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India-Iran Ties: With China in the Mix, Will SCO Talks Be a Level-Playing Field?

Even as China has moved strongly in West Asia, chances are high for countries to retrieve positive diplomatic ties.

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Iran is set to formally become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) during the organisation’s forthcoming summit in Delhi in July this year. It can be expected that President Ebrahim Raisi will participate in the summit. Meanwhile, ministerial meetings prior to the summit are taking place in India where, in some cases, Iranian representatives are being invited by India, in its capacity as the SCO’s current president.

As part of this process, the SCO defence ministers meeting was held in India on 27-28 April and the Iranian Defence Minister Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Gharaei Ashtiani took part in the meeting technically as an observer. Ashtiani called on Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh. An Indian official media release of the meeting stressed India and Iran’s "age-old cultural, linguistic and civilisational ties” which included "people to people” contacts.

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This almost formulaic observation is emphasised whenever the leaders of the two countries meet. It is true that there was great contact in these areas between India and Iran between the 13th and the early part of the 19th centuries which led to the development of an Indo-Persianate culture influencing large parts of India in many ways.

But truth be told, all that is in the past. The two countries and people have moved on. Now, Indian Muslims who follow the Shia version of the Islamic faith are continuously cultivated by Iran and Qom is an important centre of Shia Islam but apart from that, Iranian culture or the country under the clerical system established by Ayatollah Khomeini after ousting the Shah in 1979 does not resonate in India.

The Status Of India-Iran Ties

What is more important are contemporary geopolitics and geo-economic factors to find a coincidence of interests which can bind the two countries. There was a time in the 1990s when both India and Iran along with Russia had a commonality of interests in Afghanistan. However, while Singh and Ashtiani discussed the situation in the Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and its impact on the stability of the region, it is doubtful if either country has an interest in acting together to seek to influence the course of events there.

India has an abiding interest in developing the Chabahar port and connectivity through it to Afghanistan and beyond to Central Asia but for almost three decades, Iran has blown hot and cold on the project. All impediments to the connectivity project are not of Iran’s making. The shadow of US sanctions on Iran has also fallen on Chabahar.

While Indian-Iranian relations have not moved ahead as per expectation, it is China that first moved in a major manner in Iran. If President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iran in 2016 put the pieces in place for a comprehensive relationship in energy and defence too, the subsequent years have witnessed a growing congruence and greater Chinese economic and commercial interest in Iran.

President Trump’s decision to walk out of the US-Iran nuclear deal gave a greater salience to China in Iran’s foreign policy calculus. What was truly dramatic though was China mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran to heal the ruptures between them which got exacerbated in 2016 when diplomatic relations between the two countries were set aside.

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Implications of China’s West Asia Move

Earlier this month, the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers met in Beijing and decided to restore ties and re-establish embassies. This was China’s major move in West Asia. Saudi and Iranian differences are rooted in theology and history and will not be settled easily but it is, nevertheless, significant that they have looked to China to restore a degree of diplomatic normalcy between themselves.

India has abiding economic and security interests in West Asia and China’s success in mediating between two major powers of the region, shows the way the wind is blowing at a time when India has joined hands with the US, Israel and the UAE in a kind of West Asian Quad.

Now that Iran will join the SCO, it will get only closer to China. That too will have major implications for India. It is an undeniable fact that China is the principal SCO country and its foray in West Asia, has signalled to the US and to India that it is willing and ready to play a sustained and more robust role in the region.

India will have to counter it through reliance on its traditional policy of focusing on bilateral ties with all the regional states. Indian policymakers need to ponder if they wish India to be perceived in the region as a US partner or as an independent player. In the past, India sought to ensure that it was never perceived to be tied to any other power but as a country which maintained its strategic autonomy. There was great merit in such an approach.
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Iran’s SCO Entry Coincides With Backlash Against Regime

Iran is also going to join the SCO at a time when there was a great public demonstration against the clerical regime arising out of its enforcement of the hijab codes on women. This process began in September last year with the death of Mahsa Amini who was taken into custody by the religious police for wearing the hijab incorrectly.

Demonstrations spread to other cities, and for a time it seemed that the regime would give greater freedom to women. But the hardliners have clearly won and the hijab codes are now being ruthlessly implemented and demonstrators have been dealt with exceptional harshness. The supporters of the Vilayat-e-Faqih system remain strong and unbending. Thus, those in the West who are constantly on the lookout for the regime going down under the weight of protests and demonstrations, are chasing a chimaera at least for the foreseeable future. 

The Raisi visit to India for the SCO summit will provide both countries to explore areas where cooperation is possible even as China has moved strongly in Iran and West Asia. Realism should be the guide in doing so and not invocations of the historical past which simply have no bearing on the present.

One last point. Ashtiani articulated the usual Iranian anti-US and anti-West rhetoric while in India. Iran’s sympathies are with Russia in the Ukraine situation and its alignment with China will only see such rhetoric continuing in Tehran and by the Iranian leaders on foreign soil too. As far as India is concerned, it should be ignored.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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