Iran's Relations with India: Changing Dimensions of Strategy
Iran's Relations with India
Three years after India gained independence from the British, in 1950, India and Iran established their diplomatic relations. It was a relationship which had experienced many ups and downs starting from the Shah era when Iran was part of the US-led Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) on the one hand and India established the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and was close to the former Soviet Union on the other. The Ayatollah Khomeini-led revolution in 1979 changed Iranian foreign policy completely, and Iran openly and explicitly played the Islamic card in the Middle East. Later, Iran fought a long war with Iraq, and at the time, India had a very close relationship with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Khomeini's death and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union opened a new chapter in India-Iran relations with the rapid growth of the Indian economy. India's energy needs amplified and Indian oil imports from Iran started expanding. As one of the largest oil exporters, Iran saw an opportunity to enhance bilateral trade as well as the cultural relationship with India.
Apart from bilateral factors, there were always global factors that influenced India–Iran relations. The UN sanctions on Iran, unilateral sanctions imposed by the US, and later in 2009 India's vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) against Iran's nuclear program adversely affected their bilateral relations. However, unlike in 2009, when India voted against Iran, a vote that was believed to be under US pressure, in 2013 India ignored US pressure and continued buying Iranian oil, stabilizing its relations with Iran.
In May 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a high-profile visit to Tehran where India agreed to invest $500 million in the Chabahar port development and regional road and rail connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia. With a plan to further invest an additional $16 billion in the Chabahar, a free trade zone was also signed by both countries. Their bilateral trade is around 14 billion USD in which India imports around $12 billion worth of oil from Iran.
Iran and the Indian Shias
Iran's cultural role in India revolves around the Shia clergy inside India the ruling establishment in India is well aware of and even silently endorses it. As Iran's ambassador to India Gholam Reza Ansari once acknowledged in a speech at a university in Delhi, many times throughout history Iran's relations with India were better than Iran's relations with Pakistan. India views the Sunni Muslim fundamentalism and militancy emanating from Pakistan as its prime national-security threat. The recent increasing bilateralism between Iran and India is based on the economic and geopolitical interests of both countries. Obviously, to bring Iran much closer through its improved bilateral relationships, India would be happy to gratify the Indian Shia community in various ways.
Similarly, Iran's stance on Kashmir is also ambiguous, and it keeps periodically changing, and thus reflects its fluctuating relations with India. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on numerous occasions raised the issue of Kashmir, comparing it with the Palestinian cause, relating it to the besieged Gaza, and also emphasized resolution of the issue by guaranteeing the rights and wishes of the Kashmiri people. In his 1995 visit to India, the Iranian President of the time, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, gave an unexpected endorsement of Indian secularism and praised India’s serious will on Kashmir while dismissing Pakistan’s call for American mediation. Recently, Iran has repeatedly offered to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. In December of last year, 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.”
When India with its one of the large Shia community in the world is considered, it is possible to argue that Iran's state policy of using the sectarian card as its foreign policy tool played a key role in enhancing the recent strong bilateral relationship. Iran plays a strategically significant role in the approximately 30-million Indian Shia community. It is predicted that this Shia community in India composes around 15 percent of the total Muslim population of the country even though no official statistics exist. Most Indian Shia Muslims show their religious allegiance to Iran's clerical setup. Last year's Eid prayer is an example of this devout allegiance. After receiving instructions from Iran late in the night, the majority of Indian Shia clerics hurriedly declared Eid a day before the previously agreed date with other Muslims.
Contrary to their usual practices, the Indian Shia community always claims that they accept the religious command of Iraq's Ayatollah Sistani. The number of those having different tendencies among the Twelver Shias in India is negligible. Additionally, there is a limited Ismaili Shia population in India which is divided into various religious subgroups.
Examples of Iranian Influence on the Indian Shia Community
The Iran’s influence within the Indian Shia community is visible on many fronts. For instance, the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust (IKMT) in Kargil, Jammu and Kashmir was inspired by the Iranian revolution and is run by the young clerics trained in Iran. The IKMT Facebook page features photos of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a meeting with family members of Indian fighters “martyred” in Syria and Iraq. Another Shia cleric based in Lucknow, Maulana Kalbe Jawad, secretary general of the Majlis-e-Ulama-e-Hind (MUD), an organization of Shia clerics in India, was alleged to be a paid spy for Tehran in a 2006 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. Calling the claim a “conspiracy”, he has also lobbied to withdraw India's accusation of Iran's role in a 2012 terror attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi.
Currently, there are two Ayatollahs in India, the Delhi-based cleric Ayatollah Syed Aqeel-ul-Gharavi is a representative of the Qom-based Ayatollah Sheikh Mohsen Araki for the Indian sub-continent. Another prominent cleric in Lucknow, Ayatollah Syed Hamidul Hasan, was conferred with a letter of appreciation from the Iranian government in 2007 for his role in promoting India-Iran relations.
Regional and Global Perspectives
India also supports the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Damascus, an extension of Tehran's power in the Arab world. Both countries are on the same page as far as the Syrian conflict is concerned. However, there are some issues of concern. Iran that had supported the northern alliance along with India and Russia during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan is now cozying up to the Afghan Taliban India does not favor at all. Afghan Taliban delegations have been visiting Iran for the past few years. In 2013 Taliban's spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed one such visit headed by Mohammad Taib Agha, the head of the Taliban's political office.
China has since built and is now operating the strategic deep-sea Gwader port in Pakistan's Baluchistan province. As a result of India’s adverse relations with Pakistan, of China's entry into the Indian Ocean through the Pakistani port and of Pakistan's unwillingness to allow its land route to be utilized for Indian trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, India has found Iran a willing partner to collaborate with in regional politics and economy. Both countries have signed the Chabahar Port deal and trilateral agreement with Afghanistan to use the Chabahar port besides the rail and road network of Iran to connect with Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics that will bypass Pakistan. In view of this, Tehran’s strategic significance for New Delhi is not only as a major energy supplier but also as an access point to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Indian companies that had invested in Iran during the sanction period are now forced to renegotiate the previously signed deals or go through the tender process. In the tender process, the Indian companies are set to lose to the larger and more technically-skilled companies from Europe, China, and neighboring Turkey. After the sanctions were lifted, a more assertive Iran is driving a hard bargain as it has more diversified customers and partners across the world.
Iran not only provides an alternative energy import source to the predominantly Sunni Arab exporting countries but also provides leverage through the new strategic balance doctrine in the politics of the greater Middle East where Iran has emerged as a major economic and military player. Additionally, for Iran, it not only provides an enthusiastic business partner but a good counterweight to Pakistan completely siding with Saudi Arabia.
India’s image in Iran has been exceptionally positive. The 2006 BBC-Global scan survey of 33 countries revealed that 71% of Iranians gave India a positive rating, the maximum in all the polled countries. Iran’s public image in India is also largely positive among the Middle Eastern Muslim countries. Being a marginal religious-political current in the larger Muslim world, Iranian Islamism is also fairly acceptable to Indian establishment and policymakers.
Unlike China’s relation with Iran, which is completely independent of US and EU policies, India’s relation with Iran had often been a hostage of US foreign policy and unilateral sanctions. Often in the past, India’s policy fell in line with US and EU policies on Iran. Hence, the future of the India-Iran bilateral relationship will also depend on India’s response to impending US and EU policies towards Iran.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM’s editorial policy.
*Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami is an international affairs analyst and columnist who has written for publications including Asia Times, Daily Sabah, Anadolu Agency and Hurriyet Daily News. He has extensively written about geopolitics of the Middle East and on Iran's foreign policy.