By Md. Muddassir Quamar
On July 7, 2021, External Affairs Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar made a surprise stopover in Tehran on his way to Moscow for an official three-day visit. During the detour in Tehran, the EAM met with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif and discussed a number of bilateral and regional issues. Significantly, the EAM called on the President-elect Ebrahim Raisi and handed over a personal message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The EAM later tweeted saying “Thank President-elect Ebrahim Raisi for his gracious welcome. Handed over a personal message from PM @narendramodi. Appreciate his warm sentiments for India. Deeply value his strong commitment to strengthen our bilateral ties and expand cooperation on regional and global issues.”
This is the second stopover visit by EAM Jaishankar to Tehran since December 2020 and fourth high level engagement between India and Iran since the visit of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to Tehran in September 2020. In February 2021, Iranian Defence Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami had attended the first Indian Ocean Region (IOR) Defence Ministers’ Conclave on the side lines of Aero India 2021 in Bengaluru.
Explaining the context of the visit to Tehran, the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Arindam Bagchi, said that “The two sides exchanged views on regional and global issues of mutual interest. They also discussed the evolving situation in Afghanistan, and expressed concerns over the deteriorating security situation in that country.” He further states that “Both sides also discussed joint connectivity initiatives in the region, including the International North South Transport Corridor, and the Chabahar Port.”
Soon after, it was reported that President-elect Raisi has extended an invitation to India to attend his swearing-in ceremony on August 5. India though has not yet officially reacted to the invitation, it is being seen as an opportunity to develop strong contact with the incoming dispensation. For Iran, the overture is an attempt to infuse the absent warmth in the bilateral ties. In this context, the recent spurt in contacts acquires significance especially because of the perceived troubles in the ties over the past two years.
In May 2018, the United States (US) announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and imposed unilateral economic sanctions on Iran including on its oil industry. The US also threatened imposing secondary sanctions on countries that will continue to buy Iranian oil. Although India was exempted from importing Iranian oil for 180 days twice, Indian oil companies decided to reduce their oil imports from Iran and eventually stopped all oil imports as the US refused to renew the exemption at the end of the second in April 2019. This led to some bitterness between bilateral ties as Tehran would have liked India to continue buying oil from Iranian companies through arrangement such as Rupee payment, even if only symbolically.
Due to the lack of clarity on the impact of the US sanctions on the Chabahar Port and other associated infrastructure development projects, India’s engagement on the project had slowed down. India had, for instance, reduced the budgetary allocation for Chabahar Port project from approximately US$20 million in 2018 to nearly US$6 million in 2019. This had led to frustration in Tehran and partly contributed to the decision by Tehran to go ahead with the Chabahar-Zahedan rail line project without India’s IRCON that had signed a MoU with an Iranian company to partner in the project.
There are three important issues that have contributed in the latest developments and the rekindling of the India-Iran relations. Firstly, the developments in Afghanistan have led India to reach out to Iran. With the impeding withdrawal of US forces from the war-torn country and the rampaging advancement of Taliban militias, both India and Iran are concerned about the security and stability of Afghanistan. India has strong strategic interests in Afghanistan and is concerned with the way Taliban is making advances in the beleaguered country. There are strong possibilities of Afghanistan falling into another civil war, if the Afghan government is unable to check Taliban’s advances.
Iran has stakes in the security and stability of Afghanistan as another civil war will bring a new wave of refugees from the neighbouring country straining the already struggling Iranian economy. For India, it is important that the Afghan government does not lose control of the country as that would threaten India’s economic interests. The commonality of interests in peace and stability of Afghanistan as was reiterated by the EAM during his visit to Tehran is an important factor in India-Iran relations.
Notably, on the day of the visit by Indian EAM, Iran was hosting an intra-Afghan dialogue wherein an Afghan government delegation led by former foreign minister of Afghanistan Yunus Qanuni and a Taliban delegation headed by Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the deputy head of Taliban’s political office, were holding talks on peace and stability in the country.
Secondly, there are indication that Indian is concerned about the growing proximity between Iran and China. In March this year, the two signed a 25-year comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement to develop bilateral political, economic and strategic relations encompassing all areas of mutual interest. Given the evolution of Sino-Indian relations, the troubles in India-Iran relations and the growing proximity in China-Iran ties, concerns have been raised in New Delhi over alienating an important strategic partner in the Persian Gulf.
Thirdly, with the change in administration the nature of US factor, which had led to problems in Indo-Iranian ties in the first place, has changed. The Vienna talks, although not successful yet, are ongoing and might eventually lead to revised or fresh agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries. Besides, the Biden administration is not as hardliner on Iran as the previous Trump administration, and this means that India has a wider room for manoeuvre with Iran.
Notwithstanding these issues, Iran will welcome the ties with India and project it as a major foreign policy success. Iran considers India an important global actor and wants to have strong bilateral relations encompassing trade, investments and security ties. India will, however, need to be careful walking a tightrope in the Gulf and West Asia with many regional countries with which New Delhi has carefully cultivated strategic relations in the past few years viewing Iran with suspicion.
Further, India’s ties with Iran will be keenly watched in Washington and India will need to be mindful of the developments in Vienna. While the talks may be ongoing, the election of a hardliner president might create hurdles in revival of the JCPOA. President-elect Raisi, a former jurist who is under US sanctions for his role in persecution of hundreds of Iranian opposition figures, might not be too keen to revive the JCPOA without mounting a hard bargain. On the other hand, President Biden might find it difficult to receive bipartisan support in the US Congress on easing pressure on Iran. The administration will also come under pressure from regional partners of the US, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE, for putting extra conditions on Iran for easing sanctions.
For now, it is likely that the rekindling of ties with Iran will remain confined to the immediate issue of shared interests in Afghanistan. Other bilateral issues that have cropped up due to external factors will need more time to resolve as depending on the way progress made in negotiation between Iran and world powers on the fate of JCPOA.
-The author is Fellow, MP-IDSA. Views expressed are of the author and do not reflect the views of MP-IDSA or the government of India.