Removing the wedge
Iran’s increasingly antagonistic rhetoric against India, spurred on by direct or indirect Pakistani interference, must be countered with all available diplomatic options
Contrary to expectations, Iran, which has traditionally had warm relations with India, including historic ties, is now going sour on such ties due to the recent imposition of CAA as well as the February communal riots in the North-Eastern part of Delhi. Iran also seems visibly irked due to the growing Indo-US strategic relations and Tehran suffering a series of reverses including the killing of its General Qasem Soleimani who was seen as the poster boy of Iran's military, more specifically its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran's stepped-up vitriolic attack against India was very recently articulated by a senior judge of its Apex Court, Syed Ibrahim Raysee who on March 9 lashed out at India against those responsible for the riots and strongly urged them to be held accountable for their alleged atrocities. In the same vein, the judge criticised the US for injecting divisive politics and said if the US was allowed to meddle into the affairs of India, the region could become perilous. Raysee squarely blamed human rights groups for being silent over the attacks which he felt was not a good sign. Earlier, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif openly condemned the 'organised violence' against Muslims in India and even went to the extent of describing it as 'senseless thuggery'. This statement was the strongest so far and perhaps not on anticipated lines due to the fact that Zarif had come to India in the recent past and his body language exhibited warmth with a promise to improve bilateral relations. Zarif also tweeted a series of messages condemning India over the riots and called for protection of the Indian Muslims alleging that mosques were attacked and religious documents desecrated.
In the meantime, a very hard-hitting anti-India statement has come to notice, given by Alaeddin Boroujerdi who is a senior member of parliament and a member of the National Security Foreign Policy Committee of Iran. In a very immature charge, he has called for the recall of the Iranian Ambassador to Delhi as a mark of protest for the killings Muslims in the recent riots in India. Equally disturbing is his statement that if Muslims in India took similar action against alleged violent behaviour then that will not be in the interest of Indian society. This is indeed a very provocative statement and is carried prominently in the Iranian media further vitiating Indo-Iran relations. It perhaps calls for an immediate response by Indian authorities.
Interestingly, in an unwarranted manner, Pakistan stepped in trying to fish in troubled waters when it's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi welcomed Iran's statement and said that he fully shared the concerns expressed by Tehran on safety and well-being of Indian Muslims targeted by RSS sponsored violence. Qureshi even exceeded diplomatic niceties by terming the alleged killings of Muslims in the riots as a sinister, systemic and well-planned tirade of violence against the Indian Muslims. Zarif, however, admitted that for centuries Iran has been a friend of India and called for a peaceful dialogue with the affected parties to end the violence. These statements too were quickly exploited by Pakistan to its advantage though it is well known that Islamabad has been eyeing with awe and suspicion the growing Indo-Iran and Indo-Afghan ties. The Indian External Affairs Ministry reacted immediately and rejected all the allegations of the Iran government by summoning its Ambassador last week castigating Tehran for its unsavory remarks against India on the recent developments.
It is also pertinent to point out that after the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the states bifurcation, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei criticised India for 'repression' in Kashmir. The statement was significant as in the past the Iranian government had carefully avoided comments that could antagonise India because of its strong trade and economic ties. Clearly, the equations are changing and knowledgeable sources indicate that such sensitive issues are whipped up by the prompting of Pakistani intelligence agencies as they are trying to drive a wedge between the two countries as they are also not comfortable with India's involvement in the Chabahar Port.
Pakistan stepping in to meddle in Indo-Iran affairs appears to be part of a grand sinister design playing the Muslim minority card at a time when things appear to be settling down in India and above all this remains purely an internal affair. It is also possible, as brought out by the security analysts, that Pakistan is currently in a mode to divert international attention from its own domestic ills and a kind of unease afflicting the beleaguered country.
To elaborate on Pakistan's domestic and external policies, it would be germane to underline that the academics in Pakistan perceive that there is now an attempt to subvert the fundamental rights of citizens as there is an alarming rise of bigotry in the society which is noticed and is believed to be undermining democratic values. The rise of religious extremism at an alarming rate is not only diluting the democratic institution but also showing signs of well-orchestrated divisive politics in Pakistan. To illustrate this point, the government's rollback on granting permission to screen Zindagi Tamasha gave a convenient opportunity to zealots. It was a clear sign to deliberately stifle freedom of expression, a luxury in Pakistan where the military calls the shots. Similarly, the recent demands put forward by some orthodox groups with a medieval mindset to ban the 'Aurat March' that has become a symbol of struggle for women rights in Pakistan also fractures fundamental rights. Such regressive developments coincidentally, emerging after the sad demise of activist Asma Jahangir, a couple of years ago is indeed a setback to Pakistan's progressive forces.
The religious extremists, uninhibited by any ethical standards are now accusing women activists in Pakistan of spreading obscenity and vulgarity and these accusations reached fever pitch on International Women's Day on March 8. Labelling the progressive section of society to be bigoted seems to be in fashion, spearheaded by religious extremists who surely have patronage from the military and polity. There are several other examples to show that Pakistan is gradually slipping into being a theocracy in letter and in spirit and this is an ominous sign which looks akin to the developments in Iran where a large section of people are out to crush the liberal state of mind by incarcerating progressive forces. They are either branded agents of Western nations or being against the religious ideology pursued by the Islamic republic.
It would perhaps be desirable for the mandarins of the MEA to ensure that Iran remains neutralised and refrains from indulging in criticism targeted at India, particularly due to the fact that there is a large Shia population in India which shares close ties with Iran. There are members of this Indian community that are influential within Iran, having close ties with the highest quarters of the Iranian establishment. Reaching out to senior members of the Indian Shia community could perhaps be operationally important. Under no circumstances should Iran and Pakistan be allowed to forge ties at India's expense as it would be severely detrimental to India's security and economic interests. Also, there are signs of a changing scenario in Afghanistan due to the recent US-Taliban deal facilitating in the former's withdrawal from Afghanistan. If the present circumstances are not handled dexterously, it might lead to pro-Taliban forces in Afghanistan aligning with Iran and in a combined form this could also be against India's interests.
On the whole, therefore, Iran's statements against India, made in such a venomous manner do not augur well and need redressal, either by peaceful dialogue or even aggressive means to neutralise the emerging threat.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and the former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are personal