, it must divert further resources to fight counterinsurgency, a problem that it shares with Afghanistan. According to some academic literature, developing countries with large young populations- a youth bulge- could use their large pool of cheap labor to climb on the path towards prosperity if there are ample educational and economic opportunities, as is the case with India and China.[20] On the other hand, failure to invest in human capital combined with a youth bulge can lead to an increase in youth violence.[21]

Thus, as demonstrated, South Asia’s security problems stem both from interstate factors and intrastate factors. However, of the two, interstate security issues are the key to understanding the root causes of instability and conflict in the region. This may seem surprising at first, given the immense internal security problems faced by Pakistan and Afghanistan. Furthermore, when two countries become strategic rivals, such as China and India, or China and the United States, the nature of their interaction is often along the lines of competition rather than the sponsoring of deadly, destabilizing internal conflict as is the case in South Asia. By this logic, Indo-Pakistani rivalry ought to be continuous hedging and strategic countermoves against each other, while the insurgencies have the potential to destroy Afghanistan and Pakistan. International competition is the potential for conflict in many circumstances. However, because the internal and international security issues of South Asia are so closely linked, the internal issues cannot be solved unless international issues are solved. Pakistan will continue to sponsor militant groups as long as its relations with India remain unresolved and as long it continues to disrespect Afghan sovereignty.

The chief policy recommendation for solving security issues in South Asia would involve turning what is essentially an international terrorist and insurgency issue spread across India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan into three distinct local conflicts to be dealt with internally by all three countries. This can be accomplished only by removing the international element of the problem so that each country can deal with internal issues without worrying about interference or reaction on the part of the other country. Thus in India’s case, this would involve dealing with the insurgency in Kashmir without Pakistani influence, which would make its efforts easier and reduce the possibility of international or nuclear war. Pakistan would have to stop using militants to further destabilize its neighbors India and Afghanistan, but in doing so, it also reduces the fuel on the fire of militancy which has come back to haunt Pakistan itself. Instead of focusing on its neighbors, Pakistan could dedicate its resources on providing security, education, and economic opportunities in its own country.

Therefore, in order to reduce the international factors that feed Indo-Pakistani tensions, the best solution would be to encourage the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Other countries such as the United States can encourage this process, but ultimately for there to be true peace between India and Pakistan, both countries and their elites must fully accept a permanent resolution through the mutual acceptance of an international border satisfactory to both sides. Both sides must accept that as facts on the ground stand, neither will be able to claim all of Kashmir; rather both sides ought to accept making the de facto border the de jure border. Hopefully this will assuage Pakistan’s immediate security concerns and turn the Indo-Pakistani rivalry into something more benign, such as strategic competition without a militant dimension that undermines the security of both countries. Reducing conflict in Afghanistan too will involve Pakistan ceasing its support of militant groups such as the Taliban. Pakistan is less likely to do so though, if it does not feel as threatened by India. If the Taliban do not have the guaranteed support of Pakistan, they may move more strongly in the direction of negotiation. It will be a long time until violence is monopolized by the Afghan government; however with a decrease in violence, other possibilities such as political favoritism, containment, and divide and rule can be used to reduce violence there. [22] To conclude: more stability will come about through better international relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and India.


[1] Nuno P. Monteiro, “Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity is not Peaceful,” International Security Vol.36 No. 3 (Winter 2011-2012): 9.

[2] Peter R. Lavoy, “The Strategic Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation,” Security Studies Vol.4 No.4 (Summer 1995): 697.

[3] Thomas J. Christensen, “Fostering Stability or Creating a Monster,” International Security  Vol. 31 No. 1 (Summer 2006): 90.

[4] Kapur, Paul S., “Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia,” International Security Vol.33 No.2(Fall 2008): 72.

[5] Kapur, 72.

[6] Kapur, 72.

[7] Kapur, 83.

[8] Kapur, 90.

[9] Kapur, 89.

[10] Kapur, 90.

[11] Michael E. Brown, “The Causes of Internal Conflict,” from Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict: A Revised Edition (September 2001): 6.

[12] Brown, 6.

[13] Stathis N. Kalyvas, “The Logic of Violence in Civil War,” Cambridge Press, New York (2006): 88, 89.

[14] Kalyvas, 89.

[15] Kalyvas, 89.

[16] Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Washington’s Phantom War,” Foreign Affairs Vol.90 No.4 (July/August 2011): 15.

[17] Bergen, 15.

[18] Ahmad Rashid, “Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan,” Viking, New York (2012): 48-51.

[19] Rashid, 48-51.

[20] Jack A. Goldstone, “The New Population Bomb,” Foreign Affairs Vol.89 No.1 (January/February 2010): 34.

[21] Henrik Urdal, “A Clash of Generations? Youth Bulges and Political Violence,” International Studies Quarterly 50 (2006): 608.

[22] Paul Stainland, “The Future of Violence in Afghanistan,” The National Interest (July 18, 2012): 1.


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May 5, 2013 at 10:07 PM

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China, India, and Iran: Goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan

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The purpose of this essay is to analyze the geopolitical strategies and goals of China, India, and Iran in the region that contains Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The focus of this essay is on the geopolitics of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and the strategies those countries and their neighbors, China and India, are pursuing in achieving their geopolitical and strategic goals in that region. This essay will focus on the geopolitical strategies of Iran, India, and China especially in regards to infrastructure. All the countries considered in this paper- Iran, India, and China- are pursuing strategic geopolitical goals in this region mainly for the following reasons: 1) to improve their own military and strategic position vis-à-vis their rivals, 2) to improve their economic position, and 3) to stabilize or destabilize the region depending on their needs. As a result, this paper will discuss military strategy, infrastructure, and trade in order to elaborate on what these countries are doing in pursuit of their geopolitical goals and why they believe such measures are necessary.


In the modern world, technology and transportation have made geopolitics seem antiquated, or at least forgotten.[1] However, technology and frontiers cannot erase the geographical truths that countries face when pursuing policies. The reality is that pipelines, roads, and most importantly at all, the consciousness of various nations and peoples all depend on the land and terrain. As the famous strategist and geography Nicholas J. Spykman pointed out, “geography is the most fundamental factor in the foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent. Ministers come and go, even dictators die, but mountain ranges stand unperturbed.”[2] The foreign policy goals of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and modern Russia are all surprisingly similar, as these states- no matter their ideologies- all had to deal with the same geopolitical choices.

Moving towards our region of focus, we find that geography also plays a large impact on the political and foreign policy calculations of the actors involved. For example, Afghanistan has always been important for whoever historically ruled any empire in northern India, which is today divided between the modern states of Pakistan and India. This is one of the reasons that both countries are interested in it today. Most invasions of the Indian subcontinent have come through Afghanistan, and into the Khyber Pass of the Hindu Kush mountains which leads to the plains of Punjab. This was a fact known to the Mughals who consistently fought with the Safavid Persians to control this border region and numerous native military leaders; Ranjit Singh, the Maharaja of Punjab expanded his empire to the Khyber Pass with the explicit goal of securing this passageway into India. Policy-makers in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India know that what was called the Northwest-Frontier was “historically no frontier at all” but the heart of a geographical and cultural continuity that persisted on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.[3] As such, India and Pakistan’s interests are both directed at each other, though they also both seek transportation and trade links. Iran and Persian civilization historically included much of Afghanistan as well and political and economic links remain. China too seeks to pursue its goals which include political stability at home, economic growth, and international clout, all of which are interrelated, in the region. China’s goals are primarily to secure energy and transportation routes, prevent any unrest in its own western Xinjiang region, and acquire resources.[4]

This introduction on the importance of geopolitics serves to tie the next sections of this paper- focusing on interests of China, India, and Iran- under a common theme: that despite the advent of the modern world, countries still need to pay heed to their geography, especially their immediate geography, in order to secure their frontiers and pursue their interests. This paper will now turn to Iran, India, and China in order to study what those countries are doing to pursue their interests in our region of study.


Iran has mostly been focused on its west, the Middle East, rather than the lands to its east for most of the past few decades. This is rather uncharacteristic of Iran’s traditional foreign policy, which has always also placed a lot of emphasis on the region to its east, Khorasan as well. There are several reasons for this development. First, the existence of the Soviet Union and the persistence of Russian influence in Central Asia meant that Iran was reduced to a secondary power in that region and Afghanistan.[5] Second, the states to the east of Iran were traditionally weak or subservient to Persian influence; however, this changed with the emergence of Pakistan, which is arguably stronger than Iran due to its professional military, nuclear weapons, some industrial base, and large population. However, thirdly, the converse was true to Iran’s west, where no Arab country emerged with a size or population greater than Iran’s. As a result of this, and because of Iran’s post-revolutionary rivalry with Saudi Arabia and war with Iraq, Iran spent much of the 1980s and 1990s focusing on the Middle East.

However, this is changing as Iran has been increasing its links with Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Iran is interesting in pursing the following geopolitical goals: political and economic, although there are other reasons for its involvement in Afghanistan, such as the presence of Afghan refugees in Iran and the drug trade. Iran believes that it is important for it to assert political influence in Afghanistan in order to protect its eastern boundary. From Iran’s point of view, the presence of a friendly or at least neutral government or militant groups in Afghanistan is much more beneficial than a government that is beholden to or hosts troops from the United States, as Iran fears that American soldiers in Afghanistan can be used to attack Iran. Iran also has historically desired to counter Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, as the two states have sometimes had a tense relationship; likewise, Iran seeks to prevent the Taliban- who had abysmal relations with Iran when in power- from controlling Afghanistan.[6] As a result, Iran has supported Tajik and Hazara armed groups- which share linguistic or religious ties with Iran- since the 1980s in order to hedge against Taliban or Pakistani influence.[7] As a result, Iran supported the Tajik dominated Northern Alliance in the 1990s against the Taliban.[8] Iran has been able to use these groups and militias as proxies to pressure the Afghan government today not to implement policies that would adversely affect Iranian interests, such as shutting down trade with Iran, discriminating against Shi’as or diverting water from the Helmand River, which flows through both countries.[9]

This is not to suggest however, that Iran is beyond supporting the Taliban for its own political purposes, despite its support for anti-Taliban groups. In the same manner in which Afghanistan is geographical opportunity for Iran due to its close physical and cultural ties, it is also a liability for the United States, in the sense that the logistics of fighting in alien, mountainous terrain thousands of miles from home is a great difficulty for the United States, one that only becomes worse due to the Taliban. Consequently, Iran has also been supporting the Taliban since the 2003, when it was declared a member of the Axis of Evil by American President George W. Bush. This however, should not be constituted as Iranian support for a Taliban government in Afghanistan. Rather, Iran is using the Taliban for its own purposes against the United States. Peter Tomsen, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, summarized the Iranian strategy in 2006 by arguing that a weakened Afghan state [by the Taliban] lessens the likelihood it can become a U.S. ally against Iran. By maintaining a certain level of instability, he said, “it keeps us tied down. After all, we have air bases in Afghanistan where we could mount attacks on Iran.” Some analysts call it “managed chaos,” a strategy they say is similar to the one Iran employs in Iraq. Others see abetting the Taliban as a means to boost Iran’s leverage at a time when it is under pressure to end its uranium-enrichment program.[10]

Nonetheless, Iran does not wish to see the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan. Iran’s support of the Taliban will only be enough to cause discomfort to the United States and not enough to bring the Taliban back to power.[11] Iran is likely to abandon any assistance to the Taliban in the case of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Iran desires to see the United States leave Afghanistan and a government friendlier to Iran come to power there. To this end, Iran has hedged its bets in all manner of ways, such as establishing closer relations with the Karzai government through the distribution of aid, money, and economic projects, as well as allegedly, bribes.[12]

From the point of view of both politics and economics, western Afghanistan is the most important part of that country for Iranian goals, and is a vital interest in a way that the rest of the country is not. Western Afghanistan, the area around Herat, was part of the Persian Safavid Empire until it was seized by the Afghans in the 18th century, and as a result, Iran considers this area well within its economic and political sphere of influence.[13] Iran has developed significant economic ties to this region of Afghanistan. Due to the weakness of the central government of Afghanistan, it is difficult to enforce national or international laws in this part of the country, and thus, Iranian trade with Afghanistan is one way for Iran to lessen the pressure of international sanctions on it. According to the Afghan Chamber of Commerce, an estimated 2,000 Iranian private firms, many financed by the Iranian government, operate in Afghanistan. Many of these businesses are located in Herat and aided the city’s economic revitalization after the fall of the Taliban. The Iranian government also directly funded the development of Herat’s transportation and energy infrastructure. A planned railroad will link Herat to the northeastern city of Mashhad, facilitating much-needed commerce and providing revenue to the both the Iranian and Afghan governments.[14]

While Iran is able to exercise a role in Afghanistan from a position of some dominance, this is not true of its relationship with Pakistan. Thus, Iran has to thread more carefully in order to achieve its goals in Pakistan. Iran and Pakistan have had many ups and downs in their relationship. Although relations between the two countries was cordial during the Shah’s era, in retrospect it seems inevitable that both countries would also have friction, as both are large Muslim countries seeking to expand their hard-power and soft-power in the same region. Moreover, they had conflicting interests in Afghanistan, as well as their different attitudes towards Saudi Arabia and the United States, with which Pakistan was closer to.[15] As a result, Iran’s ability to influence Pakistan politically is not great.

Nonetheless, Iran and Pakistan have been moving closer together for reasons of mutual economic convenience, which may, in the future, lead to greater political convenience. As in Afghanistan, Iran’s economic ties with Pakistan can be a means by which it reduces the burdens of economic sanctions on its nuclear program. On the other hand, Pakistan’s reasons for starting to draw closer to Iran, at least as off 2013, are more complex and hypothetical. If, for example, Pakistan were to incur further international isolation for whatever reason, be it related to terrorism, domestic stability, or its nuclear program, it would have to draw closer to countries that would not go through with sanctions regimes against it, one of which happens to be its neighbor, Iran. Due to increased criticism of Pakistan, especially in the wake of the capture of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011, Pakistan has calculated that it is better off having fewer enemies and more friends, just in case; in addition to Iran, Pakistan markedly improved ties with India and assented to the greater lifting of trade barriers between the two nations.

Given these parameters, Iran’s chief geopolitical goal in Pakistan is one of economic nature that benefits both countries economically without the worry of either country trying to politically influence one another. This project is the implementation of a natural gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan, a project that both countries signed on March 11, 2013. [16] This pipeline of course has the benefit of alleviating sanctions on Iran, with the added benefit that it could be extended to India, bringing Iran more cash. From Pakistan’s point of view, this pipeline allows it to import energy directly and cheaply in order to assuage its domestic energy crisis and perhaps help power its development towards stability.[17]

Iran’s relations with Pakistan are complicated. While both countries will draw closer to the extent that it will be unlikely that either country will support or aid in any hostilities against each other, it is also unlikely that both countries will become fast friends as their geopolitical goals in Afghanistan are too different, and their foreign relations are often at odds with each other, with Pakistan cultivating close ties with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states while Iran has maintained good relations with India. Although Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has soured in the past two years, it is unlikely that the establishment in Pakistan will allow it to deteriorate to the point where Pakistan finds itself closer to Iran than the United States, though any time Pakistan’s relations with the United States are at a low, it will become closer to Iran, as seen in the last couple of years.


At this point, this paper turns to India’s geopolitical goals in Iran and Afghanistan as Iran is not just a geographical player but also part of the games of other countries. India’s goals in Pakistan mainly involve the resolution of the Kashmir dispute and India does not have any active infrastructure projects in Pakistan. India’s goals in Afghanistan are driven by economic needs and strategic needs vis-à-vis Pakistan. India’s goals in Iran are primarily strategic (militarily) or economic in nature and are mainly driven by its relations with three other countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China.

First of all, India has a strong interest in Afghanistan remaining free of outside influence, primarily Pakistani influence.[18] An Afghanistan under Pakistani influence could embolden Pakistan against India because Pakistan would not have to worry about its western border and it would have the “strategic depth” it so craves. Strategic Depth is a Pakistani strategy that envisions Afghanistan as an extension of Pakistan, a place where Pakistani forces and weapons could retreat to if Pakistan were to suffer a defeat from India.  On the other hand, an Afghanistan that controlled its own destiny would prevent Pakistan from using it. This would suit India. Furthermore, an assertive Afghanistan would undoubtedly put pressure on Pakistan by influencing the ethnic Pashtun in the FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFP). According to an Indian analysis, “once Islamabad is assured of a friendly government in Kabul, it will unleash all the terrorists at its disposal on India. This will only mean more trouble in Jammu and Kashmir, and it will embolden terrorist groups to attack our cities with greater frequency.”[19] Though this might be an exaggeration, there is genuine fear in India that an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban or influenced by Pakistan would lead to more terrorism in India. Likewise, India does not want Afghanistan to become a safe haven for anti-Indian terrorist and militant groups.[20]

India’s interest in Afghanistan is also strategic in nature, and in both an economic and geopolitical sense. Economically, India seeks to use Afghanistan both for trade and as a bridge to the rest of Central Asia and the Middle East. In order to increase its leverage in Afghanistan, prop up the stability of the Karzai government, and benefit its own growth, India has invested heavily in Afghanistan in the last decade. India has provided the most developmental assistance of any country to Afghanistan, estimated at between 1.3 to 2 billion US dollars in 2011.[21] India and Afghanistan have also signed a Preferential Trade Agreement.[22] Moreover, Indian companies have invested heavily in Afghanistan, “particularly in the agriculture, manufacturing, telecommunications, and mining sectors. Notably, in late 2011, no fewer than 14 Indian firms bid on an iron mining contract in Bamyan province that could generate $6 billion in investment.”[23]

India also seeks to use Afghanistan to project itself geopolitically into the region beyond, namely the Middle East and Central Asia. However, the Middle East is also accessible to India via sea, which Central Asia is not. Thus, India’s ability to project itself into Central Asia is particularly dependent on Afghanistan. India seeks to project its influence into Central Asia, both to live up to its aspirations as a great power, and in order to check the influence of other powers, namely China and Pakistan in that region. India currently maintains a military base in Tajikistan, which it uses to supply its projects in Afghanistan and which is supplied via Afghanistan.[24] According to India analyst Harsh V. Pant, India and the world will judge India’s success in Afghanistan and Central Asia as proof that it has become a global power; if India fails to succeed in its own backyard, this will cast doubt on its great power aspirations globally.[25] Thus, success in Afghanistan is essential to India.

However, India has a serious problem in achieving its goals in Afghanistan, due to the difficulty it has in directly accessing it over land. India’s traditional overland land routes ran out of the subcontinent through Afghanistan into the Middle East and Central Asia. However, the creation of Pakistan created a problem for India in the sense that an unsteady relationship with Pakistan largely cut India off of its traditional overland routes. In today’s terms, this makes it difficult for India to directly access energy resources via pipelines or trade using trucks and rail without an open border with Pakistan, something which has not happened yet. In fact, India cannot send goods directly to Afghanistan due to a restriction placed by Pakistan.[26]

As a result, Iran has come to occupy an important place for Indian policy-makers seeking to circumvent this issue by providing an alternative route to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Middle East that bypasses Pakistan.[27]

Iran is important to India both for its energy resources and its transportation links. Iran is an important of Iranian oil and gas; however, this is not as significant as it could be because India does not wish to cross the United States, with whom it has a more important relationship, over the issue of sanctions on Iran.[28] Indeed, India has not fully supported Iran at the United Nations on the nuclear weapons.[29] India and Iran also share an understanding that neither wants Pakistan to have a free hand in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, despite all these other positives and negatives in the Indo-Iranian relationship, India’s main interest in Iran lies in its capability for India to solve its transportation and strategic issues. The most important element of the Indian transportation and infrastructure strategies in Iran and Afghanistan is the Iranian port of Chabahar, close to the Iran-Pakistan border. Iran is happy to host India at Chabahar because like its other projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Chabahar brings Iran cash and a decrease of its international isolation; likewise, Iran also benefits from the trade links India is building between Afghanistan and the port of Chabahar, which are many.

Numerous projects in Afghanistan all lead to Chabahar in Iran: “by constructing a 220-kilometer road between the Afghan cities of Zaranj and Delaram in 2008–2009…the Indian Border Roads Organization (BRO) connected the main Herat-Kandahar highway with existing routes leading to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Similarly, to facilitate Indian companies’ access to Afghanistan’s estimated $1 trillion in minerals and raw materials, Delhi is planning to build a rail link from Hajigak, a mineral-rich area in Bamyan province, through Zaranj, and onward to Chabahar. India is also working with Iran to build a 600-km road from Chabahar to the Iranian city of Zahedan, near the southwestern corner of Afghanistan that would follow a similar route to the rail line.”[30] Thus, Chabahar is extremely important in India’s Afghanistan strategy.


Interestingly enough, there is no major link between southern Afghanistan and the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which is near Chabahar. Consequently, Afghan goods will be able to travel faster via the Indian built infrastructure to Chabahar than to Gwadar, which is, of course, in India’s interests as this will decrease trade links between Afghanistan and Pakistan while increasing them between India and Afghanistan.[31]

In addition to serving India’s geopolitical purposes in Iran and Afghanistan and countering Pakistan, Chabahar port is also a key element in an emerging great game for influence and power in Asia: the rivalry between India and China. During the past decade, India and China’s rivalry has heated up as Asia’s largest powers have both expanded their strategic and economic interests throughout the region, often competing with each other. Chabahar is situated very close to Gwadar, in Pakistan; China has a strong interest in Gwadar, and in 2013, a Chinese company acquired the right to run Gwadar; the Chinese had been previously investing heavily in Gwadar for several years. In fact, the Indian decision to become active at Chabahar was partially influenced by the fact that China was in Gwadar, as India does not wish to be outflanked. Indian strategists fear that Gwadar is part of a Chinese strategy known as the “String of Pearls” strategy, which involves building a string of pearls (naval facilities) across the Indian Ocean in order to use them one day as military bases to protect its sea lanes and counter naval rivals, the chief of which is India.[32]

Indian analysts are especially concerned about Gwadar because it is better developed and funded than Chabahar. Chinese companies are also much more effective at constructing infrastructure. According to former Indian navy Admiral Suresh Mehta, “Gwadar has the potential to move much faster than Chabahar because the Chinese are involved. It will depend on how fast they can double the capacity of the Karakoram Highway [which connects China and Pakistan],” the Indian government official said, pointing to the pace with which China completed a port on Sri Lanka’s southern coast last year which has added to India’s fear of encirclement.[33] Beijing poured more money, $248 million, in Gwadar than India did at Chabahar.[34]  Although Chabahar is better linked to Afghanistan than Gwadar, India could swiftly lose its advantage to China; furthermore oil tankers coming from the Persian Gulf are more easily accommodated at Gwadar rather than Chabahar. More worryingly for New Delhi, the strategic location of Gwadar, 180 km from the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz [through which much of the world’s oil passes], offers China or Pakistan the chance “to take control over the world energy jugular and…[forbid the movement of] Indian tankers.”[35] As a result, the Chinese influence at Gwadar, along with other projects in the Indian Ocean (though Gwadar is the only Chinese project to the west of India, hence India’s fear of being flanked) gives China the access to the Indian Ocean that could allow it to become a major player in what was previously an ocean with only two large naval players- India and the United States.


The discussion on Chinese influence at Gwadar leads this paper to a discussion of Chinese strategic goals in the region. The paper will primarily deal with Chinese geopolitical goals regarding Pakistan, as China does not as yet have serious geopolitical strategies for Afghanistan and Iran. To resume the discussion on Gwadar and Chinese strategy in Pakistan, it is important to note the goals of Chinese strategy. Most importantly, China’s foreign policy is first and foremost driven by its own domestic concerns regarding economic growth and stability, and only secondarily by foreign concerns.[36] As a result, Chinese actions that are often interpreted by other countries to be hostile towards them are also deeply rooted in Chinese domestic concerns. A case in point is China’s String of Pearls strategy and Gwadar. China’s main concern is to secure its sea lines in order to prevent anything from hindering its economic growth; it is only an added benefit that such a strategy also helps it contain potential rivals.

Gwadar is important to China for two reasons, both of which involve bodies of water: straits.[37] The first strait is the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the energy that China depends on passes. China’s strategic purpose in Gwadar is to keep an eye on this strait and to potentially use naval force to prevent its oil imports from being cut off- in other words, to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. The second strait is the Strait of Malacca, the passageway in Southeast Asia through which a large percentage of Chinese energy imports and manufactured exports pass. As this is a bottleneck that could be used to strangle China, it is extremely vital for China strategically to seek alternative routes to lessen the impact of an incident in the Straits of Malacca on its economy. So in theory China need not ship all its oil supplies from the Gulf through the Indian Ocean and then up to Shanghai. Instead the oil tankers would drop off at Gwadar, and from there the supplies would be trucked through Pakistan and into China Thus, the development of Gwadar, close to the energy producing regions of the Middle East and the future possibility of extending the Karakoram Highway all the way to Gwadar is one means by which China can solve its “Malacca Dilemma.”[38]

The topic of Gwadar is closely related to the Karakoram Highway, the road between China and Pakistan. It is the first road across the Himalayas, where previously only narrow paths existed and most trade and travel routes had to go around the Himalayas. Thus, the Karakoram Highway is one of the feats of modern construction. As the historian John Keay writes about the highway: “it was thought geographically perverse. For if ever there was a frontier decreed by nature it was the Himalaya chain. This, after all, was India’s Great Wall; behind it the peoples of the subcontinent had traditionally sheltered from the whirlwinds of migration and conquest….”[39] The highway was built in the mid-1970s when both Mao Zedong and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto were in power in their respective countries; at a height of over 5000 meters (16,000 feet), it is the world’s highest highway and cost thousands of lives.[40] That the Chinese would instigate such a feat is clearly a demonstration of the long-term Chinese desire to have a dependable land route to the western Indian Ocean and the Middle East.  The Karakoram Highway is truly a geographical game-changer because it links East Asia and South Asia in a way that they have never been linked before. While it is linked to the Pakistani road network, it has yet to be linked directly to Gwadar. However, at the present moment, there are plans to do so and widen the highway from its present two-lanes to facilitate the movement of trucks and tankers.[41]

Karakoram Highway 2

Beyond Gwadar and the Karakoram Highway, China and Pakistan have traditionally have had very good relations, being described by former Chinese President Hu Jintao as “higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the Indian Ocean, and sweeter than honey.”[42] The genesis of this strong relationship was forged by both countries after the 1962 Sino-Indian War as both countries realized that they had a mutual interest in countering India.  In addition to serving its geopolitical goals, China’s relations with Pakistan are mainly strategic; however, overall, China’s relations and geostrategic goals in Pakistan are narrowly focused on security related issues and China does not consider Pakistan to be a major economic partner.[43] China’s interest in Pakistan is to mainly focus on using Pakistan to balance India. As the Pakistan scholar Steven Cohen puts it, China’s goal is “to pursue a classic balance of power strategy, using Pakistan to confront India with the possibility of a two-front war.”[44] The idea, however, is merely to keep the pressure on India, which China sees as a threat but not as an existential threat, and thus not one that needs to be dealt with too strongly. In the meantime, however, China and India have continued to develop economic relations and trade between the two countries has increased, making it less beneficial for both countries to go to war with each other. Thus, while China seeks to use Pakistan as a safeguard against India growing too comfortable in exerting its power in the region, it is not interested in any further action.

Thus, there seems to be a gap between the Chinese and Pakistani perception of where their relationship should go. Despite the fact that China considers Pakistan to be geopolitically convenient and a remarkably loyal ally, China is not as enthusiastic about its relationship with Pakistan as Pakistan is with China because Pakistan is merely one interest among many for a large power such as China, which has other pressing interests in East, Southeast, and Central Asia. On the other hand, Pakistan often considers its relationship with China to be its most important relationship and critical for its survival. This is demonstrated by Pakistan’s almost immediate offer to the Chinese that they establish a naval base after the events of Abbottabad in 2011.[45] This offer however was immediately rejected by China so as to not unduly alienate the United States or India.[46]

Beijing prefers to act cautiously and keeps in mind the longue durée when it comes to grand strategy. It also has a tendency to not act explicitly unless own territorial integrity or vital interests are threatened. As a result, it has repeatedly turned down Pakistani offers for more explicit, military cooperation or a formal alliance, preferring to help Pakistan more indirectly through by selling it weapons.[47] China is interested in working with Pakistan but not propping it up or taking part in military adventurism. In both 1965 and 1971, when Pakistan fought wars with India, China rejected helping Pakistan directly. Pakistan miscalculated that China shared Pakistan’s level of concern over India and would be willing to go to war against India in order to help a friend.[48] Even then, Pakistan persisted in seeking direct Chinese assistance, as during the Kargil War in 1999, in which Pakistani soldiers infiltrated Indian-Kashmir; Chinese leaders remained neutral and rejected requests for support from Pakistani leaders.[49] That Pakistan does not publically air its disappointment and continues to act reverent towards Beijing underscore the importance of China for Pakistan or rather the continued consensus within Pakistan towards attempting to deepen ties with China. However, to conclude from these cases, China’s involvement in Pakistan “will closely reflect Beijing’s own priorities and evolving risk assessments” rather than unequivocal support for any Pakistani priority. [50] Nonetheless, China will not abandon Pakistan as it has already invested so much money and effort into Pakistan in order to secure its own interests; it will just not give primacy to Pakistan’s interests but will keep Pakistan friendly, just in case.

China does have some interests in Afghanistan. Like most countries, China desires a more stable Afghanistan so that economic projects can be implemented and the threat of militancy be reduced. Numerous Chinese companies have major mining contracts in Afghanistan, worth billions of dollars. However, China has not grand geopolitical strategy for Afghanistan. Likewise, with Iran, China maintains some ties, primarily to keep its energy options diversified. However, Chinese companies eager to make profits are wary of doing business in Iran for fear of falling under American sanctions. China takes a cautionary position on Iran’s alleged nuclear program, but ultimately there are no strong geopolitical plans for Iran from the perspective of China. China’s main routes for land pipelines and roads pass through Central Asia or Pakistan.


In a region as prone to change as Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, it is difficult to make future projections as circumstances can rapidly change at any time. However, some possibilities can be noted. The future of the rivalry between China and India at Gwadar and Chabahar is uncertain. While both ports are important to these countries, they are but one element in grand strategies that span across Asia. The possibility exists that these ports may not meet their full potential: in Chabahar, India has not been developing the port as fast as it could because of wariness over American sanctions and a desire to maintain strong relations with the United States. Gwadar, which is in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, contains continued instability and an ethnic Baluch revolt which also slow down its development by the Chinese. Thus, one should not expect to see the rivalry between the two ports develop swiftly over the next decade. However, in the longer term, the rest of the century will continue to feature competition and rivalry between India and China. It is unlikely that either country will give up assets they already have, and in the medium-term future, it is likely that both ports will be the site of intense competition.

Moreover, even if the two ports are not used by the two countries to compete with each other, they are important for their trade-route strategies and are hardly replaceable geographically unless relations between China and India and India and Pakistan improve tremendously, so that the Chinese can reach the Indian Ocean overland by way of India and India can reach Afghanistan overland by way of Pakistan.  This, however, is unlikely. However, hypothetically speaking, if Pakistan and India were to resolve the Kashmir dispute and normalize relations, this would bring stability to the region and solve the geopolitical problem of Afghanistan. Pakistan and India would probably continue to remain rivals in this scenario, but it would be a more competitive and benign rivalry and the Chinese presence would not be so menacing for India. While this scenario is optimal for stability and economic growth, it is unlikely. Pakistan, India, and China have all been known to maintain their positions regarding key issues such as borders for long periods of time and have not shown much inclination to implementing a solution. Furthermore, from Iran’s point of view, as long as it is under sanctions, a grand settlement between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan might not be in its interests as this would reduce the necessity of Iran as a trade hub or ally. Overall, it is likely that current trends will continue: Indo-Pakistani Rivalry, Sino-Indian Rivalry, and Iranian resistance to giving up its nuclear program. Thus the current geopolitical trends, strategies, and developments will gradually continue to intensify.

To conclude, as stated in the introduction and demonstrated throughout this paper, geopolitics are extremely important in determining the strategies of Iran, India, and China in the region that includes Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Geopolitics is responsible for Iran’s strategy in Afghanistan and India’s strategy and infrastructure construction in Afghanistan and Iran. Geopolitics is responsible for China’s strategy of building the Karakoram Highway and involvement at the Pakistani port of Gwadar. It explains the Indo-Pakistani competition in Afghanistan and the Sino-Indian competition in the Indian Ocean and near the Strait of Hormuz as manifested in their activities at Chabahar and Gwadar. Geopolitics continues to be a key determinant and influencer of the policies of countries.


[1] Robert Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography (Random House: New York, 2012), 35.

[2] Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, 29.

[3] Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, xvi.

[4] “Not as Smooth as Silk,” The Economist, March 2, 2013.

[5] Shireen T. Hunter, Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era (Praegar: Santa Barbara, 2010), 3-17.

[6] Alireza Nader and Joya Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” The RAND Corporation (2011), 1.

[7] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 1.

[8] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 1.

[9] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 13.

[10] George Bruno and Lionel Beehner, “Iran and the Future of Afghanistan,” Council on Foreign Relations (March 30, 2009).

[11] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 7.

[12]Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 7.

[13] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan” 3.

[14] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 7-8.

[15] Harsh V. Pant, “Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship,” The Middle East Quarterly Volume XVI, No.2, (Spring 2009).

[16] “Pakistan and Iran: Barren Ground for a New Pipeline,” The Economist. March 16, 2013.

[17] “Pakistan and Iran: Barren Ground for a New Pipeline,” The Economist. March 16, 2013.

[18] David M. Malone, Does the Elephant Dance (Oxford University Press: New York, 2011):


[19] Peter Chalk and Larry Hanauer, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” The RAND Corporation (2012), 11.

[20] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 11.

[21] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 17.

[22] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 16.

[23] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 17.

[24] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 13.

[25] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 13.

[26] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 17.

[27] C. Christine Fair, “India and Iran: New Delhi’s Balancing Act,” The Washington Quarterly (Summer 2007), 145.

[28] Fair, “India and Iran: New Delhi’s Balancing Act,” 149.

[29] Fair, “India and Iran: New Delhi’s Balancing Act,” 153.

[30] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 17.

[31] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 17.

[32] “Churning the Oceans,” The Economist, November 24, 2012.

[33] Sanjeev Miglani, “India and China’s Rivalry and a Tale of Two Ports,” Reuters, March 25, 2013.

[34] Miglani, “India and China’s Rivalry and a Tale of Two Ports,” Reuters.

[35] Miglani, “India and China’s Rivalry and a Tale of Two Ports,” Reuters.

[36] George J. Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham, Chinese and Indian Strategic Behavior (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2012): 45-53.

[37] “Churning the Oceans,” The Economist.

[38] “Churning the Oceans,” The Economist.

[39] John Keay, India: A History (Grove Press: New York, 2000), 113.

[40] Keay, India: A History, 113.

[41] Miglani, “India and China’s Rivalry and a Tale of Two Ports,” Reuters.

[42] Michael Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” Yale Journal of International Affairs (March 2012), 9.

[43] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” 9.

[44] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” 10.

[45] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,”  9.

[46] Harsh V. Pant “The Pakistan Thorn in China-India-U.S. Relations,” The Washington Quarterly, Winter (2012), 84.

[47] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” 11.

[48] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” 11.

[49] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” 14.

[50] Evan A Feigenbaum, “China’s Pakistan Conundrum,” Foreign Affairs, December 4, 2011.


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Written by Akhipill

May 1, 2013 at 10:12 PM

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Iran and Diplomacy

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Iran is an ancient and sublime civilization that is often defined and motivated by its unique historical experiences as well as its cultural and religious values. As a result, Iran’s foreign policy is often influenced by its historical experience and traditions to a much greater extent than many other countries. While some countries, such as China, might be better placed to appreciate this, other countries, such as the United States are less able to understand this and are more likely to approach diplomacy through the lenses of rational calculation and legalism, an approach which does not resonate well with Iranians. Nonetheless, given the importance of Iran and the Middle East in general, it is important to understand the Iranian approach to diplomacy if diplomacy is to be successfully conducted with Iran.  This report will focus on the Iranian style of diplomacy and its goals since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.


Iran’s present political system is a complex mix of republicanism and theocracy with a wide variety of factions. This Islamic Republic of Iran has pursued a wide range of diplomatic goals, but three are most important. First, despite the factionalism and competition within the present regime, there is agreement that its survival is paramount.[1] Even those for Iran calling for change most often do so within the context of a continued Islamic Republic; this was the position of the reformist candidate for President of Iran, Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009. The survival of the Islamic Republic is important to the Iranian elite for the obvious reason that they seek to preserve their privileges and power. However, the elite and much of the population also favor the survival of the Islamic Republic because it is seen as an indigenous regime established by the people of Iran as opposed to by a foreign power. This government is seen as having resisted foreign interference while being sympathetic towards the poor and upholding Iran’s cultural values. Many Iranians oppose the Islamic Republic or certain aspects of it such as the Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the concept of the Supreme Leader, a cleric who holds the highest power in Iran. Nonetheless few would accept any regime that replaced it due to foreign backing, given the history of Iran, as many Iranians are resentful over Russian, British, and American interference in their political process.

Furthermore, many Iranians, even those opposed to the current regime, strongly support many of its foreign policy goals because Iranians from the Shah and his supporters to leftists to the pious all wanted to aggrandize Iran’s influence and glory. Aspects of the Iranian nuclear program that is so contentious today began during the Shah’s rule as did Iranian interference in Iraq and Bahrain. This then is the second goal of Iranian diplomacy: the restoration and pursuit of Iranian pride, power, and prestige after years of weakness, conflict with neighbors, and Western dominance. Although different factions in Iran have different methods  of pursuing prestige, most of them involve the assertion of Iran as an equal, respected, and sovereign power among the nations of the world. Different factions will also define the national interest of Iran in multiple ways, but most will resent being told what their national interest is by a foreign power.[2]

Thirdly and related to the other goals of Iranian diplomacy, Iran wants to be recognized as a major, if not the major regional power in the greater Middle East, a position it feels it ought to hold on the basis of its size, location, history, and cultural ties. This is considered an important goal both for reasons of enhancing Iranian prestige but for security reasons, in order to reduce the influence of hostile and foreign powers in the Middle East. Iran’s military buildup, missile program, and nuclear program are all related to the goal of enhancing Iranian power in the Middle East as well as its overall prestige. Additionally, Iran has used various ideological methods to enhance its role as a major power in the Middle East. The Shah focused primarily on promoting the heritage of the Persian Empire while the Islamic Republic initially a broader approach based on appealing to the religious sentiments of the Islamic world, regardless of sect. Although Iran was widely popular among the common Muslims of many Arab countries for a while, especially after the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, this was primarily because it was seen as resisting American and Israeli goals rather than through the lens of its own regional goals.[3] On the other hand, Arab governments as well as neighbors such as Pakistan and Afghanistan have always been wary of Iran because of it was seen as being supportive of Islamist groups and political parties. Furthermore, with the rise of sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in the Islamic word, and Iran’s perceived hostility towards the Arab Spring, Iran has lost much of its influence among the Arab populations, many of which now negative opinions of Iran. Today, Iran often projects its influence more through the support of Shiite groups throughout the Islamic world.

Underlying Factors

Several factors shape Iran’s diplomatic goals and approach. First is the geography of Iran. Iran is directly situated between the Middle East, South Asia, the Caucasus Mountains, and Central Asia, and encompasses the region between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.[4] Both the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf hold large reserves of oil and gas. Geography has been both a blessing and curse for Iran; a blessing in that it enabled Iranian power, influence, and trade to expand over a wide area and a curse in that it made Iran a coveted and conquered nation many times in its history, by people as varied as the Greeks, Arabs, and Mongols. In modern times, Iran has often been under the influence of Russia, Britain, or the United States. As a result, Iran is highly sensitive to any foreign moves towards it that can be interpreted as interference or attempted dominance. However, conversely, to counter foreign influence and strengthen its own position, Iran itself seeks to enhance its own power and influence in its region and neighboring countries.

History is the second factor that shapes Iran’s goals. Iran’s history is the story of numerous large and glorious empires and Persian civilization and language have had a strong impact on numerous neighboring peoples. Despite periods of weakness, Iranian pride in its history as a strong nation has been an inspiration and aspiration for its future, and most Iranians believe that a civilization as ancient and important as Iran should be treated with equality, respect, and dignity by other countries. In the modern era, Iran spent the greater part of the 20th century dealing with foreign interference in its political system. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Iran was the scene of competition and interference by Russia and Britain, which chose to not colonize Iran but leave it as a buffer state between their empires. Interference increased with the discovery of oil in the early 20th century as both powers demanded concessions. Iran then suffered foreign invasion and political control during both world wars, with Shah Reza Pahlavi being disposed in 1941 for alleged friendliness with Nazi Germany. Iran then suffered occupation of part of its territory by the Soviet Union until 1946.[5]

However, the two events in the second half of the 20th century that played an especially important role in shaping Iran’s attitudes towards its diplomacy were the 1953 coup and the Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent Iranian Hostage Crisis. In 1953, the CIA acting on the recommendations of American and British intelligence helped sponsor the overthrown of Mohammed Mossadegh, the nationalist Prime Minister of Iran who wanted to nationalize British oil concessions. In his place, the United States supported the personal rule of the Shah as an autocrat. This incident increased the cynicism and tainted the way in which Iranians viewed the United States and Western powers in general.[6] In 1979, the monarchy was overthrown as a result of broad street protests. Subsequently, due to the admission of the Shah to the United States, a group of Iranian students seized the American embassy and its staff in Tehran and were eventually supported by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Revolution.  The hostage crisis lasted until 1981, when all the American hostages were freed. Both Iranians and Americans are resentful of the events between 1979 and 1981. Many Iranians believe that the United States prevented the Shah from being brought to justice and that it did not recognize the legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people to choose their own destiny. On the other hand, the Hostage Crisis severely damaged America’s trust of Iran and its vision of Iranians. The severance of diplomatic contact between the two countries in 1980 meant that communication between the two countries would be marginal from that time while mistrust increased. Although the Hostage Crisis shaped American perceptions of Iran and the so-called national character of the Iranian people, it is important to remember that the decision of the Iranian government to support the hostage takers was strongly influenced by internal political needs at the time, especially by the needs of the more radical and Islamic factions within the government to consolidate their power and control the revolution. As such, this does not mean that the behavior of the Islamic Republic in all cases can or should be extrapolated from the Hostage Crisis. Finally, although the events of the Revolution do not influence Iran’s relations with other powers directly, they indirectly shaped Iranian diplomacy towards other countries since Iran’s goals as well as its present international isolation stem from these events.

The third factor that shape’s Iran’s goals is its religion and culture. Iran practices a form of Islam distinct from those of most of its neighbors- Shi’a Islam. As a minority among Muslims, Shiites have often felt a sense of siege, a sentiment that transfers well to modern Iran because of it having few friends and being surrounded mostly by Sunni Islamic countries. Iran also feels besieged by its isolation due to the imposition of sanctions. However, Shi’a Islam promises that those who unjustly treated will triumph in the end, so those who endure will be rewarded. One of the most important aspects of Iran’s religion is a culture permeated with a sense of justice.[7] The establishment of what Iranians believe to be justice is extremely important because this concept directs individuals and the country towards a goal of the rectification of wrongs. Justice for Shi’a Iranians means making things how ought to be, and this highly impacts Iranian diplomacy.

Iranian Diplomatic Characteristics

As a result of its goals, history, and background factors, Iranian diplomacy displays some patterns. Some of these are peculiar to Iran while others are shared by Iran and other countries. The most important elements of Iranian diplomacy are: 1) Iran’s pursuit of Justice, 2) Increased Rigidity when Under Pressure, 3) More Flexible Diplomacy when in a Position of Weakness, 4) Domestic Factors.

One of the strongest and most consistent elements of Iranian diplomacy is its pursuit of finding a just solution. In one sense, this position allows for flexibility, because the end of justice is paramount rather than the means required for reaching that point.  However, it is often difficult to change the Iranian perspective of what the just end itself is. The Iranian sense of justice was and is responsible for many aspects of their diplomacy. For example, the Iranian ability to end the Soviet occupation over part of its territory in 1947 was seen as a triumph of justice. On the other hand, the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 was viewed conversely as the triumph of injustice which needed reversal, which came in 1979 with the just revolution, and so on.  During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the Iranian government and Khomeini believed that the deliverance of justice was necessary for ending the war, not strategic factors or the loss of life, saying “all we are seeking is justice…we want our rights.”[8] Justice in this case was defined international recognition that Iraq was the aggressor. The concept of justly seeking one’s rights is also a reason that Iran strongly believes it has the right to enrich radioactive material. The Iranian concept of justice is closely connected with Iran’s wariness of legalistic jargon in the conduct of diplomacy, as many Iranians, influenced by cultural notions of justice believed that international law was often used to cheat them of their rights.[9] Iranians prefer achieving a satisfying end result than worrying about the process of getting there.[10]

Another aspect of Iranian diplomacy is the tendency of the Iranian government to become more rigid when under pressure. Iranian diplomats and other public figures often state that they are willing to negotiate with the United States and other powers about their nuclear program, but not as long as the United States increases pressure on them through economic sanctions and threats of military strikes. This aspect of Iranian diplomacy was also evident during the Hostage Crisis when the Iranian government chose to defy the United States and international opinion instead of opting for a quick end to the crisis.[11] The Iranian tendency to become more rigid due to pressure has its roots in the Iranian appreciation for taking a strong moral stance instead of choosing an expedient route, since changing course in the face of pressure is deemed to be calculating and shows a willingness to sacrifice principles.[12] Another reason that Iranian diplomacy tends towards rigidity at times is the contempt of Iranians for weakness and respect for strength. [13]Any Iranian government that buckles under international pressure could lose legitimacy.

As long as the pressure is bearable, Iran will favor defiance over retreating on its principles. The Islamic Republic of Iran is founded on the concept of resistance to tyranny and interference, whether it has been from the Shah, Iraq, or the United States. Since the survival of the regime is its paramount goal, moving away from its revolutionary stance is a way for the regime to delegitimize itself. However, if external issues pose a greater threat to the survival of the regime than its own internal legacy, it can resort to a more flexible diplomatic approach. Iran is much more likely to use negotiate when it is in a position of weakness because negotiations are seen as an instrument of survival when strength fails.[14] Iran has resorted to negotiations to improve its condition on several occasions. One such occasion was during the Soviet occupation of Azerbaijan in Iran in 1946, where Iran was in no position domestically or militarily to evict the Soviet Army. It was necessary for Iran to concede to or appear to concede to some Soviet demands in order to achieve the withdrawal of Soviet troops.[15] In such a scenario, Iran showed itself capable of calculation. Iran also proved itself flexible in 1988 when it accepted a United Nations brokered cease-fire with Iraq, despite not meeting its objectives of defeating Iraq or at least receiving international acknowledgment that Iraq was the aggressor in the war. However, continuing the war was judged by the regime to be a threat to its very existence, so Ayatollah Khomeini “drank a cup of poison” and accepted the cease-fire with Iraq.[16]

Finally, Iranian diplomacy is influenced by domestic factors and factions. This may often prevent the government of Iran from presenting a coherent and consistent policy for negotiations. There are numerous factions among the Iranian elite competing for power, and it may work in the interests of various factors to appear tough or conciliatory at various points in order to gain the upper hand in Iran. For example, an attempt made by the United States in 1998-1999 to discuss better relations with Iran went nowhere due to factional infighting within Iran.[17] Iran’s many competing factions and tangled political setup also mean that Iranian diplomacy may often be conducted through bodies or individuals who do not wield the power they might be thought to on the basis of their titles. General policy and final decisions are usually made by the Supreme Leader and not the President.[18] As such, it is important to talk to the right people and not be distracted or influenced by statements coming from people in Iran such as President Ahmadinejad, who despite his title, has limited ability to set policy. Unfortunately, many non-Iranians unfamiliar with Iran’s political system assume that Iran is a dictatorship. However, this is not the case, and laws, treaties, and other decisions often have to get the approval of a parliament (Majlis) or various ministries. Although the course of events is almost always set by the Supreme Leader, Iran’s government still has to go through various channels before a new policy can be implemented, just like American sanctions on Iran would need the approval of Congress to be lifted, even if the President decides to change America’s policy towards Iran.


The more unique aspects of Iran’s diplomatic style come into play when a major issue is at stake, one that is perceived to affect Iran’s political system or prestige, or one related to a historical grievance. These are not the result of stupidity or irrationality but are the product of domestic factors, history, pride, or calculation. It is important for Americans or any foreign power dealing with Iran to move beyond stereotypes regarding the Iranian Furthermore, it is essential to avoid misconceptions of Iran that may arise because of the projection of one’s own country’s style of diplomacy on Iran. For example, Americans might believe that putting economic pressure on Iran will prompt the Iranian government to negotiate or scrap their nuclear program because it is in their rational economic interests to do so. However, putting pressure on Iran is likely to trigger an even more obstinate Iranian position because Iranians believe it is both unjust and weak- Iranians despite weakness- to give in to pressure. It is also important to remember that Iran is influenced by its history and holds grudges longer than many Western countries do. It has become more common in the modern West to work beyond historical grudges when conducting diplomacy but this is not necessarily the case in Iran, or much of the world.

A further misconceptions may arise about Iranian diplomacy is that Iran inherently pursues relations with rouge states such as North Korea or is a natural destabilizer by sponsoring militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. However, this has more to do with Iran’s reduced ability to pursue more respectable options as a member of the international community because of the political and economic risks of conducting normal relations or doing business in Iran. However, Iran is very much able to act like a normal state in its relations with some of its neighbors in that it carries on regular trade without any historical or ideological component with many of its neighbors. For example, Iran recently finalized a plan in March 2013 to build a gas pipeline to Pakistan.


Iran’s style of diplomacy has its advantages and disadvantages. Iran’s style of diplomacy has managed to achieve much of its goals, despite the great constraints facing it. The main goal of Iranian diplomacy and policy has been the preservation of its regime. So far, it has achieved this, despite enduring a war with Iraq and American led sanctions primarily because of its sponsoring of militant groups and alleged nuclear weapons program. Ironically, these sanctions could have been avoided if Iran had maintained better relations with the United States and dealt with the Hostage Crisis in a different manner. Without sanctions, it can be argued that Iran’s government would have a better chance of survival and the lack of hostility towards the United States would enhance its security position in the Middle East. This could be a weakness on the part of Iranian diplomacy- the tendency of the country’s leaders to prioritize justice or rhetoric over long term interests.[19] However, on the other hand, it is quite possible that it is in the interests of the regime to cultivate a sense of siege in order to maintain domestic support. The Islamic, revolutionary nature of the regime could be undermined if the country opens up too much to foreign economic, political, and cultural influences, and that would also cause the collapse of the Islamic Republic. In this case, Iranian diplomacy is also successful in that it preserves the regime and blunts the worst effects of international sanctions while also making it look heroic by being tough.

However, Iran’s style of diplomacy has limitations as well if it is too rigid or too heavily invested in the concept of justice. It would be difficult for Iranians to achieve their other goals such as prestige and increased influence in the Middle East through their present path. Just as misconceptions about Iran abound in the United States and other countries, Iranians also have misconceptions about aspects of the international system and international norms. If Iran wishes to be accepted as an equal member of the community of nations, it must also be prepared to modify some of its behavior and rhetoric and put aside its suspicion that international law is designed to deny some countries their rights. From a more long-term point of view, it would be reasonable for Iran to forgo winning and gaining justice for smaller causes in order to gain victory and justice for the larger cause of finally becoming a respected member of the international community. This in and off itself is entirely compatible with the Iranian tradition of valuing the result more than the process. Iran has shown itself to be flexible and pragmatic at times, and not only at moments of weakness. For example, Iran offered to cooperate with the United States against their mutual enemy, the Taliban in Afghanistan after the September 11th attacks in 2001. Like China from the 1950s to the 1970s, a great country such as Iran, despite its history and civilization, cannot live up to its full potential and earn the respect it craves while it is economically backwards and isolated from the international community. This does not necessitate the change of regime in Iran; it is entirely plausible that the government of Iran will be able to survive an opening, and if this condition is met however its leaders choose to meet it, it would be a lot easier for the Iranian government to move towards the achievement of their own goals. On the other hand, even if the regime in Iran will lose credibility if Iran is squeezed too hard and it fails to provide for its people, which will also be a risk for its survival. Thus, although Iran has played the diplomatic game well enough to avoid making any major changes in its domestic and foreign policies, eventually some combination of factors and the interplay of its goals and diplomatic moves will necessitate a change in some aspect or another in how it pursues its goals.


[1] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 8.

[2] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 9.

[3] Zogby, James. The Rise and Fall of Iran in Muslim Public Opinion. The Huffington Post. March 9, 2013.

[4] Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, 266-267.

[5] Limbert, Negotiating with Iran, 46.

[6] Limbert, Negotiating with Iran, 81.

[7] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 12.

[8] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 12.

[9] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 5.

[10] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 5.

[11] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 13.

[12] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 13.

[13] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 11-12.

[14] Limbert, Negotiating with Iran, 35.

[15] Limbert, Negotiating with Iran, 47.

[16] Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 181.

[17] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2.

[18] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 7-8.

[19] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 13.


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Written by Akhipill

March 12, 2013 at 9:57 PM

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