Indian foreign policy has successfully navigated the multiple levels of contestations in the Gulf and West Asia by maintaining and keeping cordial relation with all the key actors in the region. However, since 2018 it is a tight spot for India to balance West Asian powers, focusing on Iran. The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), re-imposition of sanctions, and signing of Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) had put India in a difficult situation from both sides giving its developing strategic partnership with the U.S, on the one hand, and strong bilateral ties with Iran, on the other.
In this duration, Beijing grabbed advantage of the vacuum and solidified its relations with Iran. President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iran in 2016 with the proposal and plan to invest capital worth $ 400 billion deal paid off in 2019. It resulted in the dropping of India from the Chabahar rail project. This rail project was part of the trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan. It was significant as it connected Chabahar port to Afghanistan and the rest of the Eurasian countries. Another setback came with removing India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) from an Iranian gas field project, as both sides had been in talks since 2009. This well-timed deal allowed to expand the footprint and fetched China to tamper with India’s strategy in the region.
The Iran-China deal aims to enlarge Iran’s banking, telecommunications, ports, railways and dozens of other sectors. The growing investment, expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and strategy by Beijing in Tehran could hamper the geopolitical interest of New Delhi in the region. The presence of Beijing simultaneously offers Islamabad an opportunity to improve its relations in the region. Pakistan introduced a new visa policy for Afghanistan to facilitate business and people’s contact between both countries. The Pakistan, Turkey, Iran rail project to enhance economic viability will negatively affect India due to the strained relations with Turkey and Pakistan. It will put Pakistan’s fear to rest, being encircled by India through dominant Iran and Afghanistan positions.
The China-Iran deal tends to deepen military and maritime cooperation as well. It includes various joint training exercises, collaborative research, weapons development and intelligence sharing. The infrastructural development initiative at the Jask port and Qeshm Island located outside of the Strait of Hormuz by the Chinese indicates its interest in the maritime arena. It will equip China to step up its naval footprint and lead to trilateral exercises with Iran and Pakistan. It will establish a naval presence in the Strait of Hormuz, which will create a surveillance network system to monitor the U.S. and Indian maritime activity in the region. India’s movement in the area can get restricted, as Chabahar port lies between Gwadar and Jask port. New Delhi will have maritime implications.
The Indian Defence and External Affairs Minister visit to Iran last year serves as a good starting point. The visit came to discuss bilateral ties and resolve the existing differences between the two countries. The Defence Minister’s visit was related to the Persian Gulf’s security and military cooperation between India and Iran. The second high-level visit marked by Dr S Jaishankar focused on securing India’s interest in Chabahar port due to increasing Chinese activity.
The visit of Iranian defence minister, Brigadier General Amir Hatami last month at the Aero India 2021 event in Bengaluru, became the country’s first defence minister to pay India’s visit in 40 years. It will open a new and vital path of cooperation between India and Iran. Further, the Indian delegation led by joint secretary JP Singh of the external affairs ministry to Iran handed over two 140-ton mobile harbour cranes for strategic Chabahar port. The Indian side reviewed the progress of the Shahid Beheshti terminal at Chabahar Port. During the visit, J.P. Singh meets vital officials in the Hassan Rohani administration. The visit paid by both the officials will help equip both sides to reset and boost their relations.
The revival of India and Iran relation depends on many aspects. Both countries have always shared deep social, cultural, economic and political connections and links that led to the enrichment of civilizations. The slowdown in the relationship has brought a significant setback in financial and strategic aspect. The contemporary relation between two partners revolves around economic, energy, strategic elements.
The energy sector remains the most crucial factor in India- Iran ties; both countries need to explore other means to enhance this cooperation. India should consider reviving the long-delayed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline following the chances of easing sanctions against Iran. It will improve the energy sector development as it starts afresh rebooting process with Tehran and a ceasefire agreement at the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir with Islamabad. By accepting and making this deal feasible, India might oblige Pakistan to stick to the ceasefire agreement. As both, the countries need to secure energy supplies to maintain economic growth. The embargo of the U.S. had restricted India from buying oil from Iran. With the increasing energy needs and domestic fuel price rising, India should turn to Iran. It will push Tehran’s economy, and New Delhi will get oil at an affordable rate.
India’s diplomacy with Iran is deep-rooted in strategic interests also. The two nations have a common interest in Afghanistan. India and Iran want a peaceful Afghanistan. Both countries should improve trade as it will help maintain peace and explore further possibilities in Afghanistan. Iran is a strategically essential player for India in the region. The geographical location of Iran is a plus point for continuous engagement in Afghanistan. Also, its- long-standing cultural ties are vital to exercise geopolitical and geo-strategic influence in the region. The building up of the challenging situation in Afghanistan, due to the recent Taliban visit to Iran at the time of intra-Afghan dialogue and the return of Iran backed Fitmiyoun Brigade in Afghanistan, will make Iran an essential focal point of contact diplomatically. India needs to consider this issue. It will put Indian foreign policy to the test because it will not be an easy task for India to manage anything related to Afghanistan with Iran.
India will have a massive task of safeguarding its ties with Iran to avoid any negative fallouts again. New Delhi must strive diplomatically to preserve relations, keeping in mind its energy- security interests and other economic opportunities and regional dynamics. To stay at substantial stakes, India needs to expand the ambit of projects in Iran. The crumbling Iran’s economy due to U.S. sanctions offers India to pump more money into the projects. It will provide New Delhi with an opportunity to draw and negotiate better terms and conditions from Tehran’s excluded projects. Allocation of 100 crores for the development of Chabahar port by the Government of India in the 2021-22 budget will turn out to be effective. The Chabahar port acts as a bridge between India and Central Asia.
The port is a counter-balance to Gwadar in Pakistan. India can step up its presence in Central Asia as it is part of the Ashgabat agreement. The trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Uzbekistan will improve connectivity and offers Uzbekistan’s support, as they are swiftly moving to partner on Chabahar. Under the Ashgabat agreement, India can step up its influence and presences. On March 4th, 2021, India hosted the ”Chabahar day” on the international maritime summit’s side-line. At the event, New Delhi proposed interest in the inclusion of Chabahar with the mega International North-South Transport Corridor that connects Mumbai with Moscow. The landlocked countries like Afghanistan and Uzbekistan are keen on joining the connectivity project. These visionary projects will help India to establish an impact throughout the region.
The re-joining of the U.S. in JCPOA is very important for India to reset and balance its relation with Iran. It will help New Delhi get out of the grim situation it had fallen into during the Trump administration. Simultaneously, the delay in resuming the Biden administration’s dialogue with Iran curtails and compels India to adopt a cautious approach for the time being. So the positive and mutual outcome between the U.S. and Iran on the nuclear deal is significant for India. The development between Tehran and Beijing has already put New Delhi in an alarming situation. The downturn in India and Iran relation was the outcome of U.S rivalry and crippling sanction. It abided by U.S. rules and soured its relations with Iran. It’s time for New Delhi to take full advantage of the changed government in the U.S. to reset its relation with Iran. With the significant presence and power of the U.S in Central Asia, India can grab the opportunity to increase its influence. The collective approach will help both countries to tackle the increasing China-Pakistan nexus. If the U.S. shows a more pragmatic policy toward Iran, it will be helpful for India too.
The current India- Iran relation is based on the utility of friendship. In utility friendship, links are impermanent. It changes according to the circumstances (Iran-U.S tussle placed India in a difficult situation), so with the fading of the ground for friendship (India stopped purchasing oil from Iran), the friendship also breaks down because that was what kept it alive. Both countries must develop a friendship of goodness where there is an unselfish desire to help each other. India should push for improving cultural ties, encourage the exchange of resources, and current India’s vaccine diplomacy improves relations as Iran requests Covid 19 vaccines. It is a step in the right direction, as it will bolster India’s global soft power and help Tehran’s hearts and confidence. New Delhi must deploy its total diplomatic channels to engage regardless of the changing geopolitical aspect to open up more significant opportunities for our engagement with Iran. Also, the region holds great importance, so New Delhi needs to carefully draft its foreign policy with a clear vision of its national interest.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.