INDIAN Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visit to Iran beginning May 22, 2016 has considerable significance in geostrategic terms. India is clearly getting closer to Iran, now that there are no longer any constraints due to sanctions against Iran, imposed by the West and the UN. Even during the sanctions regime, India had been given special permission to continue to import oil from Iran, which had ranked as the second largest source of Indian oil imports until 2012.
In the last twenty years, there has been a steady growth in India-Iran relations. From Iran’s perspective, a deliberate “look east” policy has made India an attractive choice. This shift was necessitated by the ground reality that Iran continued to have an adversarial relationship with the USA, coupled with the fear that Israel, seen as a US protégé, might make a pre-emptive attack on Iran. In 1994, Iran considered building a possible anti-US alliance consisting of Iran, India and China. The Iranian idea got nowhere because neither China nor India would join such an alliance. In 2003, President Khatami made a state visit to India when he was the chief guest at India’s National Day celebrations.
During the visit, Khatami signed the New Delhi Declaration with Prime Minister Vajpayee setting forth the vision of a “strategic partnership” between the two countries. They pledged to collaborate on energy, trade and economic issues. They decided to strengthen their cooperation in counter-terrorism and “broaden their strategic collaboration” in third countries. Soon thereafter, Iranian and Indian warships conducted joint naval exercises. India agreed to train Iranian military personnel. The two sides agreed, along with Russia, to create a Russo-Iranian-Indian transport corridor. Ever since, India has been has been working on the Chabahar port and its onward linkage with Afghanistan. The obvious purpose is to provide an alternate transit route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, in competition with Pakistan.
Thousands of Iranian students are studying in India. A recent opinion poll in Iran has shown that a large percentage of Iranians have a favourable impression of India. India is home to the world’s second largest Shia population, second only to Iran. These Indian Shia Muslims are a pro-Iran lobby in India. With the lifting of sanctions against Iran, there are enhanced possibilities of trade and investment between the two countries. Ahead of Modi’s visit, an Indian official said “we are ready to do business with Iran in a big way.” The visit’s centrepiece will be the trilateral agreement on Chabahar but India is also interested in another major project, the International South-South Transport Corridor. It seems that CPEC, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, has jolted India, as well as Iran and Afghanistan, who see it also as a rival transit route to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
There are some restraining factors in the growth of India-Iran relations. There is the issue of a long-pending debt of about six billion dollars that India has to pay back to Iran for oil imports. Iran also feels aggrieved that India has been slow to respond to its overtures for the past many years. Even apart from the various sanctions on Iran, India was hesitant to respond due to its growing strategic alliance with the USA, particularly in the last decade. Moreover, India has grown closer to Israel for strategic and military reasons. The USA and Israel are seen as the main adversaries by Iran. Against this background, Modi has a balancing act to perform during his current visit to Iran.
Though President Rouhani visited Pakistan in March 2016 and assured that “Pakistan’s security is Iran’s security”, it seems that both sides continue to have mental reservations about each other. Pakistan is worried by the growing ties between Iran and India. It sees the Chabahar transit route as a clear bid to sideline Pakistan as a transit route. The arrest of an Indian RAW agent Kulbhushan Yadav revealed that he had been operating for years from his base in Chabahar. The matter was taken up with Iran but there is no indication that Iran has done something to arrest his accomplices in Iran. Since the 1990s, Pakistan and Iran have been supporting opposing sides in Afghanistan: Pakistan being closer to Pakhtuns whereas Iran has been siding with the non-Pakhtuns.
The Taliban regime (1994-2001), which fought against the non-Pakhtuns, was seen as an ally of Pakistan. Even at present, both Iran and Afghanistan have the impression that Pakistan supports the Taliban in the current fighting in Afghanistan. Iran has also been critical that some Baluch groups have used sanctuaries in Pakistan to create an insurgency in Iranian Baluchistan. Finally, Iran is worried about Pakistan’s close military ties with Saudi Arabia with whom Iran is engaged at present in a cold war. At the outset, the Iranian Islamic Revolution seemed to be focused on Islamic ideology. The country was renamed as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Allama Iqbal was said to be one of the inspirations of the Islamic Revolution. The supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenai is author of a book on Iqbal. But from Iran’s actual conduct, it has become increasingly evident that national interests rather than ideology motivate the regime’s foreign policy. Since the 1990s, Iran has stopped supporting the Kashmiri freedom struggle, evidently as a concession to India. Iran has also established close ties with Russia.
In geostrategic terms, a shifting of alliances is currently taking place. On one hand, Pakistan and China have entered a long-term alliance through ambitious projects under CPEC. On the other hand, India seems to be getting closer to Iran and Afghanistan, which looks like a kind of encirclement of Pakistan. Pakistani public opinion finds it difficult to digest as to how two Muslim neighbours, with whom they have so many historical and cultural ties, should prefer India over Pakistan. Clearly, there is a need for introspection. One obvious explanation is that, for many years, Pakistan has allowed itself to become a sanctuary for militants of various hues, particularly the Jihadists, who have been involved in operations against neighbouring countries. It is imperative for both Pakistan’s internal and external security to continue the crackdown against extremists under Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Also, it is high time to complete the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project to enhance relations with Iran.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.