The world is now aware of the victory of incumbent Rouhani over the challenger Raisi in Iran’s recent Presidential elections. However, it must be brought to notice that irrespective of the identity of the victor, whether it be Rouhani or Raisi, India will have to seek the same path for its Iran strategy – the need to act fast and selfishly. India had struck a deal with Iran and Afghanistan a year ago, concerning the Chabahar project and the trade corridor to Afghanistan. This deal ensured that India gains strategic connectivity up to Central Asia bypassing Pakistan while deepening the country’s ties with Pakistan’s western neighbours. However, subsequent tensions between Iran and the US led to a cautious stance on India’s part, where the government asked its firms to go slow on Iran projects. While the objective may have been to assess the impact of possible sanctions on Iran, the widespread belief was that India did not want to upset its new friend, the US, by maintaining friendly relations with Iran.
Change: The only constant in foreign policy
Policy decisions of a country often operate in contrasting ways to maintain a nation’s varying interests. India’s new friend, the US, supported Pakistan militarily during the decades of the Cold War. In the 1971 Indo-Pak war, it deployed an aircraft carrier of its famed Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal as a show-of-force against India. Even now, the US has been known to sign cheques to Pakistan for the war on terror, despite allegations that Pakistan has failed to act decisively on Hafiz Saeed, Syed Salahuddin or Masood Azhar. India’s closest friend for decades, Russia, is selling arms to Pakistan today, including combat air crafts and attack helicopters. These defence sales indicate a shift in Russian foreign policy towards Pakistan, despite it losing thousands of soldiers to alleged Pakistan-backed Mujahedeen elements during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
India’s relations with the US were recently rocked by the contentious H1B visa issue in its technology sector, a $160 billion sector, contributing over 10% to India’s GDP. India chose not to participate in the recent Belt and Road Forum held in China on the grounds that the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) project runs through part of Kashmir, hence violating India’s sovereignty. However, India’s allies, the US and Russia, participated in the event by sending their delegations. Given that none of these actions undermined India’s ties with the US or Russia, perhaps it is time that India acts selfishly, focusing primarily on its interests to ensure co-operation with Iran.
India must be a master of its own policy
Irrespective of the disapproval of its powerful allies, India must resume its original Iran strategy. This is the opportune moment for India to dig deeper ground with Pakistan’s western neighbours. Intelligence sharing in the neighbourhood is a key need, even for economic co-operation projects. India’s argument regarding the Jadhav case, the allegation that he was abducted by Pakistani intelligence in the border areas, only highlights the need for more rapport with Iran. India needs to build connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia, be it for energy or trade, and its infrastructure projects in Iran are crucial in securing these relations.
If India’s allies raise concerns regarding Indo-Iran relations, it is only fair that India adopts a strong stance, asking the US and Russia to take on a severe stand against Pakistan until the US demands on terror groups have been met. India will benefit from being selfish in this case, or the nation will definitely become a victim of the varying policy agendas of her allies and global powers, the US and Russia.
India can be the friend Iran needs
During the election campaign, the hardliners in Iran were loud about Rouhani’s inability to raise the promised investments and jobs. Public spending on projects is expected to be in focus, as job creation is a socio-economic concern. Another issue that arises is that possible sanctions may hold back investments from private companies and restrict foreign funding. Indian firms have an opportunity to partner on public tenders in Iran. Iran needs a reliable partner for its economic development agenda now more than ever especially if Rouhani has to prove his naysayers wrong after resuming office. Last year, India made the first move with the Chabahar project deal. But, if India continues to dither on its Iran-strategy on the pretext of not upsetting the US, Iran will cease to view India as a reliable partner.
India, Iran and lost opportunities
India needs to act fast. India’s laxity may lead to these projects eventually going to the very powers that opposed the Rouhani regime in the first place – Myanmar being a prime example. Even China has made serious inroads into Iran for trade deals and its OBOR (One Belt, One Road) project. Neither countries have been known to slow their pace in order to appease their allies. By doing exactly that, India is only losing its opportunity. Till the US sanctions remain, foreign funding from the West remains restricted. Once the sanctions are negotiated, they will make a bee-line to the world’s newly opened market. Iran is an open terrain for China, given its deep funding pockets through its banks and funds. If India can structure its funding solution, it still has a fair chance of competing in Iran’s projects, unlike most markets that recently opened up to global investments. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, also stressed the need for removal of obstacles for banking co-operation with India during the recent foreign secretary meeting.
If India wants to be Iran’s long-term ally, while addressing geostrategic interests, it needs to act fast and selfishly. If India fails to do so, this will be a golden opportunity lost.
*Sourajit Aiyer is the author of 2 books in UK and Germany and has written for 38 publications of 13 countries. He has worked with leading financial companies in Mumbai, London, Delhi & Dhaka, and has been invited to speak at conferences in India and abroad.
Originally published in Indian Economist and republished with permission