The Iran question has come back to haunt Indian foreign policy. Many voices will emerge saying New Delhi is losing Iran. We're told how critical Iran is to Indian strategic interests and we are reminded of that misused concept - civilisational ties.
We are reminded how India is neglecting its ties with Iran, because of ubiquitous American pressure. We are told how the entire edifice of Indian foreign policy might just crumble because we are not taking care of Iran. No country has had such an outsized impact on Indian foreign policy discourse as Iran over the last two decades.
The latest shock in India-Iran ties has come from the revelations that India may have been ousted from a project involving the construction of a railway line from Chabahar port to Zahedan. This railway line project was part of the trilateral pact signed during PM Narendra Modi's visit to Tehran in 2016 with Afghanistan and Iran committing India to build an alternate trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Indian Railways Construction Ltd (IRCON) was to take this project forward with financing of around $1.6 billion.
Earlier this year, the development of Farzad-B gas field, which was supposed to be a joint venture between Iran and ONGC Videsh (OVL), was also given to a domestic entity, with Tehran deciding that "in the immediate future, Iran would develop the field on its own and would like to involve India appropriately at a later stage." These decisions have led to an intense debate in India about the failure of Indian foreign policy. But foreign policy is not something that a nation engages in with itself. By its very definition, it is a process, which involves more than one entity. It is iterative, as much a function of what a nation does to and with others, as it is a function of what other entities do to it. So while India may have its own agenda and priorities, Iran's priorities might be completely different. And that has been the case for long.
Where India stands
For Tehran, India is important but not critical in shaping its foreign policy worldview. It is the US that is the primary actor in shaping Tehran's foreign policy calculus. While critics in India often argue that New Delhi had ignored Tehran under US pressure, it is the other way round. It is Tehran that has ignored New Delhi and tried to actively derail Indo-Iranian ties by interfering in Indian domestic matters. For Iranian diplomacy, managing American sanctions has been the primary task.
The entire edifice of Indian foreign policy might just crumble because we are not taking care of Iran. (File photo: Reuters)
As the Trump administration has tightened the screws on Iran and Europe has failed to keep its promises, Tehran's gravitation towards China is natural. China's profile in Iran has been growing over the last several decades and it will continue to grow. The $400 billion 25-year economic and security partnership that Iran is reportedly finalising with China exemplifies the frustration of the Iranian regime that first looked to the West.
If there is one country that has actually managed to deliver something concrete in Iran at a time of tightening American sanctions, it is India. Despite initial delays, the first phase of Chabahar project was inaugurated in December 2017 and since then India has been running the Shahid Beheshti terminal. This is indeed a strategic investment by India as this port opens up an alternative route to Afghanistan and the wider Central Asian region bypassing Pakistan. New Delhi has managed to firewall this key investment, including the railway line project, from American sanctions. India could do this because there was a clear strategic rationale behind this project, which led to an Indo-Iranian convergence.
Iran remains sensitive to Indian contributions. As controversy swelled in India, Iran's railway minister was quick to underline that Iran and India are "determined to continue" cooperation on the railway line, putting the blame on "vested interests" behind reports that Iran excluded India from the Chabahar-Zahedan railway. The US sanctions still cast a long shadow over Iranian engagement with the world, including India. Tehran's insistence on getting Khatam al-Anbiya constructions, which belong to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, involved in the project and New Delhi's reluctance to expose its own entities to the US sanctions seems to have resulted in the deadlock. Even China has been cautious in getting in the crosshairs of American sanctions. While the China-Iran deal is the flavour of the month, it isn't clear how much of the $400 billion promised by Beijing will come without strings.
Friends with benefits
Just as Iran's foreign policy meta-frame is its adversarial engagement with the US, India has higher stakes in its ties with the US and in its engagement with the wider Arab world. While the Iranian leadership has been increasingly vocal on domestic Indian matters in recent months, whether it is India's decision to revoke Article 370 or communal riots earlier this year, there has been a shift in the way major powers in the Arab world have been engaging India more pragmatically.
Tehran must recognise that Delhi has partners with whom the stakes are higher. Yet, India is in its support for Iran and its ambitions. Managing bilateral relations is not India's responsibility alone. If Iran decides that India is dispensable, New Delhi can also make a similar calculation. There will be costs for India but the costs for Iran might be much higher.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)