The recent three-day visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to India, the first by an Iranian President in over ten years, is significant in many ways. Coming after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran in 2016, it represents the growing bond between the two countries.
While several agreements were signed, what clearly stood out was the joining of forces for development and operation of two berths in the Chabahar port with an investment of $85 million from India. India also increased support for construction of a railway line worth $1.6 billion from Chabahar to Zahedan on the Iran-Afghan border, a project that has been on the anvil for several years now.
The visit sure has opened ways to possible trading ties among both the nations as well as an opportunity for India to invest heavily in Iran. More importantly, it will help India penetrate into the Afghan market bypassing Pakistan, which has been snubbing New Delhi’s attempts to trade with the war-ridden country for several years. Last October, India sent its first consignment of 15,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar.
The Flip Side
But strengthening of this relationship could create a few ripples too and India will have to work hard to balance conflicting interests. India’s relationship with Israel is deepening, but Israel is Iran’s worst enemy in the region.
Iran also has a very troubled relationship with the United States, which now refers to India as a ‘true friend’. The US, the critical cog in the P5+1 countries that signed the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, might no longer be interested in it and could possibly withdraw the concessions it offered to Tehran.
Adding to the problem is Iran’s fallout with the Gulf countries, which have always had great relations with India.
Meanwhile, Rouhani, an elected moderate, has his own domestic battles to fight against the conservatives, while dealing with the economic downturn, saving the nuclear deal from the Trump administration, and facing a renewed risk of international isolation via sanctions, all the while having little control over his country’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.
These challenges could test India’s relations with Tehran and the investment in the Chabahar port may be jeopardised if the Trump administration imposes extra sanctions and pulls out of the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Despite these challenges, Iran remains a key source of energy for India and as PM Modi calls it — ‘gateway to Afghanistan.’ Iran can help catalyse India’s geopolitical supremacy in the region. Chabahar port, which will give India control over trade in the region, has the potential to counter China’s investment in Pakistan’s Gwadar port.
The Chabahar berths not only provide India a route to Afghanistan but also to Central Asian markets, without having to join the Chinese-promoted Belt and Road project (BRP). At a time when the India-China competition for regional clout is peaking, Chabahar is India’s opportunity to catapult ahead.
While China will use Gwadar port leased from Pakistan for 40 years to connect Kashgar on its western border through the CPEC, India intends to use Chabahar to connect itself to Afghanistan. On the other hand, the opposition for BRP from some quarters in Pakistan citing big Chinese profit with minimal gains for Pakistan, gives India a scope to strengthen its position in the region.
After discussions on enhancing trade and investment and ease of doing business between India and Iran, including a double taxation avoidance agreement, Rouhani also endorsed India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council with veto, and praised India as a “living museum of religious diversity”.
From Iran’s point of view, India’s assistance in the development of Chabahar port is a signal loud and clear to the United States that Iran’s days of being isolated have come to an end.
Developing diplomatic ties with Iran is a challenge in itself for any country owing to the latter’s covert wars, race for regional supremacy and economic blockades. With Tehran’s approach to international diplomacy being based on the sole purpose of survivability, the challenges for India are many.
Iran’s recent stand on Muslims being oppressed in Kashmir, put out by its supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei in his Eid-ul-Fitr address, raises some serious questions. While the prime reason for it could be India’s growing closeness with Iran’s worst enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia, it raises questions on the efficacy and durability of the bond between the two countries.
Iran’s alleged influence in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, is escalating tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. Though India and Iran issued a joint statement on fighting terrorism together, Iran’s role in actively sponsoring terrorism has always been a point of global discussion.
Going by the evidences, Iran supports Shia militias as well as some allied Sunni militant groups that engage in terrorist acts. Adding to the woes for India is the kidnap of alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, currently on death row in Pakistan, from Iran.
Revelations of Iranian help to Al Qaeda, especially giving home to Osama Bin Laden’s family after he was killed in the Abbottabad raid in Pakistan, also raises uncomfortable questions against Iran.
For India, not approaching Iran in the context of its own issues with Pakistan, is crucial. While the Afghanistan angle has worked for India, Iran is a geographical neighbour of Pakistan. So, it will have a completely different approach to its relations with Islamabad, which obviously will not be music for India. It is more or less evident that Iran will not provide India a counter to the Gwadar-Xinjiang economic corridor, which starts a mere 72-km to the east in Pakistan.
Moreover, a Chinese delegation was in Chabahar recently to negotiate establishing an industrial city and, like India, some berths.
Iran will keep China and Pakistan in play for its own economic and strategic reasons. Meanwhile, Pakistan too realises that to keep China invested in the economic corridor, Iranian gas would be vital.
In view of these circumstances, gaining economic or geopolitical supremacy in the region is not going to be a cakewalk for India. But managing these challenges deftly can take the wind out of the China-Pakistan axis.