Protests over the Narendra Modi government’s handling of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) peaked and the capital slipped into widespread arson, looting and murder as US President Donald Trump arrived, on a stand-alone visit, on February 24 in Ahmedabad and then went on to Delhi via Agra. The situation had simmered for weeks as Delhi had an acrimonious election, which the lost BJP badly. Happenings in the city distracted from the visit, even as glasses were raised at Rashtrapati Bhavan at the Indian President’s banquet on February 25.
President Trump, known for his uninhibited tweets, read his carefully-crafted public address at Motera stadium. He referred to India as a democracy which was peaceful and tolerant. He lauded freedom, rule of law, liberty and protection of human dignity, adding graphically that where India had the holy Ganges, it also had the Golden Temple and Jama Masjid. He thereby cleverly reassured critics at home, especially in the US Congress, that he was not ignoring the values the two great democracies shared. However, as the situation in Delhi spun into violence the next day, in an untutored media interaction at the US ambassador’s residence, he ducked questions about the CAA or Delhi riots, nonchalantly remarking it was “up to India” to deal with it. This may have brought comfort to the Indian government but the world at large differed.
Delhi had already exchanged angry words with Malaysia, Turkey and even Indonesia over their varied critique of India’s handling of its Muslim minority when Iran joined the issue. First, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the “wave of organised violence against Indian Muslims”, adding that “Iran has been a friend of India”. India’s foreign ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest the inappropriateness of the minister’s remark. Soon after, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei found the time, in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak, to excoriate the Indian government. Claiming that the “hearts of Muslims all over the world are grieving over the massacre of Muslims in India”, he warned that unless the Indian government confronted “extremist Hindus”, India stands to be isolated from “the world of Islam”. Adding insult to injury, he appended #IndianMuslimsInDanger.
A facile response, ideal for television debates, can be that Iran is being hypocritical as it has not expressed remorse over the Chinese repression of Uyghurs. But China is a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, which also sustains the Iranian economy despite US sanctions. On the other hand, India has a Shia population second only to that of Iran. There are two Iranian consulates in India in Hyderabad and Mumbai. Iran seeks a third one in Lucknow. Qom also hosts many Shia students, particularly from the Kargil region. After Humanyun’s exile in Iran (1530-40) before recovering the Indian throne, the Persian language and culture fired the cultural renaissance at the Mughal court. Thus, India is important for Iran for its religo-cultural heritage, unlike China, which is needed for transactional and strategic reasons. Two interrelated questions flow from this reasoning: What is Iran’s importance for India and the trajectory of India-Iran relations over last two decades? And why is Iran adopting this sharp tone over what the Indian government argues is an internal matter?
The closest India-Iran strategic convergence began in the 1990s, particularly after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996. These ties blossomed under reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In 2001, the two signed the Teheran Declaration. Khatami in his opening remarks said that Iran always admired India’s secular credentials and Vajpayee had maintained that tradition. Iran thus lay to rest the Islamic world’s discomfort over the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992. In 2003, Khatami was chief guest at India’s Republic Day and a New Delhi Declaration was issued. But thereafter, the relationship began to slip as Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme and assistance from Pakistan’s rogue scientist A Q Khan was uncovered in mid-2003. Concomitantly, India was drawing closer to the US and negotiating a nuclear cooperation agreement. The US used the nuclear issue to cause a cleavage as Indian and Iranian interests began seriously diverging. In any case, the Taliban had been ejected from Afghanistan and US troops literally surrounded Iran, having in 2003 overthrown Saddam Hussein. Geo-strategy trumped diplomacy.
Iran-US relations also went through a cycle, with President Barack Obama recalibrating US policy towards the Gulf and West Asia. Calculating that without Iran, ISIS could not be countered, the US in 2015 endorsed the nuclear deal that P-5 and Germany negotiated to end the nuclear stand-off. Although India-Iran relations after that returned to near normal as most US sanctions were lifted, the warmth of the 1990s was missing. Iran was now beginning to extend its influence and role across Iraq and West Asia. President Donald Trump in 2016 reversed US policy and since then “maximum pressure” has been applied on Iran via tightened sanctions. PM Modi also moved more forthrightly to engage Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, a fallout of the US policy reversal has been an exacerbation of not only the Shia-Sunni split but a Sunni-Sunni split as Qatar and Turkey are with Iran.
In Iran’s parliamentary election on February 28, extremely conservative members have been elected, the moderates having been vetoed by the Guardians Council earlier. Turnout was a low 43 per cent, due partly to fear of the coronavirus. Iran is even more isolated, though determined to resist US demands, due to communications being curtailed due to the virus. It has good working relations with the Taliban and converging interests to see that US troops exit the region. Iran is battling to ensure a friendly government in Baghdad, despite the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani, by keeping militias aligned to it in play.
Khamenei’s tweet reflects the perception that India is in the US-Saudi-Emirati corner and of little use as long as Trump is president. Hugs in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Ahmedabad would have led Iran to this conclusion. In the Islamic world, Iran by publicly defending Indian Muslims, embarrasses the silent Saudis. It also calculates that India needs access to Afghanistan through Chabahar to assist the Ghani government or influence developments there. The Modi government’s majoritarian domestic agenda, now being fine-tuned for the West Bengal election, has begun under-cutting its secular foreign policy, which even Vajpayee espoused. The coming months will show if the domestic agenda is pared or pursued despite diplomatic costs.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 7, 2020 under the title ‘The diplomatic cost’. Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and ambassador to Iran and UAE.