Nuances and complexities
On a visit to India in August 1994, Hassan Rouhani, then Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (effectively the National Security Adviser), spoke about the treatment of minorities, including, according to some accounts, their “persecution” in the wake of the Babri demolition. He recognised the Hurriyat Conference as “true representatives” of Kashmiris. In the process, he dealt a blow to recent efforts at strengthening ties between India and Iran, which had seen a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in Jakarta in 1992 and, in the following year, the first visit to Iran by an Indian Prime Minister after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In March 1994, Iran blocked a consensus against India on Kashmir at the UN Human Rights Commission.
Rouhani’s comments probably nixed Rafsanjani’s proposed visit to India that October, even though the official reason given was the Surat plague scare of September 1994. In less than a year, however, New Delhi and Tehran, possibly nudged by the machinations of the ISI in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban, made common cause — and in April 1995, Rao welcomed Rafsanjani personally at Delhi airport. It turned out to be a landmark visit, and the President’s address to the joint session of Parliament ended with what former Prime Minister I K Gujral described as an “unprecedented” ovation.
In Lucknow, Rafsanjani commended India’s secularism to a cheering Shia crowd, and at his press conference in Delhi, dismissed a Pakistani journalist’s question on Babri saying there was no “need for further propaganda in this regard”. He praised India’s “serious will” on Kashmir, and rejected Pakistan’s call for US mediation. In one-on-one talks with Rao, he stressed Iran’s neutrality on the Kashmir dispute, according to one account of their meeting.
President Rouhani’s ongoing visit, which will include bilateral talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, comes 10 years after President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad travelled to India in 2008. India-Iran ties were testy then — from New Delhi’s voting behaviour at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Tehran perceived it to be closer to the US and EU, which were mounting pressure on Iran’s nuclear programme. Things are different now — and the two countries have crucial common strategic interests. In their engagement, the sides will be mindful both of their shared cultural and historical ties, and of the several ups and downs the bilateral relationship has witnessed.
A long history of ties
Diplomatic ties were established on March 15, 1950, and before the 1979 Revolution, the Shah of Iran visited India twice (March 1956 and February 1978). Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Morarji Desai travelled to Iran in 1959, April 1974, and June 1977, respectively.
After the Revolution, following Rao’s visit to Iran in 1993 and Rafsanjani’s to India in 1995, Vice President K R Narayanan visited Iran in October 1996. In April 2001, during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Tehran, the two countries signed the Tehran Declaration that laid out a framework of possible cooperation. The Delhi Declaration, signed during the visit of President Mohammad Khatami, who was the Chief Guest at Republic Day, 2003, described the vision of a strategic partnership.
A long hiatus followed, until Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Iran for the 16th Non-Aligned Movement Summit in August 2012. He met Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. After the conclusion of the P5+1 talks with Iran in 2015, Western sanctions were formally lifted in January 2016. In May that year, Modi visited Tehran to unlock the potential of the bilateral relationship.
Rouhani’s visit, in the second term of his presidency, comes at a time when the administration of President Donald Trump has taken a belligerent line on Iran, and threatens to reimpose sanctions.
Connective, energy, strategy
For India, with the passage of time, priorities of engagement with Iran, too, have changed. Now, the main pillar of engagement is connectivity. The Chabahar port in southeastern Iran is the lynchpin of that engagement, because the port gives India alternative access to Afghanistan and onwards to Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan.
India then, has a vital interest in operationalising Chabahar to its “full potential”. The first consignment of Indian wheat was sent to Afghanistan through Chabahar in October-November last year, and the first phase of the port was formally inaugurated by President Rouhani in December. Full operationalisation is likely by the end of this year.
India is also working with Iran to operationalise the ambitious International North South Transport Corridor, which will connect Mumbai with Central Asia, through the port of Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz, and then through rail and road links to the Eurasian region.
The other major pillar driving the engagement is energy. India imports almost 60% of its crude from West Asia and the Gulf, and Iran is one of the major suppliers. New Delhi is keen to lift the relationship to a comprehensive partnership by developing the Farzad B offshore oilfields in the Persian Gulf. Indian companies can now invest in rupees in Iran — Bhutan and Nepal are the other two countries that get such treatment — and President Rouhani is likely to make a pitch for Indian businesses to come to Iran.
Then there is the common interest in stabilising Afghanistan. But while Tehran views the US involvement in that country with suspicion, India believes that Washington’s commitment on the ground is critical to stave off Pakistani power plays. It is important to address these divergences through honest and frank conversations between the two sides. There is also a strong case for improved people-to-people links. Restrictive visa regimes have ensured the Indian diaspora in Iran is small in comparison to other countries in the region, and the tourist traffic is low.
While Rouhani’s visit is seen as a balancing act with the visit of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, India insists its ties with Tehran and Tel Aviv are independent of each other, since India has strategic ties with both countries. Modi, in fact, made back-to-back visits to regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2016.