When Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands here on Sunday, he will seek to tap into a sentiment of hope and impatience that has gripped Iran as it comes out of its decades-long diplomatic winter.
Since sanctions were lifted four months ago after Tehran followed through on the commitments agreed at the nuclear deal with P-5+1 last year, the international community is working towards re-engaging with Iran.
To be part of that future, and building on a history of a relationship steeped in tradition and realpolitik, Modi will make a case for India’s role and space in Iran’s development.
“We are ready to do business with Iran in a big way… that will be a clear message from our side. This will be reiterated at all the meetings, from Supreme Leader (Ali) Khamenei to (Iranian) President (Hassan) Rouhani,” an Indian official told The Sunday Express today.
While the visit’s centrepiece will be the trilateral agreement on Chabahar port, Iranians are hoping that the new chapter will begin with that project and not end there. Indian officials say that besides Chabahar, the International South-South Transport Corridor will be another major project India is interested in.
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With Modi’s visit taking place after about four months of sanctions being lifted, comparisons are inevitable with other players in the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited in January, and China and Iran reached an agreement to develop bilateral cooperation under a 25-year strategic plan, signing 17 agreements and an MoU to establish the joint Silk Road Scientific Fund. Apart from China, the European Union, South Korea, Japan and other countries are trying to get into the Iranian market.
Mandana Tishehyar, faculty member of Allameh Tabataba’i University in Iran, said: “I think this visit has happened too late… As India and Iran have close economic cooperation and share many common cultural elements, it was expected that Modi would visit Iran during the first year of President Rouhani’s government. Many leaders from different European and Asian countries visited Iran and discussed new cooperation during recent months. But it seems that Modi’s government still has some internal and external concerns about expanding its cooperation with Iran.”
Not everyone is sceptical. Mohammad Hassan Khani, who teaches at the department of international relations at the Faculty of Political Science & Islamic Studies in Imam Sadiq University in Tehran, said, “This visit can open a new chapter in bilateral relations between Tehran and New Delhi, helping the two countries expand their relations in all areas including economic, political and security. The fact that this trip is taking place in the post-nuclear agreement era means that in the absence of sanctions barrier, there is now a good opportunity for Indian involvement in Iranian economy.”
Prof Reza Eslami, who teaches at the Faculty of Law in Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University, however, harped on the realistic issues. “We believe India can play a great role in the stabilisation process in the Middle East. To me, India has not lived up to its role yet. As for expectations, we want to settle the financial issue of India’s debt for years now. They have to pay back the debt as soon as possible because we are in need of it. This issue has an impact on the ties these days,” he said.
Iranian diplomats have conveyed their intention to be paid back the money, the US$ 6.4-billion in past oil dues. Indian officials said Delhi is routing the money through Halk Bank, and a partial payment is underway.
With the people in Tehran showing signs of impatience at the slow pace of change in the post-sanctions phase, the two sides are expected to talk about expediting public as well as private sector involvement in trade relations.
On the street, that impatience is the writing on the wall for anyone to see. Like on this pleasant 21-degree Saturday afternoon — Modi will get a break from the 40-plus capital heat — where Amir Taimoor, who sells jewellery at Tehran’s iconic Grand Bazaar, is waiting for customers. It’s been an hour since he opened his shop, but customers, mostly women, are window-shopping.
“They just come and see, and are not buying jewellery. There is not enough money in people’s pockets,” he said, with a wry smile. “I hope things change for the better soon,” he added.
“Nothing has changed, only the government has done a deal with America and our lives have not changed yet,” said an irritated salesman at a plush showroom of Tissot watches.
The bustling bazaar has long been a barometer of Tehran’s economic mood and many are seen shopping daily goods at cheaper prices, but not many high-end, expensive products. Advertisements of cars are prevalent on billboards on the main roads, including the arterial Valiasr avenue, but most cars on the road are old and worn-out.
The delay in the economic benefits accruing to Iran, even after it has kept its commitments on the nuclear agreement, has re-opened the faultlines between reformists and hardliners. While Rouhani is facing the heat from the country’s hardliners, including the powerful Revolutionary Guards, for not getting the dividends, Khamenei has been careful to not take a public position. In this context, a meeting between Modi and Khamenei is being seen as a vote of confidence for the reformist group under Rouhani.
The Rouhani-led moderates, who just won the parliamentary elections in February, will need such a show of support from international partners, as the country goes for presidential elections in 2017.
About eight kilometres away, tucked in a corner of a small bylane at Arabnia Street is the Gurudwara Bhai Ganga Singh Sikh Sabha. “Over the last five-six years, when the economic sanctions hit us hard, the purchasing power of people has gone down drastically. They cannot afford to buy expensive stuff. Over the last four-five months, sentiments are picking up, but people are impatient and want change soon,” said Darshanjyot Singh Anand, an Iranian Sikh in his 50s.
He, along with his fellow gurudwara committee members — all of whom are born and brought up as Iranians — are engaged in final preparations before Modi visits the gurudwara on Sunday evening. About 50 Sikh families, who live here and form a small community of people of Indian-origin, will be welcoming him at the gurudwara in central Tehran.
“Indians have good branding here…Tatas are here, Essar, Cipla, Himalaya and many motorcycle brands like Hero, Bajaj, TVS. But many more can come and make a difference in their economy,” said Joginder Pal Singh, a gurudwara committee member who has a business of spare parts in Tehran.
Rohollah Faghihi, a journalist at Intekhab News in Tehran who covered the Vienna talks, summed it up best. “People here thought that things would change overnight, and they celebrated. But they have to be patient for real changes to kick in… it will be a long haul,” he said.
New Delhi is well aware of how long that haul is going to be, said an official, and that’s why this visit by the Prime Minister to show that “India will be there by Iran’s side.”