The visit of Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani last week yet again underlines the basic truth in diplomacy. Bilateral relations between nations need not be hostage to the strained ties either of them might have with a third country with which the other maintains good relations. The fact that India has friendly ties with Saudi Arabia and a number of other Sunni nations in West Asia does not impinge on the quality of its relationship with Iran, the Shia-majority country ranged against the Saudis and others in its bloc. Traditionally too, India and Iran have had warm relations, with Iran generally mindful of India’s concerns over Kashmir when Pakistan has often sought to enlist other Islamic nations on its side in various Islamic forums.
However, the Rouhani visit came at a particularly tense moment in the Iran-Saudi ties. Iran is accused by Saudi Arabia of seeking to destabilise West Asia, encouraging Islamic militias against Sunni nations. Its nuclear programme is an eyesore to the Saudis and President Trump has most controversially sought to undermine the nuclear deal which capped the Iranian nuclear programme in exchange for the relaxation of the UN sanctions. Despite Trump’s open opposition to the nuclear deal, India has openly supported it and wants it to be implemented sincerely.
The nuclear deal endorsed by the UN Security Council and Germany came at a time for Iran when the sanctions were beginning to hurt its economy. The recent food riots in several regional towns against the Government, and pointedly against the diversion of valuable resources for funding Iran’s anti-Saudi campaign in the wider Muslim world, underline the precarious state of the Iranian economy. India, as one of the major importers of Iranian oil, has sought to raise its trade relations with Iran. A preferential trade and bilateral investment agreement is on the anvil. A double taxation agreement was signed after protracted negotiations.
Though Iran has shed its earlier hostility towards the Taliban, and is ready to work with it, India’s reservations over the influence of Pakistan on the Taliban remain unaddressed. Yet, the agreement to lease a part of the Chabahar port opens further opportunity to expand its commercial ties with Iran. Contrary to the impression that India has a monopoly over Chabahar, and would use it for strategic purposes in Afghanistan and beyond in Central Asia, Iran has also leased a part of the port to China. Access to Afghanistan from Chabahar will ease India’s problems of carrying goods and services overland to the land-locked nation since Pakistan is adamant on denying India access. In some way, India will have reason to feel relieved with the opening of Chabahar given that the Chinese built — and — controlled Gwadar port is barely 70 kilometer east of the Iranian port. Admittedly, the scope for greater Indian investment in Iran remains untapped due to an uncertain security situation.
In 2003, when President Mohammed Khatami was the honoured guest at the Republic Day, there were tentative proposals for Indian businesses to establish steel, fertilizer, petrochemical plants, etc in the Chabahar free trade zone, but eventually nothing came of these. Iran’s internal and external situation does not inspire confidence among foreign investors. The fact that more than any other nation in the Islamic world, it is Iran which is openly and implacably hostile against Israel and arms and funds the extremist organisation, the Hamas, does not square with its ambition to grow its economy with foreign investment.
Despite its friendly ties with India, Iran remains an uncertain commodity for most nations, and a pariah for the US and its front-ranking allies in the Islamic world. The deal on Chabahar, after a long delay, underlines the dexterity of Indian diplomacy. Despite Iran’s belated willingness to do business even with the Taliban and its patron, Pakistan, India did not waver. Thanks to the determination of Prime Minister Modi, the agreement on leasing a part of Chabahar could become a reality. India and Iran have had closer cultural ties and these two are set to grow further following the Rouhani visit.