Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | A new chapter in India-Iran ties?

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | A new chapter in India-Iran ties?

A deep dive into what has changed in bilateral relations between India and Iran

In this episode of Worldview, our Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar takes a deeper look at the current and historical ties between India and Iran. 

External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar was one of 115 high officials from 73 countries who attended Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s swearing in ceremony in the Majlis or Parliament in Tehran on August 5. Among the guests were Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, leaders of Iraq, Armenia and Algeria, and ministerial level dignitaries from more than a dozen countries.

Why is this significant? And does this signal a new chapter in India-Iran ties?  

Now, India has attended presidential swearing ins in the past as well- New Delhi sent Vice President Hamid Ansari and Petroleum Minister Nitin Gadkari for the two times Mr. Rouhani was inaugurated– so Why was this significant? Two parts- one is global the other is bilateral

–        This is Jaishankar’s second visit to Iran in just a month- in early July he had become the first foreign dignitary to call on Mr. Raisi, carrying a letter from PM Modi, and had brought back an invitation to the ceremony. That Mr. Jaishankar himself has gone, means this isn’t just a protocol visit, but carries political weight and indicates the Modi government wants to make a big beginning with the new Iranian president

–        Making that pitch to Raisi is also significant, as in November 2019,  the US Treasury department decided to put him on its list of individual sanctions- for alleged human rights violations, sentencing of underage prisoners to death in his role as prosecutor general and then  head of Iran’s Judiciary. Raisi has denied the charges and also made ending what he calls “tyrannical” US sanctions, a priority

–        That Jaishankar made the visits to Tehran around a visit to Delhi by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken means India is trying to walk a tightrope between its ties with the West and ties with Iran, which are adversaries, and nuclear talks on US rejoining the JCPOA agreement with Iran are also stalled.

–         In addition, US, UK and Israel have come down heavily on Iran, accusing it of carrying out the attack on an Israeli owned tanker last week, which saw a UK national killed, an issue now being taken up at the UNSC, where India is the president.

The Foreign Minister’s visit is also significant due to the timing in Afghanistan, where US troops are expected to pull out by August 31, and the Taliban have stepped up attacks. While Iran and India have many differences on their outlook on the status of women, they share a common cause in Afghanistan for several reasons:

1.      India and Iran have faced attacks from the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Jundullah, Lashkar e Toiba and other sunni groups, and have a common concern about the Taliban gaining power in Kabul.

2.      Mr. Zarif has said that an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan is a security threat for India and Iran and an existential threat for Pakistan, and as neighbours, India and Iran have cause to worry

3.      While Russia, US, China have advocated power sharing arrangements involving the Taliban in Kabul,  India and Iran have upheld the legitimacy of the democratically elected government in Afghanistan, and could cooperate in  bolstering the Ghani government at this time.

4.      India and Iran have been left out of the US Russia China-  Troika and Troika plus talks with Pakistan, thus far, despite being regional powers,

5.      Iran and India have cooperated on connectivity projects for Afghanistan and Central Asia, including at Chabahar and the INSTC that goes through Bandar Abbas

That brings us to the bilateral reasons.

Why is a restart with Iran needed at this point?

–        While the previous President Hassan Rouhani from 2013 to 2021 began with strong relations between the two countries, PM Modi then visited Iran for the signing of the Chabahar trilateral agreement in 20, and President Rouhani had a successful visit to Delhi in 2018 there have been tensions over several issues, mainly India’s decision to cancel or zero out its imports from Iran in 2019, after the Trump administration passed new sanctions and  issued a threat.

–        Prior to that India used to import about 2.5 billion tonnes of Iranian oil a month, that accounted for more than 10% of its energy needs. For Iran, India was a major buyer, and the Modi government’s decision had a deep economic and diplomatic impact. In 2012 when the US had issued a similar demand, India had stood firm and not cut its oil imports.

–        Trade between the two that topped $17 billion in 2018 has dwindled to a third, as they used a barter banking system that depended on oil revenues- this has had an impact on Indian traders who imported rice, fruits and other produce from Iran in return

–        The US sanctions have a carve out or waiver for India’s investment in the Chabahar port, as long as it is used for humanitarian relief and trade with Afghanistan… on paper. On the ground, the sanctions have severely curtailed India’s ability to develop the Chabahar project, it took years to bring in cranes for example, or fill tenders for other equipment, and banks, insurance companies and freight companies don’t want to engage with the project either. As a result in 2020, Iran decided to go ahead with its rail project, dropping India from the deal, as it was unable to participate.

–        As a traditional partner, Iran has rarely spoken about India’s internal affairs, including sensitive areas like Kashmir, yet in the aftermath of government’s decision on 370 in Jammu Kashmir on August 5, 2019, Iran’s leadership, and clerics issued sharp statements, criticising both the move and the arrests of thousands that followed.

–        Strategically, India’s focus on the Quad and Indo-Pacific and the tensions with China to its eastern frontier have meant less focus on its partners to the west, particularly given the break in ties with Pakistan.

–        Meanwhile Iran has increased ties with China, something that worries India, as Iran and China signed a 25 years 400 bn dollar infrastructure partnership, which could affect Indian interests in Iran, the ports as well as oil and gas resources.

It is important to remember however, that Iran is India’s traditional, historical and cultural partner. Until 1947 it was India’s immediate neighbour, and is still a maritime neighbour. It is of immense importance to India as it provides an alternate route of connectivity to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Europe, given the problems with Pakistan and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which India boycotted. Finally, if India is able to negotiate a way around US sanctions, Iran could once again be a vital source of energy for India at a time when oil prices in India have skyrocketed.

Your email address will not be published.