Iran’s Conflicting Stand on the Kashmir Issue
Iran’s South Asia policy has a major challenge -how to balance between India and Pakistan, the subcontinent’s two nuclear powers, which have already fought three wars to control Jammu and Kashmir, a strategic Himalayan region that both countries claim is their right to govern. Iran’s South Asia policy lies in ambiguity to choose between these two countries as it needs to manage the region’s politics in two different templates- one for India and the other for Pakistan. After a long pause, Iran’s Supreme Leader spoke in June 2017 to mobilize support for the oppressed Muslim communities around the world, including those of Kashmir. “The Muslim world should openly support people of Bahrain, Kashmir, Yemen, etc. and repudiate oppressors and tyrants who attacked people in Ramadan,” the Supreme Leader said in his Ramadan speech, equating the situation in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir with that of Yemen and Bahrain where Iran is backing fellow Shia population against Saudi Arabia-backed regimes. The Eid-ul-Fitr address was posted on Khamenei’s official website on June 26, 2017, with the headline, “Everyone should openly support people of Yemen, Bahrain, and Kashmir: Ayatollah Khamenei.” The last such statement on Kashmir had come in 2010 when Ayatollah Khamenei mentioned Kashmir along with Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. This statement followed India's vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and New Delhi was seen by Tehran to be descending towards the United States.
Furthermore, the region of Kashmir he spoke about is not controlled by just one country; the total area of Jammu and Kashmir is now divided into three regions and controlled by three different countries. The largest area of the region, 222,236 square kilometers or 45 percent of the total territory of Kashmir falls under Indian administration. Around 35% of the total area of Jammu and Kashmir falls under Pakistan’s control (13,297 km which it calls “Azad Kashmir” and the other northern area spanning 72,971 km known as Gilgit and Baltistan). The remaining 37,244 km known as Aksai Chin falls under Chinese control and constitutes nearly 20 percent of the total area of the region. A small stretch of 6,000 square kilometers of the Shaksgam Valley was ceded to China by Pakistan following the settlement of the China-Pakistan Boundary Agreement in 1963. However, Pakistan claims that it ceded nothing to China; it has rather gained some 1,942 kilometers of land from China by virtue of this agreement.
Interestingly, secular Iran ruled by the Pahlavi Shah had been an open supporter of Pakistan over the disputes with India, including the Kashmir issue. However, the Islamic Revolution under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini opened a new chapter of relations with India by shifting its foreign policy in which Pakistan lost much leverage in Iran’s South Asia policy. Moreover, with the outbreak of violence in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989, the Iranian authorities had their first challenge as to how to design their Kashmir policy balancing its ties with India and Pakistan. The top leadership, therefore, preferred to avoid taking sides and limited their reactions to people’s sufferings, instead of supporting a contestable political solution. For example, in 1990 Ayatollah Khamenei expressed: “Look how everywhere in the world where there is a Muslim community, they receive a much harsher treatment compared with others. Kashmir is a contemporary example for this. Muslims there speak out their rights. Anyone who is informed of what Kashmir has gone through knows what the Muslims of Kashmir express is nothing but truth and justice. Those who silence them, have an unjust cause. Those who attack them are the ones who are committing a wrong act. Ironically, the world is watching all these in cold blood.” The statement, however, abstained from referring to both India and Pakistan and the political positions often taken by the two countries on the issue. Again, on September 11, 1991, Ayatollah Khamenei gave the detail of Iran’s position on Kashmir in which he was more critical of India’s alleged human rights violation of the Kashmiri people, but he again refrained from prescribing any specific political solution, particularly the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolution, a position Pakistan expects all Muslim countries to take. His statement, “For the Islamic Republic of Iran, the issue of Kashmir is an issue of humanity and Islam since the Muslim people of this region are clearly subject to oppression and tyranny and we have always expressed to the government of India our abhorrence to what is being done to the Muslim people of Kashmir and we will continue to express the same feelings in various circles” is obviously found to be avoiding a specific political solution. The April 12, 2001 statement “We hope that the issue of Kashmir will also be solved in the best way which guarantees the rights and interests of the people living in this region so that they will be provided with peace and comfort” is also without specifying any solution.
On Nov 22, 2016, Ayatollah Khamenei mentioned Kashmir in a conversation with the visiting Slovenian president, Borut Pahor, but only in the context of describing the West’s interest in keeping the regional disputes open: “On the basis of the first viewpoint, the Americans do not have a plan for uprooting Daesh. Like the English who have kept the wound of Kashmir open since the era of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent and which has resulted in two neighbouring countries, India and Pakistan, to have a discord on this matter until the present time, the Americans too want to act on the issue of Daesh in a way that this problem continues to exist in Iraq without ever being resolved.”
Apart from the extracts of Khamenei’s statements made in 2010 and 2017 on Kashmir, Iran remained calculative while playing it safe for both the Indian and Pakistani sides- relatively a stark dilution in rhetoric and harsh statements from 1989 to 2001. There is a clear contradiction in Supreme Leader Khamenei’s various statements on Kashmir, ranging from a harsh criticism against India to a middle path.
The Iranian administration from President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to the current President Hasan Rouhani and their foreign ministers have always taken a more cautious approach on the issue of Kashmir by balancing its huge economic interest in India and the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary policies. Thus, the difference between Supreme Leader Khamenei’s statements and those from various Iranian Presidents is impeccably directed to achieve both the objectives. In fact, Iran’s revolutionary leadership, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for example, during his visit to India in 1995, endorsed Indian secularism and praised its serious willingness for a solution on Kashmir while dismissing Pakistan’s call for American mediation to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Recently, Iran has repeatedly offered to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir.
The Indians never forget that Hashemi Rafsanjani, the then president of Iran had bailed out India at the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), by blocking a general consensus on a resolution on Kashmir. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), supported by influential Western nations, was pushing a resolution at the UNCHR, later rechristened as the Human Rights Council, to condemn India for human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. The resolution, with UNCHR approval, was to be referred to the UN Security Council for initiating economic sanctions and other punitive measures against India.
In 2004 on the sideline of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) Summit in Dushanbe, President Mohammad Khatami was reported to have issued a statement on Kashmir in which he had said: “Tehran wanted the Kashmir issue to be resolved in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmiri people.” However, both his foreign minister Kamal Kharazi and the Iranian Embassy in India rushed to clarify that there is no change in the stance of the Islamic Republic of Iran over the issue of Kashmir.
In December 2016, Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, said “Iran is a close friend of India as well as Pakistan. We would like the relations between our friends to improve. We are ready to do whatever we can, if both our friends so desire.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and the country’s politicians have very tactfully selected the words and statements on the Kashmir issue for their own political maneuvering, sometimes to pressure India to not align with US policies on Iran and buying Iranian oil shelving the unilateral US sanctions, while sometimes to present themselves as the champion of the cause of the global Islamic Ummah. All such statements coming from the power corridors of Tehran significantly suggest that Iran does not have a consistent policy on Kashmir. Their unpredictable tone and semantic directly reciprocate their relationship with India and Pakistan at a given time. Iran often uses its relationship with India in general and the Kashmir card, in particular, to check Pakistan from descending further toward regional foe Saudi Arabia.
It seems that Khamenei’s many statements on Kashmir in the capacity of supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran are aimed to address the constituency still sympathetic to the Islamic Revolution in and outside the country whereas Iran’s other politicians’ approach seeks to address the issue on the diplomatic and political front. The ambiguity between the rhetoric and action is a well-thought-out policy of Iran’s power brokers to manage both the constituencies. On the other hand, the establishment in India principally views Khamenei’s Kashmir reference in an unresponsive light, knowing that it will not have a significant impact on the ground in Kashmir because of sectarian reasons, and Iran’s such sporadic provocative statements do not pose any real threat to India, and which are also treated in the same spirit globally.
A detailed map is available at the United Nations http://www.un.org/Depts/Cartographic/map/profile/kashmir.pdf
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM’s editorial policy.