Between early July and early August, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar made two official visits to Iran. The first, on July 7, was to pay respects to the then President-elect Ebrahim Raisi. Jaishankar turned up again in Tehran for Raisi’s swearing in on August 6. The question that arises here is a simple one: Why is India cozying up to Iran when the latter is still under U.N. and U.S. sanctions and considered something of a pariah by many Western powers?
Abandoned by the United States in Afghanistan and flanked by aggressive enemy-states such as China in the north and Pakistan in the west, India is desperate to win friends and gain influence in the region. That it must pursue its own diplomatic game in order to up the status quo ante is evident from Jaishankar’s shuttle diplomacy.
Under the new hard-line president, Tehran and New Delhi appear to be doing a diplomatic waltz. As Raisi made it amply clear in his meeting with the Indian foreign minister, “from today on, we should take new and distinct steps in the development of bilateral, regional and international relations with a new perspective.” But can they walk the talk? How serious are these public pronouncements? Are these just sound bites for the press?
A Questionable Ally
Tehran is extremely fickle when it comes to its bilateral pledges and obligations. While New Delhi has been courting Tehran incessantly over the past decade, Iran was signing deal after deal with India’s arch-enemy China. In fact, much to the chagrin of New Delhi, on March 27, 2020, Tehran and Beijing signed the “Comprehensive Plan for Cooperation between Iran and China,” a 25-year agreement, “to strengthen their long-standing economic and political alliance.” Later, on the heels of this monumental friendship pact, came the nearly$400 billion China-Iran investment deal.
Contrast that with how India is faring with Iran. In July 2020, nearly four years after Tehran and New Delhi signed an agreement to construct a rail line from the port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman to Zahedan, along the frontier with Afghanistan, the Iranian government unilaterally scrapped the deal and decided to go it alone with the project.
In recent years, Iran also has been not so subtle in its interventions in India’s domestic affairs. Following New Delhi’s scrapping of the controversial Article 370 regarding the disputed province of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, there was an unusual response from Tehran. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a group of the country’s grand ayatollahs condemned the Indian move that eliminated the region’s special status. Tehran’s Friday prayers leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani, called revoking Kashmir’s autonomy “an ugly act” and warned India “to prevent confrontations with the Muslims” as “this is not in India’s interest or the interest of the region.”
Then there is Iranian adventurism in India. In late January 2021, an improvised explosive device (IED) went off outside the highly protected Israeli embassy in New Delhi. Following a month-long investigation by India’s counterterrorism agencies (with generous help from the U.S. and Israeli counterparts) New Delhi concluded that the Iranian Quds Force was behind the explosion. According Indian news reports, the blast was part of an “asymmetric warfare campaign being carried out by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps against Israel.”
When it comes to showcasing bilateral cooperation with Iran, India often brings up the Chabahar Port project. In 2015, when Tehran was facing crippling economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, New Delhi agreed to develop a deep-water port in Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman. As part of this deal, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Iran and signed the agreement worth $500 million to develop the port and related infrastructure. While New Delhi projected the initiative as part of developing greater connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia through this port, the core objective was to counter Chinese hegemony in the region. New Delhi’s move in this direction was ostensibly to counter a similar port, some hundred odd kilometers to the east, developed by China in Gwadar, Pakistan.
Fast forward to 2021. In April 2021, New Delhi had egg on its face when “in an unprecedented statement from Tehran, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declared that the Chabahar Port is neither against the Chinese nor against Pakistan’s Gwadar Port.” This was after years of blood, sweat and money that New Delhi had pumped into its pet project. To rub it in, Zarif made this declaration in his address at the Raisina Dialogue — an annual event where New Delhi showcases its foreign policy vision and achievements.
Blame It on Beijing
Thanks to Beijing’s deep pockets and the expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the traditional strategic advantage that New Delhi enjoyed in the greater South Asian and Middle Eastern region is now deeply compromised. Most of India’s traditional allies in the region have succumbed to China’s charm offensive.
Consequently, New Delhi’s marathon diplomacy with various “questionable allies” in the region is a demonstration of its desperation to stay relevant, push back Chinese influence and maintain strategic depth. After a two-decade long multibillion dollar investment, New Delhi is primed to be unceremoniously ejected from Afghanistan by the prevalent chaos. As it sits in the margin and watches Afghanistan falling into the orbit of Chinese and Pakistani interests, it is frenziedly seeking whatever solace it can get from whoever will listen to its woes. Thus, when Iran’s new president says he “welcomes India’s role in ensuring security in Afghanistan,” New Delhi instinctively falls for these words although they are meaningless in the current context.
Conversely, the irony and duplicity of Indian foreign policy is so thick one could cut it with a knife. While the Indian foreign minister was in Iran heralding the beginning of a new era in India-Iran relationship, the Indian Air Force chief was on a four-day visit to Israel, where both sides reiterated a shared vision for future enhanced bilateral engagement. So much for public diplomacy for the cameras.