October 5, 2022

India-Iran relations – curative measures required

India is now reaching out to Iran as a consequence of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan which also affects Iran but India more having sunk in some USD3 billion in Afghanistan and the Taliban backed by both Pakistan and China.

Lt. Gen. Prakash Katoch (Retd.)

India is one of the few countries invited to the inauguration of Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on August 5. India is attending the inauguration though who will represent India is yet to be decided. There is speculation that a cabinet minister will likely to attend. According to media reports, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had congratulated Raisi on being elected as President and asked him to visit India after end of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During his visit to Iran on July 8, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar made a courtesy call on President-elect Ebrahim Raisi and delivered a congratulatory message from PM Modi. According to the Iranian foreign ministry, both sides also stressed on the need to strengthen inter-Afghan dialogue leading to a comprehensive political partnership in Afghanistan.

Media states that Jaishankar also met his counterpart and talked about resuming bilateral trade with Iran on oil and petrochemicals but that this will be dependent on favourable outcome for Iran in the ongoing Vienna talks, which have been continued since April 2021 between Tehran and six world powers (P5+1) on the Iran Nuclear Deal.

In May 2016, PM Modi had made his maiden visit to Iran and held talks with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who welcomed him by saying, “Hindostan Se Aya Hai Hamara Dost” (our friend has come from India). Modi also held talks with President Hassan Rouhani. The trilateral India-Iran-Afghanistan agreement on Chabahar was signed during Modi’s visit.

In May 2016, PM Modi had made his maiden visit to Iran and held talks with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who welcomed him by saying, “Hindostan Se Aya Hai Hamara Dost” (our friend has come from India). Modi also held talks with President Hassan Rouhani. The trilateral India-Iran-Afghanistan agreement on Chabahar was signed during Modi’s visit. In September 2019, PM Modi again met President Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and discussed issues of mutual and regional interests.

Which way the Vienna talks on the Iran Nuclear Deal will go remains a question mark. On July 25, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the US and duplicity in negotiations in Vienna, saying that US negotiators insisted on including a sentence that would set the stage for talks on aspects not covered under the nuclear agreement. The US State Department responded by accusing Iran of deflection saying it was ready to resume negotiations but that the opportunity will not last forever. There is also speculation whether US will subvert its return to the Iran Nuclear Deal now that it is pulling out troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iran was the largest oil supplier to India till US imposed sanctions on Iran. India’s development of the Chabahar Port too was delayed and it is only recently that India sent mobile cranes to Iran – which could have been done much earlier. India’s intransigence led to Iran awarding the Farzad-B gas field to a local company despite ONGC Videsh Ltd having discovered it. Construction of the Chabahar-Zarang rail line which was to be developed by India too was commenced by Iran.

If the US sanctions on Iran led to cooling of India-Iran relations, the enhanced Chinese influence in Iran also had an adverse impact for India. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ended up mentioning Kashmir and calling it a freedom struggle; Iran had never said so before. 

If the US sanctions on Iran led to cooling of India-Iran relations, the enhanced Chinese influence in Iran also had an adverse impact for India. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ended up mentioning Kashmir and calling it a freedom struggle; Iran had never said so before. 

India is now reaching out to Iran as a consequence of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan which also affects Iran but India more having sunk in some USD3 billion in Afghanistan and the Taliban backed by both Pakistan and China. But fact remains that the current situation in Afghanistan was apparent even five years ago in the event of US troop pullout. However, India possibly had ‘extraordinary’ faith in the US stabilising Afghanistan before pulling out or retaining sufficient number of troops in that country.

India, Iran and Russia were the main supporters of the Northern Alliance when Taliban was in control of Kabul and large parts of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Should we have not prepared for such a situation and renewed our relations with Iran few years earlier? Moreover, virtually nothing was done to stitch an India-Iran-Afghanistan sub-conventional relationship against Pakistan-backed terrorism in Afghanistan.

Iran should logically be part of India’s ‘Neighbours First’ policy. But India was perhaps overawed by its relationship with the US and let itself be aligned more with the US foreign policy. Where US had imposed sanctions on Iran in its own national interests, we could have perhaps reduced ‘some’ quantum of import of oil and petrochemicals from Iran to humour America but firmly taken the stand that total stoppage is not in our national interests.

India, Iran and Russia were the main supporters of the Northern Alliance when Taliban was in control of Kabul and large parts of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Should we have not prepared for such a situation and renewed our relations with Iran few years earlier? Moreover, virtually nothing was done to stitch an India-Iran-Afghanistan sub-conventional relationship against Pakistan-backed terrorism in Afghanistan.

The trouble is that India feels it has no leverages with the US despite the volume of its market (defence and security included), its strategic location and the fact the India’s importance to the US is and will keep rising corresponding to China’s rise, even as the US is bothered only about conflict on the waters of the Indo-Pacific, not the trans-Himalayan threat to India from China. On the other hand, despite Pakistan being the problem in Afghanistan and responsible for most American deaths in Afghanistan, the US is continuing to bond more with Islamabad.

Why then are we being ‘idealistic’ in our foreign policy? Have we forgotten Chanakya who said, “Do not be very upright in your dealings for you would see by going to the forest that straight trees are cut down while crooked ones are left standing.” Even the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, Commander of Iran’s Quds Force in a US drone strike was not in our interest because Soleimani was for the independence of Balochistan. Conversely, America has labelled the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) a terrorist organisation.

The above may raise plenty protests with critics saying our foreign policy is very much independent and not influenced by the US. But then why did the Prime Minister wish the Dalai Lama on his birthday this year but ignored his last birthday and government officials did not attend his birthday celebrations either? Is this not because of America’s renewed interest in Tibet and passage of the Tibet Policy and Support Act by the US Congress in December 2020? This happens to be just one example.

Who India sends for the inauguration of Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi is up to the policy makers to decide but the India-Iran relationship is strategically too important to ignore irrespective of the situation in Afghanistan.

India has always been for strategic autonomy and will likely continue so. But strategic partnerships must not overshadow the policy towards our neighbours especially with China continuing to draw our immediate neighbours into its strategic sphere. We need to get stronger and look less for assistance from abroad – the AtmaNirbhar part must include our foreign policy. Who India sends for the inauguration of Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi is up to the policy makers to decide but the India-Iran relationship is strategically too important to ignore irrespective of the situation in Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. Prakash Katoch (Retd.) is a veteran of Indian Army. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

 

 

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