‘Civilisational connect, contemporary context’ was the overarching theme of the Indian Prime Minister’s state visit to Iran in 2016. It succinctly captured the retrospective and prospective dimensions of two ‘historically engaged’ civilisations that have remained unquenched and susceptible to strategic choices, often to the detriment of each other.
Unique underpinnings and geostrategic realities besetting the two nations affords equal amount of centripetal and centrifugal forces that generate contradictory emotions and optics that can be either welcomingly warm or, at times, coldly dismissive of the other. The bilateralism is deeply impacted and vulnerable to the actions of ‘third parties’ ~ Tehran struggled with Delhi’s acquiescence to Washington DC, as did Delhi with Tehran’s increasing co-option by Beijing.
Yet the natural bond of two national sensibilities that converge seamlessly on regional concerns like Afghanistan, Pakistani machinations or the inherent ‘win-win’ commercial and geostrategic opportunities, has kept alive the hope for a more productive and enhanced ‘engagement’, that has not only shortsold its immense potential, but has sunk to dangerous lows in perception.
The railing tenure of Donald Trump has been primarily responsible for ensuring the freeze in the Indo-Iranian realm, with Trump openly threatening and coercing India into adopting an unwanted posture that was inimical to the Indo-Iranian engagement.
With this backdrop, Tehran licked its wounds and attacked India on its internal issues like Kashmir, CAA, NRC, Delhi riots etc., something that Iran had usually refrained from commenting on, much to the chagrin of Pakistan.
Reciprocal realpolitik is triggered whenever the hands of the ‘third party’ get heavier than required, and in that admixture, spiting the other with deliberately loaded statements, courting ‘enemies’ or going slow on ongoing projects becomes the norm.
Today, imminent change of guard in the White House is freighted with possibilities of sovereign recalibrations and resetting. One place in particular which is likely to see a muchneeded thaw from the United States perspective (unlike China, which is expected to retain the pressure), is Iran ~ this could have immense spinoffs and implications for regional pivots like India, which suffered unwanted constraints and abnormalities on engagement with Iran, owing to US intimidation.
Donald Trump had unilaterally withdrawn from the pathbreaking Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ( JCPOA or ‘Iran Nuclear Deal’), reimposed crippling sanctions, and worse, arm-twisted countries like India from doing any further business with Iran. Before Trump re-imposed sanctions, India was importing up to 10 per cent of its crude oil requirements from Iran on preferential trade basis (rupee payment mechanism, 60-day trade credit, discount on freight and insurance etc.), besides partaking of strategic jointsmanship in Chabahar port, Afghanistan etc.
The expected freefall in bilateral relations started almost immediately with Iranian leadership commenting on ‘organised violence’ on Muslims in India and simultaneously engaging feverishly with China, in and around the Chabahar ecosystem.
The parallel divide in ‘Ummah’ that serendipitously divided the Islamic world into two blocs i.e. Saudi-Arab Sheikhdoms (with whom India advanced diplomacy) and the alternate Turkey-Iran bloc (whom the almost-isolated Pakistan started courting), offered another platform of IndoIranian dissonance.
In the absence of the usual bonhomie and convergence of Indo-Iranian commerce, investments and diplomacy ~ faultlines expanded, and the ‘commonalities’ diminished between civilisations that are very conversant with the ‘weak-spots’ of each other. Incoming POTUSA Joe Biden as Vice President in the earlier Obama-Biden team had initiated, supported and delivered the normalisation of ties with Iran, via the JCPOA.
His likening of Trump’s Iran policy to ‘selfinflicted disaster’ and his belief that, ‘The seeds of these dangers were planted by Donald Trump himself on May 8, 2018 ~ the day he tore up the Iran nuclear deal, against the advice of his own top national security advisers’, is bound to revive the JCPOA and its related easing-up.
Within this transformational change lies the opportunity to free-up India’s elbow room for managing its own regional dynamics more proactively and productively, without the Damocles’ sword of the ‘third party’.
Historically, Iran has swum against the tide and stood up for India within the Ummah, and the socio-political-sectarian reasons for doing so still persist. Tehran ended Delhi’s diplomatic isolation by Islamic countries with the visit by-then President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani post the Ayodhya demolition in 1992; crucially abstained from voting against India on a UN Commission on Human Rights Organisation resolution brought forward by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and usually refrained from raising ‘Kashmir’ at such forums.
Biden’s reassurance on JCPOA, ‘I would rejoin the agreement and work with our allies to strengthen and extend it’ augurs well. Relaxing of ties with the United States will also logically imply that Tehran would have to be extra cautious in overplaying the Chinese hand, generously or recklessly.
During Trump’s tenure, Iran was literally forced into the only available and ever willing arms of the Chinese and the inevitable implications of that squeeze were felt by India in its Chabahar interests – the Chinese got interested and involved! The unbridgeable ‘trustdeficit’ of Tehran with the Arab leadership and a perennial suspicion of Pakistan’s sectarian preferences and Afghan policy could bring Delhi back in favour in Tehran.
In recessionary times, the size of the prize offered by the US-led ‘Free World’ (including India) would be substantially more than the alternative of the China-Pakistan-Turkey triad. Now, Indian diplomacy will get a window to undo the past and fructify its latent potential in the region.
Thankfully survivalist Iran would understand India’s forced arm in the past, as exemplified by the former US disarmament official, Stephen Rademaker, who had controversially confirmed that, ‘India was coerced into voting against Iran’ in the IAEA in 2005.
Accelerating Chabahar is not just in Indo-Iranian-Afghan interest, but crucially so in the interest of the US also ~ above all it offers a strategic foothold into the Iranian realm, and Washington would rather have the Delhi imprint, as opposed to that of Beijing therein. Chabahar can more openly emerge as a viable counterpoise to the Chinese controlled Gwadar port, that concerns the US as much as it does, India. Recent frustrations, acrimonies and sub-optimalities defining the Indo-Iranian context are owing to known ‘third party’ angularities, and these are poised to change.
Delhi must seize the opportunity and dial up its underlying ‘commonalities’ with Iran.
The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.