India, Iran and a divided Middle East

Awareness of Iran’s domestic politics, its involvement in multiple conflicts of the Middle East, must inform Delhi’s engagement

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: February 17, 2018 2:24 am
hassan rouhani, iranian president hassan rouhani, hyderabad, iran president, rouhani india visit, telangana chief minister Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani is on a three day visit to India. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP/File)

The first presidential visit from Iran since 2003 comes at a complicated moment in Tehran. For the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is the best of times and the worst of times. Iran’s regional influence has never been as expansive as it is today. Yet, there is a huge push back against Tehran from some of its Arab neighbours, Israel and the Trump Administration.

More problematic is the increasing internal and economic and political volatility as the Islamic Republic celebrates its 40th anniversary. The Iranian currency rial is rapidly losing its value, hitting a record low of 48,000 against the US dollar earlier this week. High inflation and large-scale unemployment, as well as widespread corruption triggered protests in Iran’s cities around the new year. Some of the slogans in the protests — “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life to Iran” — questioned the costs of Tehran’s expansive internationalism at a time of internal economic pain.

There are also demands for social liberalisation, with the women protesting the law on the compulsory wearing of the veil in public. While conservatives in Iran trashed these protests, the office of President Hassan Rouhani released the reports of a survey that showed nearly 50 per cent of the population opposes the mandatory hijab rule.

The faultines within the ruling elite are open and the contestation between different factions is continuous. But supreme leader Ali Khamenei has the last word and towers over the elected presidency and all other institutions. Forty years after the founding of the Islamic republic in 1979, Iran’s internal divisions are getting sharper. President Rouhani has, in fact, called for a referendum to heal domestic bleeding. Rouhani did not say what the referendum will be about, but a group of liberal reformers quickly backed his suggestion by calling for a popular vote on the legitimacy of the current political order.

While the focus of the engagement between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rouhani will necessarily be on bilateral issues relating to trade, investment and connectivity, Iran’s domestic politics and its involvement in the multiple conflicts in the Middle East must fully inform Delhi’s engagement with Tehran.

Rouhani’s visit to Hyderabad this week was in part about showcasing Iran’s deep historical connections with India. It also provided an occasion for Rouhani to deliver a sombre message on overcoming sectarian conflict within Islam and promoting harmony between different religious communities. This message is directed not just to the audiences in India but also those in the Middle East.

That brings us to Delhi’s biggest current challenge in dealing with Tehran — the sharpening conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But Delhi’s public discourse on relations with Iran has for long been framed it in terms of Tehran’s relations with Washington. That tells only one part of the story, but masks others.

During the early decades of the Cold War, India stayed away from the Shah of Iran, a secular modernising ruler, because he was too close to the United States. After all, the Shah put Iran into the US’s regional Cold War alliances like the Central Treaty Organisation that also included Pakistan and Turkey. Today, one of the main problem is the unending enmity between Iran and the US.

Delhi was relieved when the US, under President Barack Obama, and Iran in 2015 concluded a nuclear deal and opened up some space for international commercial cooperation with Tehran. President Donald Trump and his Republican party’s hostility towards the deal has created fresh complications for India.

Although Delhi is looking for ways to sidestep the potential expansion of the US sanctions regime, for example, with a reported rupee-rial arrangement, India’s problems with Iran’s regional rivalries is not going to disappear. While the US-Iran nuclear deal was welcomed in Delhi, it was viewed with great concern in some Arab capitals, especially Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Amman and Cairo.

Many of them accused President Barack Obama of selling out its long-standing friends and partners in pursuit of a deal with Iran. Even more important, Saudi Arabia has taken matters into its own hands to confront Iran’s growing influence across the region. The conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen have provided a fertile ground for the playing out of the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh.

It is not for India to judge who is right or wrong, but to recognise the reality of regional conflicts in the Middle East and limit their impact on India’s ability to secure its goals in the region. India would certainly want to see a serious effort to reconcile the current tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbours, where Delhi’s stakes have risen manifold in recent decades.

Realism tells us that Delhi does not have the power to mitigate the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But Delhi can certainly encourage the emerging trends for political and social moderation in the Middle East. India has positively viewed the recent calls from the political leadership in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for reclaiming Islam from violent extremists. India should also welcome Rouhani’s emphasis on ending sectarian conflicts in the region and his praise of India as a “living museum” of peaceful religious co-existence.

While Rouhani may not have the command of Iran’s politics, the moderate forces represented by him are critical for the pursuit of three important Indian objectives in the Middle East. One is the promotion of mutual political accommodation within the region; another is pressing for an end to the export of destabilising ideologies from the region; and finally the construction of a coalition against violent religious extremism that has inflicted so much suffering in the Middle East and the Subcontinent.

The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi and contributing editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

More From C. Raja Mohan
  1. Man Psh
    Feb 18, 2018 at 1:19 am
    "a secular modernising ruler" ??? No mention of the evil that "ruler" perpetrated against his people... for almost 40 years?! These think-tank strategists... warmonger scvm of the earth.
    1. Soemeer Prahladsingh
      Feb 17, 2018 at 10:53 pm
      India must sa uard its interests and become an econimic and military power of respect. A NO NONSENCE SOCIETY with peaceful neighbors. Education must be promoted and promoted with all kinds of resources, especially in UP and transforming states. The internal SPIES must be traced and locked up or taken to a re-education or labor camp to Russian and Chinese examples.
      1. Seshubabu Kilambi
        Feb 17, 2018 at 9:33 pm
        Since India has workng relationship with most middle nations, it can co- ordinate with them for peace talks in thevregion and try for peace andbstability
        1. Ram Anand
          Feb 17, 2018 at 7:05 pm
          The trouble with India is that it tries to hunt with the hounds and run with the hare, to be on everybody's side, to have its cake and eat it too, to sit on the fence, to try to win favours from the USA and Israel while refusing to give them anything or side decisively with them. This means India ends up with no friends who can help it when it is in real trouble and China invades. Iran is a fake friend for India. It is talking about collaborating with China and Pakistan in the Chabhar port Iran wants to do deals with China and Pakistan in Afghanistan. India devalues its friendship with the USA for some unreal gains in Iran. America gets the impression India is not serious, and will sacrifice India to do a deal with China.
          1. K
            Kamal Pasha
            Feb 17, 2018 at 6:47 pm
            Iran can be at odds with muslim countries but can never be good friend of Idol worshippers like India.
            1. M
              Feb 18, 2018 at 7:58 pm
              You are a greater 'idol' worshipper, Kamal, but you do not know it. The 'idols' that exist within your mind are more distracting than the physical ones I worship. As a Hindu, I proceed beyond the physical 'idol'. You start with a bare wall but end up with strong 'idols' in your mind. Even hatred of 'idol' worshippers is a form of 'idol'.
            2. Load More Comments