Exploring Indo-Iran relationship
The semantics of international diplomacy affords certain symbolic significance to “first visits”. Therefore, the landmark “first visit” by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Pakistan, since taking office and after the implementation of the nuclear agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 countries, was keenly watched by regional strategists and political pundits. Coming as it did, in the backdrop of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s planned visit to Iran’s archrival, Saudi Arabia in early April, the outcome of President Rouhani’s Pakistan visit warrants serious analysis in India. De rigueur niceties like a 21-gun salute on arrival and the mandatory meetings with the “Big 3” (Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Army Chief Raheel Sharif, and the President Mamnoon Hussain) aside, the net take-out of the visit points to the inevitable and intractable fault-lines besetting the two nations, with the parting language that can be best described as “short of expectations” by Islamabad.
An overenthusiastic Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Lt Gen Asim Bajwa of Pakistan had earlier tweeted of Pakistan Army Chief Raheel Sharif’s meeting with President Rouhani. “There is one concern that RAW (India’s primary foreign intelligence agency) is involved in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan, and sometimes it also uses the soil of our brother country Iran,” he said. Bajwa went on to add that the Pakistani General Raheel Sharif had asked President Rouhani to tell New Delhi that, “they (RAW) should stop these activities and allow Pakistan to achieve stability”. President Rouhani bluntly refuted this claim on Pakistani soil and rejected claims of any talks pertaining to RAW’s involvement in Pakistan. “Whenever Iran comes closer to Pakistan such rumours are spread,” he said--cocking a snook at the unnecessary drawing-in of the Indian angle to Pak-Iran talks.
This was essentially a bilateral and trade-centric visit that ensured President Rouhani was accompanied by 60 influential Iranian businessmen to tap the latent commercial potential with its eastern neighbour Pakistan, with whom they share a 910 km long border and still have only a pittance of $250 million trade annually. Comparatively, the value of Pakistan’s trade with India is close to $2 billion.
The recent lifting of economic sanctions and talks of Pakistan’s accommodation to ditch the US Dollar and instead use Euros in its trade with Iran has allayed certain fears as some sanctions are still in place that could obstruct payments to Tehran. The other mainstay of these discussions was the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, which the Iranians were expectedly keen to commission, as they had completed their side of the pipeline work (incurring $2 billion of infrastructural costs). However, the Pakistani side of the pipeline is still incomplete – perhaps, in deference to American pressure, in the times preceding the lifting of the Iranian sanctions.
Pakistan faces an acute power shortage and electricity crisis. President Rouhani said that Iran was already selling 1,000 MW of electricity to Pakistan and would increase this up to 3,000 MW. It was mooted by the Iranians to aid Pakistan’s critical energy requirements. Clearly, the focus of this visit was on trade and commerce. “My focus was better economic cooperation….now that after the lifting of sanctions there are lesser limitations and restrictions on economic, financial and banking ties between our countries,” President Rouhani said on the eve of his departure from Pakistan. Importantly for India, geopolitical “side-taking” was given a miss with no mention of “Kashmir” or “Afghanistan”, much to the consternation of the Pakistani establishment. If anything, the RAW rebuke eclipsed any clichéd bonhomie or any significant strategic assertion between the two countries, or indeed with India.
The fundamental difference between Pakistan and Iran lies in the wider sectarian divide that sharply cleaves the Islamic world into two distinct blocks – the Saudi Arabia-led, Sunni coalition of 34 countries (Islamic Military Alliance To Fight Terrorism – IMAFT, including Pakistan), and the Iran-led “Shia Crescent” countries and organisations (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the proxy Shia organisations like the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen). With both Saudi Arabia and Iran posturing as the champions of the Sunni and Shia faiths, respectively, a lot of blood is spilling into Yemen and Lebanon. Even in the fight against ISIS, the Iran-Iraq-Syria combine along with Russian forces are often at daggers drawn with the Gulf Sheikdom-Western Power alliance forces.
For India, this deep divide plays out with Iran positioning itself against the Taliban forces in Afghanistan (groomed by Pakistan). Moreover, the Iranians are always suspicious of Pakistan’s treatment of its Shia population (estimated at 15 percent of Pakistan’s population) that bears the brunt of Sunni supremacists. Terror organisations in Pakistan routinely and ruthlessly target the minority Shia’s. So much so, like India, Iran is said to be constructing a 3 feet thick and 10 feet high concrete wall, fortified with steel rods, to span the border stretching from Taftan to Mand. One of the ostensible reasons behind the construction of a wall is to stop the influx of the Sunni terrorist group Jundallah into Iran. Tehran routinely accuses Islamabad of not “meaningfully cooperating” with Iran in tackling the terror group apparatus within its soil, reminiscent of Indian woes on similar matters.
India’s avowed and consistent neutrality in these sectarian issues and wars of the Islamic world, common grounds with Iran in strategic geopolitical theatres like Afghanistan and a burgeoning bilateral trade (over $15 billion currently) and the active joint ventures in strategic infrastructural projects like developing the Chabbar port in Iran have given a very different texture and permanency to the Indo-Iranian equation, versus the Pakistani-Iranian relationship that belabours the trite “brother Islamic country” refrain, without genuine trust and history to back up the diplomatic shenanigans.
Prime Minister Modi must tread very carefully in Saudi Arabia as eyes in Tehran were transfixed on him to honour and reciprocate Iran’s progressive and non-interfering stand on India that had got exemplified in the recent visit of Iranian President Rouhani to Pakistan. The warmth of Indo-Iranian relationship and civilisational ties aside, there is a universal mellowing of perceptions towards Iran after the sustained and often unfair vilification of Iran in spreading global terror, when the ground realities in the Middle East belie the role of Iran and in fact hinge on its continual support in the fight against ISIS. The lacklustre outcome of President Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan should give Indians the confidence to expedite and invest in the economically resurgent Iran and propagate common geopolitical interests.
(Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal.)