New Delhi: Bilateral relations between India and Iran seem to be plummeting rapidly, as New Delhi has shown no signs of resuming oil trade with Tehran, while progress on the Chabahar Port has not been up to the satisfaction of the Iranians.
The crack in the India-Iran relationship got exposed in the past week when the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned “the wave of organised violence against Indian Muslims”, and urged the Modi government to “not let senseless thuggery prevail”.
He ended his condemnation of the violence in the capital suggesting to the ruling BJP that the “path forward lies in peaceful dialogue and rule of law”.
Iran condemns the wave of organized violence against Indian Muslims.
For centuries, Iran has been a friend of India. We urge Indian authorities to ensure the wellbeing of ALL Indians & not let senseless thuggery prevail.
Path forward lies in peaceful dialogue and rule of law.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) March 2, 2020
However, Zarif’s tweet culminated in a severe reprimand from the Indian government to Iranian envoy Ali Chegeni. According to diplomatic sources, India had summoned Chegeni as it found out that after Zarif’s tweet, Pakistani Foreign Minister S.M. Qureshi had given him a call.
Not surprisingly, India also called it an “internal matter”, but that did not stop Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei from commenting that incidents like the recent violence in Delhi, if not prevented, could lead to India’s “isolation from the world of Islam”.
The hearts of Muslims all over the world are grieving over the massacre of Muslims in India. The govt of India should confront extremist Hindus & their parties & stop the massacre of Muslims in order to prevent India’s isolation from the world of Islam.#IndianMuslimslnDanger
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) March 5, 2020
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan Wednesday put out a tweet, thanking Khamenei and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had also condemned the violence.
Divide in the Muslim world
The Muslim world itself is witnessing a deep divide with Saudis and Emiratis on one side and Turkey and Iran on the other, while Pakistan keeps shifting between the two based on its own self-interests.
India, which has always carefully manoeuvred its foreign policy and walked the tightrope with all its friends in the Muslim world, is now being seen as cosying up with the Saudis, Israelis and Americans much more than it used to, much to the discontent of the other countries.
“We have walked right into the centre-stage of issues with the Muslim world by aligning ourselves with the US and Israel. We have now allowed the entry of Saudi Arabia in all our strategic sectors. So, in the eyes of the Muslim world, especially in the eyes of Iran and Turkey, there is a perceived tilt,” said veteran diplomat M. Bhadrakumar, India’s former ambassador to Turkey.
India-Iran oil equation
Despite several rounds of economic sanctions placed on Iran by the US, India had never stopped buying oil from Tehran completely, because New Delhi never followed unilateral sanctions.
However, since May last year, India has brought down the oil imports to zero due to the threat of US sanctions under the Donald Trump administration.
Tehran is now focussing on its non-oil sectors, even as 30-40 per cent of its economy is dependent on oil, less than half of what it was under the regime of the Shah, before the 1979 revolution. It is now making an effort to revive its traditional leather industry, apart from agricultural products such as dry fruits, according to a senior Iranian official.
The Chabahar problem
Meanwhile, despite obtaining a waiver from the Americans on the Chabahar Port project, India has not been able to make much progress there.
The Chabahar Port project was conceptualised in 2003, as Iran gave permission to Afghanistan to use it for transit purposes as tensions between Kabul and Islamabad peaked. India also saw this to be an important step to contribute towards the development of Afghanistan, while also addressing its long-standing plan to bypass Pakistan and secure safe transit access.
Eventually, India took over operations at Shahid Beheshti terminal in Chabahar in December 2018. However, plans to develop a railway link from the port till the Afghan border has not made any progress, which has upset the Iranians.
While the Indian government is keen and has also been making allocations for the project, since the last round of US sanctions, companies are now unwilling to take the risk of investing in the infrastructure development there, diplomatic sources said.
According to the sources, with a new set of stringent sanctions coming in and tensions raging between the US and Iran over the assassination of Iran’s top military leader Qassem Soleimani, Indian firms are “not willing to take a risk at all”.
The US had imposed a new round of sanctions on Iran on 10 January, within days of Soleimani’s killing, when Iran retaliated with missile attacks on US targets in Iraq.
When Iran ended India’s post-Babri isolation
The deterioration in ties is particularly glaring as India and Iran have been around for each other at the toughest of times.
In 1995, when India was facing diplomatic isolation from the Muslim world due to the Babri Masjid demolition on 6 December 1992, a state visit by then-Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani helped smooth the relationship. Rafsanjani was reciprocating a 1993 visit by Indian PM Narasimha Rao.
Also in 1995, when the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC, now renamed the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), supported by Western nations, was successful in pushing a resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights (now replaced by the UN Human Rights Council) to condemn India for violations in Kashmir, Iran had abstained from voting, stopping the OIC from building a consensus.
Narasimha Rao, in fact, had an even earlier association with Iran. In July 1983, as foreign minister, he and then-foreign secretary K. Natwar Singh visited the country for five days, paving the way for trade in a large number of goods.
“That was an era when there was transparency in policies. Today, that is missing. Today, both sides are suspicious of each other,” said Bhadrakumar.