In a clear indication of how important Iran is in the Indian foreign policy matrix, Prime Minister Narendra Modi deputed Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Road Transport Highways and Shipping, as his special envoy to represent India at the inaugural ceremony of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s second term on August 5.
In Iran, Gadkari underlined that once the Chabahar Port in Iran, which India is developing, becomes operational, there will be no looking back as it will be a gateway to golden opportunities. However, the slow pace of the project has irked the Iranians who have indicated that despite India developing the project, it will not be exclusive to the country, and Pakistan and China might also be invited to get involved. For India, this undercuts the very strategic utility of the Chabahar port, viewed as India’s answer to the Gwadar port in Pakistan, allowing India to circumvent Pakistan and open up a route to landlocked Afghanistan.
Gadkari’s visit is therefore timely as it reaffirmed India’s commitment to the Chabahar project. Gadkari said that the operationalisation of the port will not accelerate infrastructure projects but will be a “win-win situation” for the nations as it would give a tremendous boost to trade and offer vast opportunities to investors. Gadkari said: “Chabahar will not only boost ties between Iran and India but we will be closer to Afghanistan and then Russia…We can export goods till Russia. This will be a direct route.”
The visit is also an important signal that India remains committed to strong ties with Iran despite a series of recent setbacks.
During his Eid sermon delivered at the Khomeini Mausoleum in Tehran on July 26, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei exhorted the Muslim world to express their disdain against “oppressors who’ve attacked people in such horrible ways during the month of Ramadan”, and ended up equating the Kashmir conflict with that of Yemen and Bahrain. He is reported to have said:
“Conflicts in Yemen, Bahrain, problems in all Islamic countries, are major wounds on the body of Islam. The World of Islam should explicitly support the people of Yemen, and express their disdain against the oppressors who’ve attacked the people in such horrible ways during the month of Ramadan…The same is true for the people of Bahrain and Kashmir: Our people can back this great movement within the World of Islam.”
Though his comments took many observers by surprise, Khamenei has been talking of Kashmir for quite some time. New Delhi has done well not to give it too much weight. India’s relations with Iran are important and the reformist regime of Hassan Rouhani is looking for a wider global engagement.
At a time when Shia-Sunni fault-lines are getting accentuated in West Asia, Khamenei’s statement probably reflects his country’s concerns about getting regionally isolated especially when US President Donald Trump administration’s hard-line against Tehran seems to have emboldened Saudi Arabia and its allies to squeeze Iran out of the regional matrix. The blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates after cutting diplomatic ties in June underscores this complex reality. Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a range of proxy wars across the region – in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, apart from their growing hostility in Iraq. Ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Riyadh and Tehran have struggled to shape the Gulf in consonance with their own interests using religion instrumentally to hide their pursuit of power. An attack on Tehran’s Parliament on June 7, for which Iran blames Saudi Arabia, has further heightened the tension.
Khamenei’s recent utterances on Kashmir might be a signal to India that Tehran is closely watching New Delhi’s growing closeness to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is a reminder to India that Iran too has a role in the Islamic world, which cannot be ignored. Yet the emergence of Kashmir in India-Iran bilateral discourse is nothing new. India has always been wary of Iran’s support for Pakistan in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation regarding Kashmir. Iranian criticism of India’s position on Kashmir has repeatedly sparked protests in the Indian government against Iranian interference.
Irritants in relationship
While the Kashmir issue deserves to be ignored, what should be of concern to New Delhi and Tehran is the decline in economic ties between the two countries in recent months.
Iran seems to be in no hurry to decide on the contract for gas exploration in its Farzad B offshore field to ONGC Videsh, and India too has decided to decrease the volume of Iranian crude oil it will be buying this year pending the decision on the contract. There have been some suggestions that an initial agreement with Russian giant Gazprom for the gas field has been signed by Iran. For India, which stood by Iran during the height of its global isolation, this is certainly galling.
While New Delhi has done well to ignore the Khamenei provocation on Kashmir, it needs to work with the Rouhani government in Tehran to ensure that the bilateral irritants in fostering economic ties between the two nations are resolved soon. After all, there are far too many issues, including the future of Afghanistan, which require closer coordination between the two. Gadkari’s visit is an important marker in that direction.
Harsh V Pant is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College London.