Iran is not an easy partner for India but will pay mutually beneficial results

Rouhani’s election signifies that Iran intends to project a moderate image.

 |  5-minute read |   23-05-2017
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Hassan Rouhani’s re-election as President signals continuity in the direction of Iran’s internal and external policies. By winning 57 per cent of the vote, he has convincingly defeated his populist and religiously conservative rival, Ebrahim Raisi, who was apparently the preferred candidate of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

rouhani_052317105415.jpgHassan Rouhani. [Photo: Time]

Measured by Western yardsticks, elections in Iran may not be fully democratic, as aspiring candidates are vetted by the Guardian Council and only those approved can run for office. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, was not permitted to contest again. Notwithstanding this anomaly, the rival candidates enter the fray with their own political programmes, debate publicly and, as in the present election, the contest is bitter.

Support

The over 70 per cent voter turnout shows popular support for the electoral exercise. Cynics have long claimed that the Iranian election is a stage-managed process with a predetermined outcome, and that this veneer of democracy is intended to provide legitimacy to the ruling theocracy. Whatever the truth, the fact is that the Iranian political process contrasts in its openness with the absolutism of the Gulf monarchies and the now defunct Arab dictatorships.

In Iran, an amalgam of theocracy and democracy is at work, a via media that gainsays the widely held belief that Islam and democracy cannot co-exist. If a theocracy like Iran, the product of an Islamic revolution, can develop a political system that gives voice to the people in governance, the Arab polity could gain from evolving along similar lines. The contrast between Saudi Arabia and Iran — the principal protagonists in the Shia-Sunni divide and arch-rivals for regional leadership in West Asia with regard to adherence to some basic democratic norms, gender issues, acceptance of a degree of dissent and plurality of political opinion — is telling.

All this bears on the issue of religious extremism and terrorism emanating from the Islamic world that now constitutes a grave menace to the international community in general. While the US and its allies accuse Iran for supporting terrorism and instances of Iranian involvement in terrorist acts can undoubtedly be cited, the nexus between religious extremism and terrorism is far stronger in the Sunni Arab world and has wider international ramifications, including in our own subcontinent, with Saudi Wahhabi ideology spawning a host of violent extremist organisations including the al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Taliban and the like.

In this context, the targeting of Iran as the principal enemy and the political and military bolstering of Saudi Arabia by the US and its allies aggravate the challenges that the international community faces from Islamic extremism. The West has been mired in local geopolitics of West Asia for many reasons — to retain its hold over the region, preserve energy interests, and protect Israel’s security, without regard to the spill-over consequences of its policies on the wider international canvas.

This is illustrated once again by Donald Trump’s decision to signal US solidarity with Saudi Arabia by choosing it for his first visit abroad. During his election campaign and even after assuming office he had railed against Islamic radicalism, leading to expectations that he would find a way to contain its principal source. But as on other issues, on this issue too he has radically changed course.

Solidarity

The anti-Iranian dimension of his decision to show conspicuous solidarity with Saudi Arabia; contract to supply $110 billion (Rs 70,990 crore) worth of arms to Riyadh, and engage the Saudi-led Sunni anti-terrorist coalition led by Pakistan’s General Raheel Sharif is evident. With Saudi Arabia already bogged down in the Yemeni morass and its all-powerful Deputy Crown Prince threatening to promote conflict in Iran’s Balochistan from across Pakistan, this encouragement by the Trump administration to Saudi adventurism can only destabilise the region further.

Iran has already reacted with a ferocious verbal tirade against both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for 10 of its frontier guards killed by anti-Iran elements operating from Pakistani soil. Trump’s diatribe against Iran at the Arab Islamic American Summit at Riyadh recalls Iran’s vilification by George Bush Junior that had adverse consequences. He has accused Iran of funding, arming and training terrorists, of mass murder, of fuelling sectarian conflict and has called for isolating it. With the extremely important equities that India has both in the Gulf countries and Iran, we cannot but feel concerned about such pronounced US partisanship risking to stoke further tensions in the region.

Image

Rouhani’s election signifies that Iran intends to project a moderate image, adhere strictly to the nuclear deal so as to conserve its gains and keep the doors open to foreign investment for rebuilding its economy, without, however, halting its missile programme, pursuing its regional interests by supporting the Assad regime, maintaining ties with Hezbollah and combating the Islamic State. With this dual policy of engaging and defying the West, Iran also balances internal pulls between the reformers and the hardliners.

The Iranian election should lay the ground for India and Iran to conclude negotiations on the Farzhad B gas field expeditiously. Reports that India is cutting oil purchases from Iran because of difficulties over Farzhad B do not serve the strategic interests of both countries. The Chabahar port project and negotiations on Indian credit lines for investments in infrastructure and industrial projects in the region need purposeful progress. Iran is not an easy partner but perseverance will pay mutually beneficial results.  

(Courtesy: Mail Today)

Also read: Should India join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor?

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Kanwal Sibal Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary

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