- By Tridivesh Singh Maini
The Iranian election was being closely observed the world over, and the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani must have come as a relief to many countries, especially India. New Delhi has established robust economic ties with Iran, the pragmatic leadership of Rouhani has played a pivotal role in the same. Indian PM, Narendra Modi congratulated Rouhani on his swashbuckling victory, on twitter, and also stated ‘India remains committed to strengthening our special relationship with Iran’.
Developments of the past few days have only reinforced the point, that Tehran is becoming exceedingly important for India’s connectivity with Central Asia, as well as in the fight against terror emanating from Pakistan.
Firstly, India's strong stand against One Belt One Road OBOR (New Delhi refused to send any official for the Conference from May 14-16, 2017) means that it will have to focus on other important connectivity and infrastructural projects – especially Chabahar. The Chabahar Port, located in Baluchestan-Sistan Province, which is less than 72 kilometres from Gwadar Port, being developed by China will enable India to get access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
During the Indian PM's visit last year, an agreement was signed between India and Iran, according to which India committed financial assistance of 500 Million USD for the development of the port. Apart from this agreement, a three nation transport and transit corridor pact was also signed between India, Afghanistan and Iran. India agreed to provide assistance for connecting Chabahar with Zahedan (Iran), Zaranj in Afghanistan and there onwards into Delaram (Afghanistan).
PM Modi and Iranian President Rouhani both deemed these agreements as game changers. Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani made an interesting point stating ‘We wanted to prove that geography is not our destiny. With our will, we can change geography,”
Interest of other countries in Chabahar
Other countries too have evinced interest in the Chabahar Project. Japan has expressed its enthusiasm to join hands with India in developing the Chabahar Project. Only recently, the Japanese Ambassador to India, once again evinced interest in participation in the Project. In September 2016, Japan had first alluded to the same. Both countries have been looking to expand their cooperation to other regions including Asia and Africa. While Japan has been investing in infrastructure in other regions – bereft of the conditionalities laid down by China – it has done so in a low profile manner.
Iran, Russia and INSTC
The Chabahar Port, can also be linked of the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which will help India to connect with Russia and Europe. The dry run of the North South Corridor was carried out in April 2017. The INSTC, is an ambitious project and proposes to transport goods from Jawaharlal Nehru (also known as Nava Sheva) and Kandla ports (Gujarat) on the west coast of India, to Bandar Abbas (Iran) by sea. From Bandar Abbas, the goods will be first transported to Bandar-e-Anzali (an Iranian port on the Caspian Sea) by land. From Bandar-e-Anzali goods will move to Astrakhan (a Caspian port in Russia) by sea. The goods would then be transported into the Russian Federation, and Europe via Russian railways. INSTC could well be India’s answer to the OBOR project – albeit at a much smaller scale. The INSTC project is likely to be high on the agenda, and will get a significant push, during PM Modi’s visit to St. Petersburg for the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, and Kazakhstan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit (both in early June).
Recent irritants between Iran and India
There have been differences between Tehran and New Delhi, first over the Chabahar Port, and then the Farzand B gas pipeline. While New Delhi has cited the Iranian delay in filling in required paper work for financial assistance as the key reason for the delay in sanctioning financial assistance for Chabahar.
Statement of Iranian Military Chief
What India would have closely observed is the recent statement of Iranian Military Chief, where he threatened military action against Pakistan also brings to the fore, the strategic convergence between New Delhi, Tehran and Kabul on terror emanating from Pakistan. Reacting to the killing of Iranian Border guards by Sunni militants operating from Pakistan, the Iranian military chief, Major General Mohammad Baqeri remarked, “We expect the Pakistani officials to control the borders, arrest the terrorists and shut down their bases.” “If the terrorist attacks continue, we will hit their safe havens and cells, wherever they are,”.
A number of countries, aside from China, have begun to show solidarity with India on the issue of terrorism emanating from Pakistan. This includes Middle Eastern countries like UAE and Saudi Arabia – though they have not been as aggressive as Iran.
In such a situation, New Delhi's ties with Iran are extremely important. There are certain factors which India needs to keep in mind. Firstly, US approach towards Iran needs to be watched carefully. The Trump Administration has given indicators, that it may be more hawkish than Obama towards Iran, though a State Department statement categorically stated that the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 between Iran and P5+1 countries will not be scrapped. Yet, the Trump administration has been clearly tilted towards GCC Countries. In fact, even though Iran has not violated any provisions of the nuclear agreement, Secretary of state Tillerson has accused Iran of fomenting terrorism in the Middle East and harming US interests.
Second, India needs to exhibit alacrity in going ahead with important connectivity projects. While other countries like Russia, Japan are willing to join hands with India, they often complain about excessive red tape.
Third, Iran has close relations with Beijing and it remains to be seen if China plays any role in bringing Islamabad and Tehran closer.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based policy analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonipat)