Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has begun his three-day India visit, during which he is set to engage in bilateral talks with PM Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Saturday. The contemporary relationship between the two regional players is marked by continuous interactions in the fields of education, culture, commerce and energy, but also only sporadic moments of cooperation that have not flourished to potential in long term thus far.
The Indian subcontinent borders Iran, which shared a de facto common frontier in pre-independence India with connections spanning thousands of years between the two ancient civilisations. Kashmir and Kanyakumari are further away from each other than Tehran and New Delhi. The Persian influence — particularly on the language (Urdu and Hindustani) and the architecture (from Lahore to Agra) — in Mughal period India are strong, tangible remnants of those ties. Even prior to that, circa eighth century, the migration of the Zoroastrian people fleeing from persecution to western India, made India the permanent home to the world’s largest such community — the Parsis.
Shortly after Indian independence, India and Iran established formal foreign relations in 1950, but were not off to the best start. During the early decades of the Cold War, a non-aligned India supported the Soviet Union while Iran, under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was aligned with the United States. Despite that, leaders and ministers from both countries did exchange visits, beginning with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s tour of India in 1956. Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi also visited Iran and were received with honours.
Following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the relations remained strained as Iran backed Pakistan against India, while India supported Iraq during the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s. After the end of the Cold War, however, bilateral relations between India and Iran improved in the 1990s.
The US, which has considered the Islam-majority Iran an adversary ever since 1979, has continued to be an important factor in the development or diminishing of Indo-Iranian relations. Post 9/11, the three countries found themselves against the ruling Taliban and in an interesting regional matrix for collaborating over securing individual political and strategic interests in Afghanistan. In this regard, Iranian president Mohammad Khatami’s visit to India and signing of the ‘New Delhi Declaration’ on January 25, 2003, which called upon the two states to ‘increase strategic collaboration in third countries’ i.e. Afghanistan, was of special significance.
The US also grew closer to India, particularly in 2005, following a breakthrough 2005 civilian nuclear energy deal under which it offered its cooperation to develop India’s civil nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, it led an effort in the UN to impose international economic sanctions against Iran after it refused to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. Following that, India was pressured by the US to curtail its purchases of Iranian crude oil, and to support the sanctions against Iran.
India’s votes at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) against Iran in September 2005 and February 2006 immediately affected India-Iran relations, with the latter cancelling the agreement to supply India with Liquid Natural Gas and calling for a renegotiation of the deal. In the backdrop of growing US-India strategic partnership, closer security cooperation between US, Israel and India security in the regional context and deepening involvement of India with the occupation forces in Afghanistan, the relations of the two countries experienced a slide. During his visit to Tehran in 2008, then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee overtly expressed Indian realization of the changing regional context and emphasised the need for both countries “to look at India-Iran relations afresh.”
Chabahar Port: A regional tug of war with Pakistan
On top of President Rouhani’s agenda in his ongoing India visit is the early operationalisation of the Chabahar port on Iran’s Arabian Sea coast — a major initiative between India and Iran and a long-planned Indian investment towards its development. The project has been central to India’s hopes to open a new transport corridor for Indian exports into Central Asia and Afghanistan that would bypass Pakistan. It is viewed as India’s counterfoil to China’s development of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, which lies barely 100 km east of Chabahar, on Pakistani territory.
During Modi’s Tehran visit in 2016, India, Iran and Afghanistan came together to sign the Trilateral Transit Agreement (TTA) that established the trade corridor that would link the Chabahar port to Afghanistan. Therein too, India proposed ambitious investment plans for Chabahar’s development. The deal was of interest to landlocked Afghanistan as the TTA would provide it with an alternative route to the sea, and hence reduce its current dependence on Pakistan’s Karachi port.
Against One Belt One Road
In a pushback against China’s ultra ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India has been collaborating with Japan to build the Freedom Corridor, which would create new road, rail and shipping routes that would stretch from South East Asia to Sri Lanka, Iran and Africa. Another major project is the proposed International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) proposed by India, which would develop a network of ship, rail, and road routes for moving goods over 7,000 km from India’s western ports up to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and exit the country through its Caspian sea port Bandar Anzali, then up to the Russian port of Astrakhan and on to markets in Russia, Europe and Central Asia. The INSTC is expected to greatly reduce costs compared to the current shipping route which runs through the Suez Canal, the Strait of Gibraltar and around the top of northern Europe.