Citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran have never tasted democracy or experienced the power of freely choosing their leaders via free and fair elections, neither under the neo-liberal, pro-west Shah regime nor under the Islamic Republic.
Despite knowing that the Iranian political system is inherently rigged and unfair, the 2021 Presidential elections garnered mass attention across the world. These elections made global headlines due to three major factors, the extremely aggressive actions of Iran in global affairs, total dominance of the conservatives under Ebrahim Raisi with the support of supremo Khamenei and the Guardian Council and the record low turnout on the day of elections.
Of all these factors, one that raised eyebrows was the ascendancy of Raisi, an ultra-conservative, exAttorney General, as the President of Iran. But in order to understand the recent dominance of ultra-conservatives, it’s important that we go back to the events that have happened post 2017. To those who had followed the 2017 elections closely, this victory of Raisi should not come as a shock.
Riding on the success of striking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 with the P5+1 that gave Iran much-needed relief from economic sanctions and blockades, Hassan Rouhani, a political moderate was expected to win and he did garner 57.14 per cent of the votes. But behind him was the current President, who was notorious for his role in the 1988 massacre of political dissidents. He garnered 38.28 per cent of the votes and gave a clear indication that the ultra-conservatives, who are known to be close to Khamenei and the Iran Revolutionary Guards, were on the rise.
Moreover, even then Ayatollah Khamenei had supported the candidature of Raisi, but because of Rouhani’s mass popularity and his successful international policies, the Guardian Council did not take the steps that they did in 2021. American President Donald Trump had always considered the JCPOA the worst deal made. Hence, the withdrawal was pretty much expected.
According to Trump, limiting the nuclear capabilities of Iran was not going to be enough to prevent it from becoming a threat to the US and its allies in the Middle-East. So, he argued, the deal should have also included massive restrictions on the ballistic missiles programme and immediate cessation of Iran’s support to its proxies and militias in the Middle-East like Hezbollah, Hamas, etc. collectively called the Axis of Resistance. Post-withdrawal, USA unilaterally imposed two set of sanctions.
The first set that came into effect on 7 August 2018 struck a huge blow to Iran’s economy. They barred Iran from purchasing US currency, its trade in gold or any other precious metal, and prevented others from selling auto parts, civilian aircraft and their parts to Iran. The second set, that came into effect two months later, were no less than a nuclear strike as they targeted the oil economy of Iran. The 4 November 2018 sanctions prevented other nation-states from buying oil and petrochemical products from Iran. Dire economic crisis struck the nation.
The value of the rial depreciated by 2/3rds of its original value and oil exports suffered heavily. Despite these huge blows and betrayal from the US, Iran continued following the restrictions on civilian nuclear facilities in accordance with JCPOA and maintained negotiations via diplomatic channels, as expected from Rouhani. However, Iran’s moderate stance in global politics changed on 3 January 2020, when Major General Qasem Soleimani was shot by a US drone at Baghdad airport.
In order to prove his strength as a strong and able administrator, Rouhani adopted an radical foreign policy and an offensive defence policy on both land and sea. Frequency of attacks on US bases in Middle-East by Iran-backed militias increased, role of Iran in regional conflicts like the Yemen Civil War, Syria and Gaza Strip became more proactive and naval skirmishes on the Strait of Hormuz also increased. Since 2015, conservatives had been crying themselves hoarse that moderates had betrayed Iran by dealing with the USA, the Great Satan, and their allegations were coming true as Iranians faced a tougher crisis than they had in recent history.
Despite Rouhani’s acts of launching offensive strikes via land, air and sea as shows of strength in the international and domestic political realm, people were now largely supporting the hardliners. The negative image of Rouhani and moderates provided the opportunity Khamenei and the 12-member Guardian Council were waiting for. The Council under Khamenei’s instructions openly supported the candidature of conservative and religious clerics. The elections were engineered to ensure victory of hardliners by dismissing the candidature of all the moderates. The rigging was so extreme that even the Islamic Revolutionary Corps, whose allegiance lies with the supremo, termed the elections “undemocratic”.
As a result, both the legislative and Parliamentary elections witnessed a record low turnout. As expected, the ultra-conservative Raisi won the election, became President and one of the most discussed and observed leaders globally. The radical tone he had used during the campaign had cast a huge doubt on the future of renewing the JCPOA. But surprisingly, he made it clear that negotiations would go on. However, since the negotiations began in October 2021 in Vienna, the stance adopted by Iran has been adamant. Deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Khan has made it clear that before re-entering the deal, the US must fulfil two major demands – immediate removal of sanctions and an assurance that in future it will never impose sanctions on Iran, a demand that the US won’t pay heed to.
President Joe Biden, who is desperately trying to position the USA as the hegemon and global leader it was before Trump’s presidency, wants Iran to put an immediate end to its ballistic missile projects and its support for the Axis of Resistance, which is also not going to happen, as clearly stated by Raisi. In his first press-conference after becoming President, Raisi made it clear that “regional issues and missiles are non-negotiable”. Economic and security issues have pushed Iran closer to China’s bloc.
The 25-year agreement signed between the two nations will surely embolden Raisi, as now he has the backing of the world’s second largest power and of Russia to some extent. Iran’s growing closeness to two of the Western world’s most undesirable nation-states would surely serve as a warning to the West that they either cooperate or get ready to face consequences in the Strait of Hormuz and the Middle-East. But even China and Russia sincerely want the JCPOA to come into effect, as Iran gaining a nuclear weapon would destabilise Asia and the world. It would not be wrong to say that the relations between India and Iran are at their lowest point in the postCold War era.
In the light of recent events, the memorable 2016 visit of PM Narendra Modi to Iran and signing of the Chabahar Port agreement seems a distant dream. Post the collapse of JCPOA deal, relations became extremely sour as India had to cut its oil imports from Iran, which had an adverse impact on both nations as India receives Iranian oil at a comparatively cheaper price. Due to sanctions, the work on Chabahar Port’s Shahid Behesti terminal and other infrastructure projects like the Chabahar-Zahedan railway line have continued at a dismal pace, which is a big loss when it comes to India’s geopolitical interests in Central Asia.
It is impossible for India to have any land route connections with Central Asia due to its shaky relations with Pakistan. That makes Iran India’s Gateway to Central Asia and for that it is in New Delhi’s interest to continue with the intense infrastructure diplomacy with Iran that the nation has been pursuing since 2000, when India, Iran and Russia signed the Integrated North-South Transit Corridor that would connect India to Eurasia via land, sea and inland riverine routes.
For the INSTC to materialise, India needs to pull up its socks and not cause any further delays in the projects, as these have pushed Iran closer to China. The signing of the 25-year agreement is worrisome for India, as the agreement prioritises Chinese firms over others when it comes to infrastructure projects. In exchange, China would be investing $400 billion in Iran’s sanctions hit energy and industrial sector. Moreover, the agreement allows Chinese military presence on Iranian soil to “protect” its investments and workers.
Other than growing closeness with China, Iran has also tried to blackmail India to resume oil imports by interfering in our internal matters for the first time since 1971, when the Shah had warned India for snatching away East Pakistan. Khamenei and FM Javad Zarif’s comments on abrogation of article 370 and protests by several conservative clerics came as a huge shock to the Indo-Iran relationship.
The recent situation in Afghanistan makes Iran an important ally for India. Despite not being invited by Iran for the meeting on Afghanistan, held in October 2021, where even Pakistan (with whom Iran’s relations are strained) was invited, India continued its security diplomacy with Iran. Along with five Central Asian nations, Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan were invited by New Delhi for a National Security Advisors’ Dialogue on Afghanistan. New Delhi has also extended its cooperation with Tehran to intensify humanitarian diplomacy, in order to use Shahid Beesti port and Iranian land routes and airspace for providing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Hence, India is now adopting a reconciliatory tone with Raisi’s Iran.
But, despite these reconciliation efforts, New Delhi realises that Iran is clearly now in China’s court and that is why the Modi regime has sought a more balanced West Asia Policy, under which India would carefully balance its relations with all West Asian nations, such as the decision to join the West Asian Quad comprising of Israel, USA and UAE, all three enemies of Iran. However, the efficacy of this policy is yet to be seen.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for South Asian Studies,
Pondicherry Central University)