Are India and Iran seeking to reboot ties? It certainly seems so, as External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar travelled to Tehran twice within a span of a month. The first time he travelled, en route to Moscow, he was the first foreign leader to call on Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi. They discussed India-Iran ties and Jaishankar was invited to attend Raisi's swearing-in ceremony that took place on August 6, and which Jaishankar duly attended.
At the meeting, Jaishankar handed over a letter from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Raisi, who is said to be a protege of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, is widely believed to be close to him and a hardliner. His election comes against the backdrop of a struggling Iranian economy and a potential revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) by the current Joe Biden administration in the United States. Former President Donald Trump had pulled out of the JCPOA, which had been hammered out by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany and Iran in 2015.
A Reboot In Ties
Jaishankar’s visits to Iran are significant given that in the recent past, ties between India and Iran had been rather strained. While India had been developing the Chabahar port on Iran’s east coast along the Gulf of Oman, it also stopped procuring Iranian oil under the renewed sanctions imposed on the Persian state by the Trump administration. India also dragged its feet on the Zahedan railway project it had evinced interest in, which was then promptly handed over to other developers. In turn, Iran ousted India from the Farzad-B gas fields that India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) had discovered, and began raising the Kashmir issue regularly. While India moved closer to the US, Iran inked a mega-deal reportedly to the tune of $400 billion with China.
Even so, regional geopolitical shifts may be necessitating a rethink in both Delhi and Tehran. As violence rages in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Afghan forces and the spectre of another civil war there looms large, both India and Iran have much at stake. Both countries had been victims of the Taliban’s actions in the past. The Afghan jihad engendered militancy in Indian Kashmir and the Taliban sheltered terrorists of the Jaish-e-Mohammad group when an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked to Kandahar in 1999. And both India and Iran, together with Russia, had supported the primarily Tajik Northern Alliance against the Taliban.
Peace In Afghanistan Is Vital
While Iran has since engaged with the militant group and plays a role in the intra-Afghan peace process, disquiet reins in Tehran. Given that the Sunni Taliban have persecuted Shias inside Afghanistan and targeted Iran, Iran has also had to grapple with refugee flows from Afghanistan as its immediate neighbour. It has also faced terror attacks from across the border from Pakistan, which controls the Taliban.
Peace and stability in Afghanistan are vital for both India and Iran, and neither wants a violent Taliban takeover.
This was reflected in Raisi’s remarks during his meeting with Jaishankar. “Iran and India can play a constructive and useful role in ensuring security in the region, especially Afghanistan, and Tehran welcomes New Delhi’s role in the establishment of security in Afghanistan,” Raisi was quoted as saying in a press release issued by his office.
Jaishankar, in turn, said on Twitter that “His [Raisi’s] commitment to strengthening our bilateral relationship was manifest. So too was the convergence in our regional interests”, and that he was “looking forward to working with his team”.
Indeed, India with its massive aid and investment in Afghanistan, to the tune of $3 billion, is looking for a strong regional partner to help shore up the Afghan government. Iran fits the bill and can exert pressure on other Afghan factions, including those within the Taliban that Iran engages with, for a ceasefire and continuation of the intra-Afghan talks. The fact that Iran has its own proxies in Afghanistan makes it a stronger regional player.
Iran Is A Portal For India
Connectivity is another imperative for India’s engagement with Iran. With the complicated situation in Afghanistan, along with Pakistan’s obdurate refusal of transit passage across its territory to Indian goods, Iran remains the portal for India to the coveted markets and resources of Central Asia. Thus, India is expending considerable energy and effort in developing the Chabahar port on Iran’s eastern coast and in joining the International North-South Transport Corridor from the port of Bandar Abbas on Iran’s west coast.
Through Chabahar, India has sent cargo to Afghanistan and humanitarian aid to Iran. Last year, the double-landlocked country of Uzbekistan also joined the Afghanistan-Iran-India trilateral partnership for the joint use of the port. Countries like Kazakhstan and Armenia are also keen to use the port as the shortest route to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. From February 2019 to January 2021, the port has already handled 123 vessels and 18 lakh tons of cargo, according to government estimates. Hence, the significance of this port cannot be overestimated. India has pitched for the inclusion of the Chabahar port complex in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which includes Caspean Sea littoral states and culminates inside the Russian Federation. As the security situation in Afghanistan becomes increasingly uncertain, Iranian ports acquire greater geo-economic salience.
All these factors are causing India and Iran to reboot their age-old relations. The election of President Raisi and the possibility of a US-Iran rapprochement may open a new chapter in Indo-Iranian relations. Nevertheless, given the many other fault lines in the region, primarily that between Iran on the one hand and some Gulf states and Israel on the other, with whom New Delhi enjoys excellent bilateral relations, India will have some deft balancing act to do.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a widely-published journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)