India and Iran: A Historical Entente

Iran’s incumbent President and a moderate cleric himself, Hassan Rouhani has won a second four-year term in the presidential polls ,heralding a significant change for a country which has been crippled by economic sanctions in response to its nuclear programme development. He beat his nearest competitor, hardliner Ebrahim Raisi by polling 22.6 million votes of the 38 million votes which were cast.

Widely regarded as a reformer of domestic policies and  credited with lifting Iran out from the oil embargo and the subsequent recession at home , his victory was widely speculated, for never has a sitting President seeking a re-election has lost. He listed his liberal policies as his greatest achievement and contested successfully on his promises of implementation of reforms. The citizenry did not disappoint with majority of the voters turning out to vote for reforms and a future-dream of better and responsible governance.

Ebrahim Raisi, on the other hand, has been a hardliner and a close acolyte of Iran’s Supreme Leader , Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ,the religious head of all the Shia muslims in the world who has the ultimate word in the hybrid theocratic-republican system of politics. Mr.Raisi was short of being endorsed by the Supreme Leader and ran his campaign on populist policies while vowing to fight corruption in the establishment and deliverance of economic benefits to the largely poor population. He had been on a panel which condemned inmates to death on a mass execution carried out in 1988.His election would further embolden the hardliners and their anti-West propaganda which would reverse the clock of the newly achieved momentum.

This election is symbolic in many ways ,since Rouhani has been the face of government which views Western powers particularly, the US as an outsider and a force inimical to its own interests and sailing his country successfully through the troubled waters of global isolation albeit slowly and in no time Iran has reconnected to the international banking system renewed its export policies to  its pre-sanction era partners and has smoothly integrated itself in the global order, a major chunk  of this credit going to its versatile foreign minister Mohammad Javed Zarif.

External Affairs Minister Mrs. Sushma Swaraj with her Iranian counterpart , Mohammad Javed Zarif

His untiring and relentless efforts convinced the world powers to lift the economic embargo imposed on it in return for an International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) monitored probe and surveillance in its nuclear programme. He held marathon discussions with John Kerry, the Secretary for State under President Obama, the first high level contacts since the 1979 uprising which toppled the US-supported leadership. This resounding victory is a testament to this belief of greater co-operation with the outside world and hopes for greater freedom back at home in the largely conservative Islamic Republic.

Iran has consistently backed the government of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the US and Saudi Arabia backed rebels and has so far succeeded in keeping the regime, charged with mass genocides of its own citizens through chemical weapons and other war crimes. It regards Assad’s Syria as the last remaining stronghold of Shiites in a region surrounded by Sunni Islamic countries led by Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been at loggerheads since time immemorial to gain religious and economic supremacy concerning the two sects of Islam. Both the nations have been engaged in indirect wars and conflicts in foreign lands. Iran has backed the Houthis,the rebels in Yemen and has quite successfully till date controlled the capital Sana, against the backdrop of incessant Saudi bombardments which views Iran as an existential threat.

On the other hand it views Israel, a Jewish majority country as a threat to its national security and has issued rhetoric about its total annihilation. Iran regards it as a close ally of the US and believes that it is paving the way for Western hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. It supports the cause of an independent Palestine state while arming the Hamas, a rebel-group fighting Israel. In this complex geo-politics of Middle East, Iran has with Russia’s backing garnered a significant regional role as a game-changer.

With regards to India, in a survey conducted in 2005, nearly 71% of the population viewed India in a positive light as a regional stabilizer, the highest positive ratings from any country ever.  They point to the commonality between the two nations. Iran, says the head of the chamber of commerce, is strong today because the economic sanctions also forced it to develop a “resistance economy” and stand on its own feet. Just as Hindustan once did, he adds.

Iran is the second largest supplier of crude oil to India and accounts for nearly a quarter of oil imports and thus is an important player of India’s energy security. It has also time and again objected to Pakistan’s unabashed attempts at portraying India in a negative light at international forums like Human Rights Commission and Organization Of Islamic Co-operation(OIC) while ironically having a poor track-record in human rights itself. India and Iran have bilaterally signed a deal for jointly developing the Chabahar Port with an aim to counter the Chinese threat in Gwadar, Baluchistan in neighbouring Pakistan. Regrettably, no much action has been taken to operationalize the port which still remains under-construction, a full 2 years after the Memorandum Of Understanding was signed by Nitin Gadkari, our Minister for Transport and Highways.

On the contrary the Chinese with their deep pockets and fewer diplomatic hurdles have converted the Gwadar Port into a centre-piece of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) linking it right upto Kashgar in Xinjiang Province of China. According to recent reports, it plans to convert it into an off-shore naval base with submarine docking and warship handling capacities. This has unnerved India which has launched its own North South Transport Corridor(NSTC) Project, a multi-billion dollar initiative aimed at improving connectivity to Central Asia, Europe and Russia through Iran and Afghanistan via rail, road and shipping routes.

The Map showing the North South Transport Corridor which would greatly reduce shipping distance for Indian Goods to Central Asia

The Chabahar port project provides Iran with a golden opportunity to end the US-sponsored unilateral economic sanctions and benefit from the resurgent Indian economy. Along with the port of Bandar Abbas, Chabahar is the Iranian entrepot on the North-South corridor. A strategic partnership between India, Iran and Russia is intended to establish a multi-modal transport link connecting Mumbai with St Petersburg, providing Europe and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia access to Asia and vice versa.

India has time and again supported Iran towards its economic and political endeavours towards prosperity. Iran has offerred India to run and manage the phase one of the Chabahar Port development process while both of the countries are negotiating regarding the terms and conditions of the second phase.  It has engaged all its diplomatic might to have a meaningful and constructive dialogue with Iran to combat the latest emerging threat in the region: terrorism. Both countries hold bilateral naval exercises as well as army drills to boost confidene-building among them. Recently it joined India and Afghanistan in what has been known for decades : Pakistan’s use of cross-border terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy.

In April this year, nearly a dozen Revolutionary Guards, which patrol the Iran-Pakistan border were killed in a skirmish with Pakistan based terrorists along the border . The Chief-Of-Army Staff issued a curt warning that Iran would not hesitate in bombing the safe sanctuaries of terrorists wherever they may be, an obvious reference to Pakistan. Just, last week, Pakistani media has reported of mortar shell firing from Iran into Pakistan.

Iran has also remained non-committed to  Pakistan regarding the proposed trilateral agreement on a joint Iran-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline project owing to Indian reservations about the security aspects of this project. Indeed with the resounding mandate given to Hasan Rouhani, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was amongst the first to congratulate him as a ‘friend’ and regarded the ties between the two countries as ‘very special’.

Undoubtedly, India has shared historic relationships with Persia since the pre-historic era, both being the cradles of human civilizations, as regards trade, culture, religion, education and people-to-people contacts. It is thus only befitting that India and Iran chart a new course of joint stability, economic prosperity and joint co-operation on issues of international importance serving each other’s core interests.

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