Iran’s Foreign Minister Dr. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was on an official visit to India from June 8 to 10, during which he held talks with Dr. S. Jaishankar, the Indian external affairs minister. This was his first visit to India since assuming office in August 2021 and comes at a crucial juncture amid geopolitical churn not only in the region but across the globe.
Amir-Abdollahian also called on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a privilege not accorded to all visiting foreign ministers. Tweeting on the meeting, Modi highlighted how “relations have mutually benefitted both the countries and have promoted regional security and prosperity.”
The official statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs highlighted the exchange of views on important issues like the Iran nuclear deal, the Ukraine conflict, and the situation in Afghanistan. India “appreciated the role of Iran in facilitating India’s medical assistance to Afghanistan, including supply of COVID-19 vaccines to Afghan nationals residing in Iran.” In addition, all bilateral issues including cooperation in the field of regional connectivity and the progress made at the Chabahar port were reviewed. Exuding confidence at the outcome of the visit, the Iranian foreign minister said that “preparing a roadmap for strategic cooperation between Iran and India can regulate long-term relations and protect it from the impact of destructive factors.”
India and Iran share close historical ties from the times of Persian Empire and Indian kingdoms. Iran is an important nation in India’s neighborhood and in fact, the two countries shared a border until India’s partition and independence in 1947. Iran is also important to India as it provides an alternate route of connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asian republics, in the absence of permission for India to use the land route through Pakistan.
India-Iran relations have, however, witnessed ups and down over the decades, mostly owing to factors that go beyond strictly bilateral issues, like the stoppage of oil imports from Iran after May 2019 owing to U.S. sanctions following the revocation of the Iran nuclear deal, India’s close relations with Israel, and Iran’s ties with China, including signing a 25-year strategic partnership agreement. There are other sticky issues, too, like Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen launching drone attacks against Saudi Arabia and UAE, both close partners to India, or Iran’s statement on the Modi government’s abrogation of Article 370 of Indian Constitution, which gave special status to Kashmir. Iran on its end has not taken kindly to India succumbing to international pressure of sanctions on Iran. However, both countries have tried to keep their engagement above such occurrences and maintain a cordial trajectory of bilateral ties.
Favorable Conditions for a Reset
Despite the rather subdued engagement with Iran, there are a number of areas of convergence and enhanced engagement for India to consider. Afghanistan presents one such opportunity. The Taliban government has largely been isolated since it took over Kabul in August 2021. Iran was one of the few countries that did not withdraw its embassy from Kabul and has continued to keep its channels of communication open with the Taliban. India, on the other hand, was quick to wind up its embassy in Kabul but has now indicated that it is keen to reopen its embassy in some form shortly. A delegation from India met the Taliban foreign minister in Kabul on June 2. Iran and India have collaborated already in the past on Afghanistan and Iran’s role as a viable direct land route to Afghanistan is undisputable. India and Iran have the potential to forge a common and effective policy of engagement with Afghanistan in the future.
The Iran nuclear deal, which is at a stage of impasse, offers the next opportunity for convergence between India and Iran. Eight rounds of talks in Vienna since April 2021 have not yielded any positive results. Any hopes of an early resolution were dashed by the recent announcement by the IAEA on June 6 that it had adopted a resolution formally criticizing Iran for a lack of cooperation. The resolution was supported by the U.S., U.K., France, and Germany and opposed by Russia and China. On the same day, the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC), a group of countries led by the U.S. and Gulf nations, sanctioned three individuals associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF). It may be recalled that the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization is one of the major sticking points between the United States and Iran on the nuclear deal.
No nuclear deal means no lifting of economic sanctions on Iran and no crude oil exports from Iran. India, which has stressed exercising its strategic autonomy while importing oil from Russia amid sanctions on Russia due to its war with Ukraine, could explore a similar decision point in Iran, opening up a huge potential for trade and cooperation.
The rebalancing taking shape in the West Asian region too offers great potential to strengthen India-Iran ties. For a long time, India’s growing ties with the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE were seen as a “zero sum game” pitted against their rivalry with Iran. Things are, however, changing in the region rapidly.
The reluctance of the United States to remain actively engaged in the Middle East has also made the nations in the region think about alternatives. In a move that could indicate breaking away from the U.S. dominance in the region Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite being key allies of the United States in the region, have declined requests by Washington to scale up oil production in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine, in order to lower the global price of crude oil.
On the other hand, sponsored by Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia have held their fifth round of talks recently and seem positive about reconciliation. The ceasefire in Yemen, announced during Ramadan this year, is holding and Rashad Al-Alimi, chairman of the newly established Yemeni presidential council, is hopeful about finding a peaceful solution to Yemen’s seven-year war and humanitarian crisis. The UAE and Qatar have held good talks with Iran. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has already visited Qatar and Oman this year. Syria and Iraq are slowly consolidating and are positively disposed toward Iran.
The Abraham Accords signed with Israel give hope towards acceptance of Israel by the regional countries as a potential partner and not necessarily a foe. All these developments work well for India, as it has close and good relations with the Gulf countries, Iran, and Israel. This gives India the tremendous opportunity to develop and scale up its cooperation with Iran without fear of losing out on other friends in the region. In fact, at some point of time, India may emerge as the perfect interlocutor in the region, as it has the trust and confidence of all stakeholders.
Advantages of a Reset
A recognition that bilateral ties should be governed only to serve national interests can open doors to fully exploit the potential of cooperation between India and Iran. With the Iran nuclear deal unlikely to come through soon, India may well consider restarting oil imports from Iran. Before New Delhi stopped imports owing to Western pressure, Iran was supplying almost 10 percent of India’s oil needs. Should India change course and resume imports of Iranian oil, it could potentially encourage some other countries to follow suit and open up additional oil in the market, which could eventually bring prices of crude oil down.
The International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), an ambitious project launched at the start of this century, aims to connect India, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Central Asia, and Europe through multi-modal transport, reducing transit time of goods drastically. Although some part of it has been operationalized, again, due to sanctions on Iran, its full potential has not been realized. India and Iran could well play a major part in giving INSTC the required boost to reap benefits of resultant trade.
The Iran-Oman-India gas pipeline too is an ambitious project that has been stuck for a long time. Fortunately, Iran and Oman signed a deal during Raisi’s recent visit on May 23 to develop two gas pipelines and an oil field along their maritime borders. If this comes through, there is potential for the pipeline being extended to India, which would help overcome the loss of the failed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline and facilitate the supply of natural gas to India.
Iran enjoys very good relations with China and Russia. It has commenced opening up to other Gulf nations. If India comes on board with Iran, it will create a huge bloc of countries, money, population, and power, which could then make it very difficult to keep Iran locked away and duly sanctioned by the West. India, which too faced Western sanctions after its nuclear tests in 1998, knows and understands well how to survive under sanctions.
The argument of keeping Iran under sanctions due to the threat of its nuclear program being weaponized has not proved effective till date. Iran complied with all IAEA protocols, had even offered additional protocols and was never found violating them before Tehran voluntarily broke away from them after the United States revoked the nuclear deal in May 2018. Also, the reasoning that economic sanctions can prevent Iran from weaponizing its nuclear program too has been proven wrong as Iran, despite sanctions, has stockpiled enough highly enriched uranium to cross the threshold and develop nuclear weapons, if and when it wants.
India and Iran therefore have a lot that can be achieved together. The assertive diplomacy being practiced by India, emphasizing on standing by its neighbors and friends and focusing solely on fulfilling its national interests, is a refreshing change. If India can extend the same vision toward its engagement with Iran, it could open a huge potential of cooperation between these two great nations and civilizations. Time is therefore ripe for a reset.