Is India playing a triangular tango with Iran?
Since 2005, some critical decisions over Iran have been taken by the MEA’s US Division. So questions arise if Jaishankar’s recent brief halt in Tehran was coordinated with Washington
Published: 14th July 2021 12:18 AM | Last Updated: 14th July 2021 12:18 AM | A+A A-
While the Indian government described it as a ‘technical halt’, many eyebrows were raised over the brief stopover of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in Tehran on July 7. The ‘diplomatic surprise’ took place amidst the major Cabinet reshuffle in New Delhi. The official announcement before Jaishankar’s Moscow visit did not indicate a detour to Iran. For his part, Jaishankar tweeted: “Thank President-elect Ebrahim Raisi for his gracious welcome. Handed over a personal message from PM… Appreciate his warm sentiments for India. Deeply value his strong commitment to strengthen our bilateral ties and expand cooperation on regional and global issues.”
It is obvious that the ‘technical halt’ was pre-planned and choreographed. The few hours of stay in Tehran was marked by the EAM’s meeting with President-elect Raisi and his Iranian counterpart Dr Javid Zarif. The meeting with the latter is a mere formality as he would be leaving office when Raisi becomes president. The MEA official spokesperson listed out issues discussed between the two sides: regional and global issues, Afghanistan, the Vienna negotiations over the resumption of the nuclear deal abandoned by former US President Donald Trump, the North-South Transport Corridor and Chabahar port. Another twist came a few days later when India announced its acceptance of the invitation for the inauguration of Raisi’s presidency on August 3.
Iran has been the most challenging aspect of India’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. New Delhi has been unable to synchronise its overlapping and conflictual interests vis-a-vis Tehran. At one level, it has been seeking closer ties with the dominant country in the Persian Gulf region that also has considerable oil and gas reserves vital for India’s economic growth. In addition, interest convergence over Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia added a strategic dimension to the bilateral relations.
At the same time, since the Islamic revolution, Iran has been pursuing a belligerent, and some might say hegemonic policy, vis-a-vis its Arab neighbours. Opposed to external powers—including India—playing any role in the region, Tehran sees the Persian Gulf as its exclusive sphere of influence. Over time, the Iran-Saudi rivalry and competition transformed into a sectarian conflict between the two branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia. Tehran’s policy towards the US and Israel also complicated India’s options.
If these challenges are not sufficient, the Ministry of External Affairs has also created operational complications. The Islamic Republic does not fall under the West Asia and North African (WANA) Division of the Ministry but is part of the PAI Division comprising Pakistan and Afghanistan. This means the Gulf Division, which deals with the countries along the Persian Gulf, does not include Iran. Ironically, when Iran is the major preoccupation of the Gulf Arab states and their political stability, India’s Gulf policy is formulated without any inputs from or on Iran. Clubbing Iran with Pakistan made sense during the Cold War when both were close allies or when Pakistan was India’s dominant foreign policy preoccupation. But to perpetuate this when India is seeking closer ties with Gulf Arab countries? The much-publicised restructuring undertaken in 2020 did not address India’s Persian puzzle in the Gulf.
If keeping Iran out of the internal deliberations on the Gulf is not enough, India found a new hurdle. Since early 2005, some of the critical decisions concerning Iran have been taken not by the PAI Division but by the US Division as New Delhi tries to ‘coordinate’ and synchronise its Iran policy with Washington. Whether it was the vote on the Iranian nuclear programme in IAEA in 2005 or stopping oil imports from Iran, the US Division had a pre-eminent role. Therefore, questions arise if Jaishankar’s brief halt in Tehran and the meeting with President-elect Raisi were coordinated with Washington.
Two, while several Western nations were reluctant, on June 20, the day after Raisi was declared the winner in the presidential election, PM Narendra Modi tweeted his congratulatory message and expressed his desire to “working with him to further strengthen the warm ties.” This would add a twist with the US, especially the liberal section of the Democrats committed to human rights. Indeed, Raisi becomes the first incoming president of Iran under US sanctions (imposed in November 2019) over his alleged role in the systematic abuse and violation of human rights. So any Indian move towards Iran under Raisi will add more spice to Modi-Biden relations.
Three, for its part, Iran has outmanoeuvred India and is perhaps seeking a wedge between New Delhi and its Gulf Arab partners, especially Saudi Arabia. By bestowing on Jaishankar the honour of being the first foreign dignitary to meet the incoming President, Tehran might use the meeting in its relations with its other friends like Russia and China. Thus, Jaishankar’s brief meeting with Raisi days before the latter’s inauguration opens a new and interesting chapter for India and its ability to manage conflicting pulls over its Gulf policy.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU, Teaches contemporary Middle East there