Indo-Iran: The next frontier
With a shared historical legacy, India and Iran carry the robust possibility of building strong diplomatic ties in an era of untoward western dominance
Just a few weeks ago, India and Iran inked an agreement by which India will import crude oil from Iran using a rupee-based payment mechanism, 50 per cent of those payments being used for exporting items to Tehran, especially Basmati rice. Russian and Chinese shipping companies are pitching to facilitate India-Iran trade. Around one-fifth of all oil and petroleum sales from Iran are to India, pegged at USD 12 billion a year, while Iran is the largest importer of rice (especially the Basmati) from India, pegged at USD 4 billion annually. Both are now victims of US-dominated tools of trade and currency exchange, with Iran also currently facing US sanctions. Hence, from an economic perspective, Iran is the second-largest supplier of crude oil to India, supplying more than 425,000 barrels of oil per day and, consequently, India has been one of the largest foreign investors in Iran's oil and gas industry, affected to an extent in recent times due to the US sanctions. India has recently reduced oil intake partially.
India has shared nearly a thousand years of relations (earlier with provinces of the pre-Mughal period) with erstwhile Persia, now Iran, later subverted by the British. After the attack of Persian aggressor Nader Shah in 1739, there have been three hundred years of friendship, cordial relations and a great exchange of language, culture, art, architecture and trade between India and Iran. In fact, Iran later supported Humayun in stabilising his rule in India. Persian or Farsi has been an integral part of pre-British Indian life, art, language and culture, effectively damaged by British rule in India. In fact, Persian and Indus civilisations were highly evolved in historical times. Even Vedic references to Persian culture and language exist. Indo-Persian architecture in several monuments, especially the Taj Mahal, is a great
testimony of our civilisational relations. Sufism in India has Persian roots. Guru Nanak had visited Persia and was influenced by Sufism. Even to this day, the Academy of Persian Language and Literature in Iran encourages literary and cultural bilateral relations. Later, forefathers of the Supreme Leader of Iran Revolution, Imam Ayatollah Khomeini, had studied in India. However, the West, especially the US, has always attempted to make Iran and India look at each other through the prism of their interests and not of these two great nations, made worse in the current digital media age with the West controlling most channels of information.
Iran's Regional Stability Outlook
Iran's approach to regional stability in South Asia and the Middle East calls for an advanced Indian developmental role, especially in neighbouring Afghanistan. Iran feels that post-colonial Asia's obsession to look at regional issues through the Western prism should end and the attention should now be towards the interests of other Asian and African nations. Hence, there has been a conscious foreign policy shift by Iran towards the East, especially towards India, China and Russia. On Kashmir, Iran has earlier held that it is 'a festering wound' of the past, but is now unequivocal in condemning western interference and suggests a bilateral solution to the vexed issue.
Following the 1979 revolution, relations between Iran and India strengthened momentarily. However, Iran's continued support for Pakistan and India's close relations with Iraq during the Iran–Iraq War impeded further development of Indo-Iranian ties. In the 1990s, India and Iran supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban regime. They continue to collaborate in supporting the broad-based anti-Taliban government led by Ashraf Ghani and backed by the United States. The two countries signed a defence cooperation agreement in December 2002. And that led to the improvement in ties.
Iran frequently objected Pakistan's attempts to draft anti-India resolutions at international organisations such as the OIC and the Human Rights Commission. India welcomed Iran's inclusion as an observer state in the SAARC regional organisation.
A growing number of Iranian students are enrolled at universities in India, most notably in Pune and Bengaluru. The clerical government in Tehran sees itself as a leader of Shiites worldwide, including India. Indian Shiites enjoy state support such as a recognised national holiday for Muharram. Lucknow continues to be a major centre of Shiite culture and Persian study in the subcontinent.
Further, India and Iran need to come closer to combat the western impact on their languages, culture, media freedom, cinema and values. Western commodification of women and derision to traditional Indian and Iranian values needs to be questioned. Strong people-to-people relations between these two nations can create an alternative narrative, approach and indigenous technology, and the two governments will be led to closer relations.
In fact, Indo-Iran relations were rudimentary during the Shah dynasty before the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, largely due to the western dominion of Iran then. The situation is much different today and there is the need for a new phase of Indo-Iran relations going beyond governments, with many institutions and people-to-people ties evolving.
Indo-Iran Trade & Other Possibilities
Iran today expects India to stand strong and resist the US pressure in its own long-term interests. There can be several areas of investments for India, as in transport, IT, pharma, biotech, among others. People-to-people cooperation exists immensely in cinema, culture, education, tourism, etc.
On May 22, 2016, Prime minister Narendra Modi paid an official visit to Iran. The visit focused on bilateral connectivity and infrastructure, energy partnership and trade. Interestingly, the Modi government had welcomed the adherence of all IAEA norms by Iran earlier and the signing of the Joint Declaration of Iran and the other major nations, which was later deserted by the Trump-led US.
A highway between Zaranj and Delaram is being built with financial support from India. India's BRO is laying the 213 km Zaranj-Delaram road. It is a part of India's USD 750 million aid package.
The Chabahar Port in Iran has also been jointly financed by Iran and India. India alone plans to invest USD 20 billion towards the development of Chabahar Port, and it is expected to be fully operational within the next decade. India is helping develop Chabahar Port, which will give it access to the oil and gas resources of Iran and the Central Asian states. By doing so, India hopes to compete with the Chinese, who are building Gwadar Port in Pakistan's Balochistan. Iran plans to use Chabahar for trans-shipment to Afghanistan and Central Asia while keeping the port of Bandar Abbas as a major hub primarily for trade with Russia and Europe. India, Iran and Afghanistan have signed an agreement to give Indian goods, heading for Central Asia and Afghanistan, preferential treatment and tariff reductions at Chabahar.
The Chabahar Port project is Iran's chance to end its US-sponsored economic isolation and benefit from the resurgent Indian economy. Along with Bandar Abbas, Chabahar is the Iranian entrepot on the North-South corridor. A strategic partnership between India, Iran and Russia is intended to establish a multi-modal transport link connecting Mumbai with St Petersburg, providing Europe and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia access to Asia and vice-versa.
Indo-Iran relations can only progress if they are delinked from Western interests in the region and are developed purely in their own economic, sociocultural and geostrategic interests. The Indian government has recently given a list of 120 items that Iran can import from India, sanctions notwithstanding. And, India cannot ignore the crude oil and gas imports from Iran, more so in an election year. Further, the historical context and, consequent possibilities of people-to-people relations are an icing on the cake.
(The author is a noted media academic and columnist and has recently visited Tehran for a week. He is the Media Dean of Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai, and has been earlier the Media Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities. The views expressed are strictly personal)