Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Iran and the subsequent signing of the strategic Chabahar port deal are huge strides towards what should be a beautiful friendship between the Islamic Republic and India. With India set to invest $500m for the trade transport corridor that would entirely bypass Pakistan, the deal, apart from helping India build closer ties with Iran and Central Asia, would also help it to directly compete with China’s growing influence in the region.
Taken as a whole, the Chabahar agreement represents an open door towards more future cooperation on issues such as terrorism, security, energy, trade, culture etc. New Delhi seems to have realised that Iran is set to emerge as not only an important supplier of energy, but also as a key regional player in Central Asia and the Near East. That is why Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rightly proclaimed that “the agreement is not only an economic document but political and regional too.”
India and Iran have had long and close cultural links, and their ancient and modern histories have been intertwined. Since Indian independence, the relations have been essentially peaceful, friendly and empathic. They have turned more fruitful and productive after the Iranian revolution of 1979, the war in Afghanistan and the tense Iranian-Pakistani ties.
Iranian authorities have accused Pakistan’s ISI of helping the Baloch separatist movement in Iran and its leader Abdulmalik Rigi. As a result of this and the deterioration of Iranian-Pakistani relations after the political developments against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran’s interest in India as a potential regional partner has increased.
Furthermore, Iran’s non-ideological approach toward India, after the election of the reformist president Muhammad Khatami, has contributed to the political and economic rapprochement between the two countries. Interestingly, expanding strategic relations with India have had the support of all political factions in the Iranian nomenclature. The Islamic Republic has also kept its distance from Muslim-related issues in India, while promising proactive help to India in fighting al Qaeda and other forms of Islamist jihadism.
The first step in Indian-Iranian regional cooperation was taken during the visit of then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was in Tehran in April 2000, followed by Muhammad Khatami’s visit to India in January 2002 (as a guest at the Independence Day function). They were boosted by the signing of the New Delhi Declaration which laid out the principles of cooperation in defence, including the training of Iranian military personnel by India.
Moreover, the current bilateral trade between the two countries is about $14bn, while Indian exports to Iran were around $4.2bn in 2014. India’s economic progress and its global ambitions as a full-time player in international affairs have contributed to Iran’s interest in the country as a way to challenge US global hegemony.
Iran, however, felt betrayed by India’s decision to vote in favour of sending its nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council in September 2006. Surprisingly, India had used its “good-relations-with-Iran” card to get preferential treatment from the Bush administration in relation to the US-India nuclear deal. It is important to note that Iran, known for its anti-Israeli and anti-American point of view, has been extremely accommodative and understanding of India’s friendship and economic cooperation with both these countries.
Therefore, despite their disappointments, Iranian authorities have continued to stress their interest in expanding their political and economic ties with India. This is why Iran suggested building a pipeline to bring its LNG to India. US opposition to the project, however, and the tense Indo- Pakistan relations made an overland pipeline a difficult enterprise. But let us not forget, that Iran’s vital desire on all India-Iran projects, the Modi government’s new Middle East policy and its decision to capitalise on business opportunities provided by the Islamic republic, have turned the Chabahar port as the point of origin for the proposed Iran-India pipeline. As such, there are valid reasons to agree with the fact that the Chabahar deal is also a response to China’s pursuit of a port in Pakistan’s Gwadar region.
Nonetheless, with the lifting of western sanctions, Iran is once again considered as a very resourceful country with greater political stability than many of its neighbours. It is also now recognised to have the largest combined oil and gas reserves in the world, with 9.3 per cent of global oil reserves and 18.2 per cent of gas reserves. That is to say, the next few years are likely to be a great period for Western oil and gas companies and non-Western countries like India to invest in Iran.
What India has achieved in regard to Iran through diplomacy and complexity management, rather than threats, sanctions and demonisation, is to understand the Islamic republic as a vital bridge between East and East, and as the most stable, safe and inviting stop along the Silk Road. Unlike what many might think, this would not have been possible without the commitment of both parties to constructive engagement and their mutual initiative for a regional dialogue.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Ripe for a reboot’)