By Pema Tseten Lachungpa*
On May 22, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first official trip to Iran after similar successful trip to Saudi Arabia and UAE, testifying India’s renewed vigor in engaging with the countries on its west. The visit had come after a gap of 15 years and is being viewed as a significant bilateral visit.
Historically, India and Iran were once neighbors who shared their borders till 1947. With the creation of Pakistan in 1947, India and Iran lost the geographical contiguity they had enjoyed for centuries. The Cold War altercation further made the relations worse as the Shah of Iran allied his country with the US, whereas India preferred to remain non-aligned. It was at the beginning of 1950’s that India and Iran established official diplomatic relations thereby opening windows of opportunities to dispel the clouds of misunderstandings and upgrade their bilateral ties. Today, India and Iran are partners in commerce and share significant trade ties, particularly in the sectors of crude oil imports into India and diesel exports to Iran. The situation, as it stands today speaks of a bilateral trade that touches USD 13.13 billion in value (2014-15).
India’s diplomatic relations with Iran are rooted in economic interests, connectivity route to Afghanistan and Central Asia via Iran and maintaining regional security balance vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. New Delhi’s cooperation with Tehran extends on the premises of energy need as India depends on West Asia for its energy security and sources 80 per cent of its energy needs from the region. Its vision to include Iran in the regional setting by getting connected through Chabahar port is to reach out to Afghanistan and Central Asia, thereby containing security threats and maintaining durable regional security architecture in the region. As such, the current trip is a very significant one in the context of India’s domestic and regional supremacy and probably a game changing moment for India, and most importantly, for Indian security.
As Modi inked a slew of pacts with Iran, these are bound to give New Delhi an unprecedented cooperation with Tehran to access Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe through a network of ports, rail links and roads. All these pacts including commercial contract to develop Chabahar port, a pact to connect Zahedan on Iran’s border with Afghanistan and Pakistan and a transit agreement to transport goods into Afghanistan revolves around the use of port of Chabahar.
The Chabahar port is located in the south of Sistan and Baluchistan Provinces of Iran; in the south eastern part of Iran. It is among the Iranian ports which have direct access to the ocean, and because of its establishments and ease of access to ocean as well as Oman Sea and Persian Gulf, it provides direct centre of business, trade and navigation. The significance of Chabahar port first came into appearance in India-Iran relations in 2003 as Chabahar port provides direct connectivity route to Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond via Iran thereby strategically outflanking Pakistan and restructuring the regional balance.
The direct access to Chabahar port will also facilitate in countering the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the larger geopolitical and economic goals of China that are geared at countering the rising currency of India as regional power in Asian geopolitics. Apart from this, Chabahar port also fills India’s plan for energy and maritime security grid with the port sitting astride the vital sea lanes of communication that supplies nearly half of the energy needs of the India, Southeast and North Asian countries, including China and Japan.
But, the importance of Chabahar port was shackled by the signing of Indo-US nuclear deal (also known as 123 Agreement). India’s was put into dilemma over US position of Iran as belonging to the ‘axis of evil’, and more significantly, the recalibrating position of USA vis-a- vis India to sign the nuclear deal which made the Chabahar project less fruitful and failed to bring any positive setting for a long time. Today, as Iran is free of economic sanctions and is establishing ties with US and European Union, it now becomes imperative for India to consider the Chabahar Project which has remained only on paper till date.
Chabahar port holds a pivotal and crucial role in India’s relations with Iran as it is the only access route from where India can gains its objective of sustaining its relations with Central and West Asia and beyond. It is the only source of linkage that connects India (western coast) with Iran without entering Pakistan thus, giving us more option. As Modi successfully brings Chabahar port agreement at India’s dispenses; it not only fulfills India long term strategic engagement with Iran but also breaks the strategic encirclement strategic of China over the pursuit of a port in Pakistan’s Gwadar.
While the Chabahar port now safely lies in India’s hands, there are some areas of concern that still fuel suspicion and tension in the bilateral relations. The first problem is Iran’s less than enthusiastic stance vis-a-vis India since Iran is not a significant recipient of India’s giant economic story. Second, India might face opposition from western and European countries (in term of investing) who are still wondering if they should resume business with Iran. Third, Modi visit proves to be a significant one in India’s larger foreign policy orientation, but on the whole, the visit came a little too late. China and US have already visited Iran and presented their approaches to tie up with Iran. Rouhani, on his part, also made official trip to Italy, France and even, Pakistan and inked deals worth of billions thereby boosting its economic ties.
Hence, India coming to Iran is seen as bit late in terms of wooing the Tehran leaders. But, as India has historical linkages with Iran and vice-versa, the visit proves to be a significant one in terms of India’s reorientation of its foreign policy and the importance of its extended neighborhood in its foreign policy framework.
*Pema Tseten Lachungpa is a PhD Scholar in International Relations at Sikkim University, Gangtok. He can be reached at:[email protected]