Musings from afar

India seriously needs to worry about its ties with Iran

Tensions between Washington and Tehran constrain the strategic space for New Delhi.

 |  Musings from afar  |  5-minute read |   20-02-2018
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Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Delhi was the first by an Iranian president in 10 years and it was much needed. His talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi were deemed substantive and the two leaders emphasised the need to build stronger relations.

Modi suggested that the visit by the Iranian president underscored how the two sides want to deepen cooperation in key areas, including connectivity, even as Rouhani repeated his nation’s resolve “to combat terrorism and extremism”. A dozen pacts were signed including one on double taxation avoidance and another for the leasing by an Indian company of a container terminal facility in Iran’s Chabahar port. But the Indo-Iranian relations are facing some strong headwinds.

Tough deal

Last month Donald Trump decided not to pull Washington out of a deal that it and other world powers made with Tehran to limit Iran’s nuclear programme. But he gave a strong warning to other countries in the deal. Make the deal tougher, or the US will stop keeping its end of the bargain with sanctions relief. At the same time, the Trump administration has imposed new targeted sanctions on 14 Iranian individuals and entities in connection with various human rights abuses.

This was the same strategy that Washington adopted last year when it waived the sanctions but imposed sanctions on seven targets involved in Iran’s ballistic missile programme, including two senior Iranian defence officials, one of whom allegedly helps to arm Assad and a China-based network that allegedly supports Iran’s military by supplying millions of dollars’ worth of items used in missile production.

The US president had informed the US Congress in October last year that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is no longer in the country’s national security interest, calling it the “worst deal ever”. But instead of scrapping the deal outright, he had put the ball in Congress’ court asking the legislators to modify the agreement even as his administration marshals international support to increase pressure on Iran. Defying Trump, the European Union made it clear that it would defend the agreement. Though European officials have tried for a unified response to Trump’s pulling out from the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord, strains have emerged within that threaten to weaken Europe’s common stance.

The European Union has made it clear that it is not open for renegotiation. The British, French and Germans have been lobbying hard to keep the Trump administration in, arguing that the deal is working. As West Asia continues to pass through a phase of unprecedented churn, Iran has emerged as, perhaps, the most potent force in the region. The US is itself responsible for this as its removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which had always been a strategic counterweight to Tehran, resulted in this situation.

Tehran has been effective in leveraging the regional realities to serve its foreign policy agenda. With the Islamic State (ISIS) facing a regional retreat, proxy wars are underway in Iraq and Syria for a distribution of the spoils. Iran’s influence over the Shia-dominated government and many militia forces in Iraq has given Tehran unprecedented leverage in shaping the political future of Iraq.

And in Syria, Iran’s sustained backing of the Assad regime has made the survival of the regime possible despite the challenge posed by the US-backed groups. With their position entrenched in Syria and their influence in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen secure, Iran and Hezbollah and their Shiite allies believe they have built a formidable, unified, border-spanning front. How they choose to exert their power could dictate the future trajectory of the wider West Asia. Israel and Iran are coming to blows in Syria.

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Trump’s threats

As a result, despite Trump’s threats, Iran is placed much better in the region than ever before. But tensions between Washington and Tehran constrain the strategic space for India in dealing with Iran. New Delhi has, therefore, welcomed the 2015 nuclear deal. Given the isolation facing Washington on its new Iran policy, India may not have to worry too much in the immediate future.

In fact, what should be more worrying for India is the slow pace of the Chabahar port project, which has irked the Iranians, and they have indicated that despite India developing the project, it won’t be exclusive to the country. Pakistan and China might also be invited to get involved. Chabahar is seen as India’s answer to the Gwadar port, which will allow it to circumvent Pakistan and open up a route to landlocked Afghanistan. Bringing China and Pakistan in will be a challenge to Indian interests. Uncertainty surrounding American posture towards Iran is complicating India’s ability to deliver fast on Chabahar as Western manufacturers remain wary of supplying equipment for the Iranian port.

Growing stakes

The first phase of the project was completed and inaugurated in December but much more remains to be done before the project becomes the strategic nodal point that New Delhi perhaps wants it to be. The Indo-Iranian cooperation on Afghanistan is also coming under stress with Tehran joining Russia and China in managing Pakistan’s role in the region. The ISIS is viewed as the bigger threat in Afghanistan than the Taliban by these states. Though the larger trade and energy ties between India and Iran are gradually growing, they are being overshadowed by India’s growing stakes in the Arab world and Israel.

The Iranian president’s visit to India has made a modest effort towards adding dynamism to Indo-Iranian ties. It remains to be seen how far this will go as a new power configuration emerges in India’s extended neighbourhood which India will have to navigate carefully.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Love is not haram: How Pakistan celebrated Valentine's Day

Writer

Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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