India-Iran Ties: Bonhomie and Balancing Ties with Saudi Arabia
Why is Iran important for India? What were some of the key outcomes of ministerial visits?
Iran is important strategically and economically for India. It is for this reason, that after the US imposed sanctions on Iran, India was one of the few countries which continued to trade with Tehran, much to the chagrin of the US.
The nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1 countries, and the subsequent lifting of sanctions has of course opened up numerous opportunities for both countries in the economic sphere. India has already committed to investing in the Oil, Gas, Petro-Chemical and Fertiliser Sectors.
During Petroleum Minister, Dharmendra Pradhan’s visit to Iran (April 9-10), India signed agreements pertaining to crude oil imports, and Iran’s Farzad-B gas field development.
India’s most significant project in Iran is the Chabahar Port, which will help in providing India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Chabahar is in fact dubbed by many as India’s answer to the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, which was developed by the Chinese. The distance between Chabahar and Gwadar is 72 kilometres. During the External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj’s recent visit, the Iranian President termed the Chabahar Project as the “defining partnership which has the potential of connecting the entire region,”
In a recent meeting between expert groups from India, Afghanistan and Iran in New Delhi (April 11), the text of a trilateral transport and transit pact was concluded. This pact is likely to be signed in Iran in the next few months. One of the key thrust areas of the agreement was the trade and transport corridors which will link Mumbai to Chabahar and Afghanistan, via Zahedan.
Iran has also sought Indian assistance to develop a 500-km-rail link from Chabahar to Zahedan, capital of Sistan. This rail route will connect Chabahar with the International North South Transport Corridor and link it to Central Asia. India shall be sending a team from IRCON for discussions on this project.
India has recently approved a 150 Million USD line of credit for Chabahar, and shall also be providing 400 Million USD of steel rails. While for India, Chabahar is strategically important. India has also committed to investing over 20 Billion USD in Chabahar SEZ. The Indian Petroleum Minister expressed the desire of Indian Petrochemical and Fertiliser Companies to invest in the Chabahar SEZ, apart from an LNG plant and a gas cracker.
During the Indian Foreign Minister’s visit, the Iranian President also spoke about greater cooperation between both the countries against counter terrorism and Afghanistan.
What is the role of other countries in India-Iran ties?
So far India has been able to ensure that the ‘Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel’ factor does not influence its relations with Iran, but these three countries cannot be ignored, and Delhi needs to be very deft .
While Iran and India have totally de-hyphenated their relationship from Pakistan (which shares a border with Iran), the latter which is trying to get close to Iran has been trying to play spoiler. During the Iranian President’s Pakistan visit, the army chief Raheel Sharif is supposed to have raised the issue of RAW involvement in Balochistan. When asked by a Pakistani journalist about the same, the Iranian President was quick to state, that Tehran had a close relationship with both countries.
Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan came at a time when Kulbhushan Jadhav whom Pakistan accused of being an Indian spy in Balochistan was caught.
A suspicious video with Jadhav’s confession was also released. According to Indian intelligence agencies, Jadhav a businessman had been kidnapped from Iran. With GHQ calling the shots and upping the ante against India, especially in the context of fomenting trouble in Balochistan, it would be important to keep an eye on how Pakistan reacts to the Chabahar Project and trilateral cooperation between India-Afghanistan-Iran.
India’s ties with Saudi Arabia too have strengthened not just in the economic sphere, but also in the strategic sphere. A clear instance being the extradition of a number of terrorists including Abu Jundal, an LeT operative and one of the handlers of the 26/11 attacks. Defence collaboration between both countries has also been enhanced.
While so far this has not impacted India’s ties with Iran, it remains to be seen how they balance it out. The two Ministerial visits to Iran (Sushma Swaraj and Dharmendra Pradhan), with substantive agendas, are being seen as a message from the NDA Government, that while strengthening ties with Riyadh it clearly cannot afford to ignore Iran. A Prime Ministerial visit to Iran is also on the cards.
Likely challenges to the India-Iran relationship
The first challenge is whether India can follow up on all the promises, especially in the context of the Chabahar Port. In the aftermath of the sanctions, a number of countries including China are wooing Iran, and India will have to up the game and be prompt in implementation.
Second, balancing ties with Saudi Arabia will be a tough task, especially after the increased hostility between both countries in the aftermath of the recent OIC summit at Istanbul. The cause for this, was a statement – largely Saudi driven -- which was critical of Iran for promoting terrorism, but also interfering in Saudi Arabia’s affairs and attacking Saudi missions in Iran.
Third, while the Obama administration has been pragmatic in its approach towards Iran, which has played a positive role in further strengthening India-Iran ties, it remains to be seen whether a new US Government (Democrat or Republican) is as open towards Tehran.
(The writer is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs)