India And Iran: Is Creation Of Powerful Alliance Between Tehran And New Delhi On Horizon? – OpEd

India-Iran relations have a deep civilizational background and need to be viewed outside the framework of daily politics and current trends such as anti-government protests in Iran, India-Pakistan conflict and constant geopolitical realignments: India maintains good relations with both East and West, and Iran is under attack western sanctions. In many respects, Iran and India are special countries that have nurtured special relations for centuries, which, despite some disagreements, always retain a positive character.

Historical context

The Indian subcontinent and the Iranian plateau are neighboring geographical regions, and the kingdoms of ancient India and ancient Persia had close relations lasting millennia, since the migration of Indo-Iranian peoples to the South Asian subregion. The historical exchange between the ancient lands of Persia and Hindustan is illustrated by no less than the ancestors of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself, whose ancestors trace their origins to the northern Indian region of Awadh, before migrating to Najaf, Iraq. Indian and Iranian languages share a common branch of the language family and belong to the Indo-Iranian language group.

Since ancient times there have been trade links between Persia and South Asia. During the Middle Ages, there was a fusion of medieval Persian and Indian culture, especially from the time of the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughal Empire. In modern times, after the British partition of India in 1947, the newly independent Republic of India was no longer a neighboring country to Iran, as Pakistan settled in between, but relations between the two nations still remained good.

Although ties date back millennia, India and Iran as independent states established diplomatic relations on March 15, 1950. Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi visited India in February-March 1956, and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Iran in September 1959. However, during most of the Cold After the war, relations between the Republic of India and the then Imperial State of Iran under the rule of the Pahlavi dynasty were generally poor due to their different political orientations: India was formally the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement but cultivated strong ties with the Soviet Union, while Iran was an outspoken member of the Western bloc with close ties to the United States. Although India did not support Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, relations between the two countries strengthened immediately after its implementation.

Tangible trade links have been established, notably the import of crude oil to India and the export of diesel to Iran. Iran has often protested against Pakistan’s draft resolutions against India in international organizations such as the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Human Rights Commission. Iran would be exempted from public condemnations of India in these organizations However, Iran’s continued support for Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistani conflict and India’s close relations with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War have greatly worsened bilateral relations. Between 1996 and 2001, Tehran and New Delhi supported an anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan called the Northern Alliance, which improved Indo-Iranian relations. In contrast, Pakistan supported the Taliban regime until its overthrow by the US intervention in 2001. Indians and Iranians continued to support anti-Taliban governments, which after all were supported by the international community, until the Taliban captured Kabul in 2021 and re-established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Military and economic ties

India and Iran signed a defense cooperation agreement in December 2002. In 2007, India welcomed the decision to grant observer status to Iran in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In 2010, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appealed to Muslims around the world to support the freedom struggle in the Jammu and Kashmir region. India, on the other hand, invited the acting Iranian ambassador in New Delhi to lodge an official protest. In August 2013 in the Persian Gulf Iran detained the ship MT Desh Shanti of India’s largest ocean liner Shipping Corporation (SCI), which was transporting crude oil from Iraq. Iran was adamant and insisted that the detention of the tanker was a “technical and non-political issue”, but it was clear that politics were behind it. In May 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an official visit to Iran. The visit focused on strengthening bilateral ties and infrastructure projects, energy partnership and trade. Just before Modi’s visit to Israel in July 2017, Ayatollah Khamenei called on Muslims in Kashmir to “drive out the oppressors”.

From an economic point of view, Iran has long been India’s second or third largest supplier of crude oil, supplying more than 425,000 barrels per day, and India has been one of the largest foreign investors in Iran’s oil and gas industry. In 2011, bilateral oil trade amounted to 12 billion US dollars. Unfortunately, it was reduced due to extensive Western economic sanctions against Iran to which India joined, thus forcing the Indian government to repay its debt to Iran through Turkish banks. In May 2019, after the US lifted waivers that allowed it to import crude oil without sanctions, India stopped buying oil from Iran. Just before the ban, Iran was India’s third largest supplier of crude oil. It is interesting that India then filled the gap by importing oil from the USA, the country that initiated the anti-Iranian sanctions. However, during 2022, the US share of India’s oil imports was cut in half, with Russia becoming the third largest supplier. Russia’s share of India’s crude oil imports was close to 14% during 2022 similar to the USSR era. However, a jump in international oil prices, a boost in local Indian consumption and with the US calling for sanctions against Russia, Iran could once again become an important oil partner for India.

Trade exchange and joint projects

In the first ten months of 2022, trade between the two countries amounted to over 2 billion USD. India’s major exports to Iran include rice, tea, sugar, fresh fruits, drugs/pharmaceuticals, soft drinks, industrial machinery, meat products. On the other hand, Iran’s top exports to India are almonds, various chemicals, liquid butane and propane, bitumen, dry dates. Iran and India are working together on several economic projects, of which it is worth highlighting: 1) gas pipelines: Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI), Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI), Myanmar-Bangladesh-India (MBI); 2) South Pars gas field and LNG project in the Persian Gulf; 3) Chabhabar container terminal project and Chahbahar-Zaranj railway line. Indian companies such as ESSAR and ONGC Videsh Ltd. are present in Iran. Both countries are members of the International North-South Transport Corridor, and also have agreements on avoiding double taxation and on bilateral investment promotion.

Geopolitical determinants

From a geopolitical point of view, Iran’s position is strategically crucial for India due to its geographical location between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Lake. Also, Iran is important to India as it provides an alternative route to connect with Afghanistan and Central Asian countries since New Delhi does not have Pakistan’s permission to use Pakistan’s land routes. Iran is one of the countries with the largest reserves of oil and natural gas, and India has grandiose energy needs. On the other hand, for Iran, India’s strategic position is crucial because it greatly helps realize the Asian orientation of Tehran’s foreign policy. India is the second most populous country in the world with a predominantly young population, it has the 5th largest economy in the world which is attractive to Tehran in terms of labor, investment and trade.

Interference: India is good with Israel, and Iran is with China

Despite the two countries having some common strategic interests, India and Iran differ significantly on certain foreign policy issues. India has repeatedly expressed strong opposition to Iran’s nuclear program. The bone in the throat of Indian-Iranian relations is the good relations between India and Israel and the good relations between Iran and China. There is also the issue of Yemen and the war there, where Iran supports the Houthis and opposes Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are India’s close partners. It is India’s partnership with the Gulf monarchies that tends to create uneasiness in relations between Tehran and New Delhi.

Iranians love Indians because they respect Shia rights

According to a 2005 BBC poll, 71% of Iranians view India’s influence positively and only 21% negatively, the most favorable rating of India of any country in the world. It seems that the Iranian population is strongly pro-Indian. An increasing number of Iranian students are enrolling in universities in India, mostly in Pune and Bangalore. The fact is that the modern territories of Iran and India are separated by Pakistan, which is fiercely marked by the Sunni-Shiite conflict. There, the majority Sunnis routinely discriminate and persecute the minority Shiites, which leads to the fact that the official Tehran, as well as the Iranian population, looks at India very favorably, because Shiite rights are respected there, unlike Pakistan. The Islamic government in Tehran sees itself as the protector of Shiites around the world. Indian Shias enjoy the support of their country, which is why the national holiday of Muharram is recognized. Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, remains the main center of Shia culture and Persian studies in the Indian subcontinent.

Both want peace in Afghanistan

Restless Afghanistan is another area that brings the Indian and Iranian peoples together and encourages cooperation. For both, Afghanistan is a transit and culturally important neighboring country with which they want to have good relations and want peace and order to reign there. New Delhi has often struggled to explain and contextualize its unique relationship with Tehran to the Americans, while official Washington has sent stark warnings that such behavior is not acceptable. In his own measured way, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed concern over the Trump administration’s unilateral termination of the Iran nuclear deal even though he knew it could hurt his country’s relations with America. With the coming to power of a new administration led by Joe Biden who has personally pledged to consider re-establishing the Iran nuclear deal, Modi can afford to have openly good relations with Iran.

Modi opposes anti-Iranian sanctions

In September last year, it was reported that Modi had met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on the sidelines of the 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It could be an announcement of restructuring of Indian-Iranian relations. The Iranian president said that Tehran and New Delhi could improve and expand cooperation by exploiting existing oil, gas and transport capacities, especially the Chabahar-Central Asia route that connects the Indian Ocean with Central Asia, but also improve cooperation in regional and international issues in which they share common points of view. For his part, Modi expressed his unequivocal opposition to sanctions against Iran, indicated the importance of traffic connections and transport routes, and how important it is to cooperate on the issue of Afghanistan.

Furthermore, at a UN Security Council meeting on non-proliferation in December, India’s permanent representative Ruchira Kamboj presented India’s position on Iran’s nuclear program based on an analysis by the independent watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as opposed to unverified claims. India supports the full and effective implementation of UN Resolution 2231 (2015), which repeals the UN resolution on Iran’s nuclear policy, and encourages the parties concerned to continue dialogue and diplomacy towards resolving differences and returning to full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of action (JCPOA). In other words, India is against sanctions and for diplomatic resolution of outstanding issues with Iran.

Iran offered India a strategic cooperation agreement

In mid-December, it was reported that Iran had offered India a strategic cooperation agreement similar to the one it signed with China in 2021. This is not surprising as Iran has been hit by Western sanctions and is trying to attract foreign investment in its energy and infrastructure sectors. The details of the Iran-China agreement remained (semi)secret. The media write that, in accordance with the 25-year cooperation agreement, Beijing will invest close to 400 billion dollars in Iran’s infrastructure and energy sector. In return, Tehran will provide Beijing with a constant supply of oil at cheaper than market prices. The deal represents an expansion of Chinese influence in West Asia and is Iran’s attempt to attract important foreign investors from countries that do not follow Washington’s dictates. Thus, Iran has offered a similar deal to India to attract Indian investment in its transport and energy infrastructure, as confirmed by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri during his visit to New Delhi in November. Details of the proposed India-Iran deal are not yet public.

If such an agreement were to be realized, it would be of great significance considering that India was among the largest buyers of Iranian oil until the Western sanctions came into force. A new deal with oil-rich Iran would help India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer, cope with high energy prices. Tehran has often reiterated its willingness to supply India with oil and has even assured New Delhi that it could help meet the country’s energy needs amid instability over the Russo-Ukraine war. Indian state oil companies (ONGC and Oil India) jointly explored oil and gas in that Iran. An Indian consortium discovered the Farzad-B gas field in the Persian Gulf. New Delhi has also played an important role in building Iran’s infrastructure. During Bagheri’s visit in November, both sides agreed to continue cooperation on the development of the Shahid Beheshti Terminal at Chabahar Port.

Such a deal would be more than welcome to Tehran as it would help improve relations with Asian powers after tensions over Iran’s nuclear program with the US and its European allies led to the imposition of sanctions. In addition, the protests in the last months of 2022 due to the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody intensified the process of withdrawal of Western capital from Iran, which led to the devaluation of the national currency, the Iranian rial. In order to reset relations with Iran, the most important thing is for India to follow its own foreign policy path. Since it has fairly good relations with rich Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE and with Israel, it does not have to condition or link them to its relations with Iran.

Perspective concept of “strategic autonomy”

India managed to maneuver well diplomatically regarding the Ukrainian war, repeatedly pointing out the unnecessaryness of the war, while at the same time continuing to trade with Russia, and mostly abstaining from voting in the UN. The concept of “strategic autonomy” Modi is pursuing with Russia could also be extended to Iran, where there may be legitimate disagreements and concerns over some specific topics, but mutual trust must be maintained. With the visible withdrawal of the USA and Russia from the Middle East region, and the growing filling of the vacuum by China, the time is ripe for a more credible and stronger role for India, which could jump into the region and offer an alternative model of good relations with all conflicting states such as Iran , Israel and the Gulf monarchies. Of course, this is a difficult task and in order to succeed India really needs to be strategically autonomous.

India and Iran can achieve a lot together. Assertive diplomacy practiced by the Modi administration, deepening good relations with friendly countries and focusing on fulfilling its national interests, is a welcome strategy. If India can extend the same vision to Iran, it could open up a huge potential for cooperation between these two great nations and civilizations. It is a more than suitable time to restructure Indian-Iranian relations in order to utilize the potential of the two nations, but also to greatly relax the situation in the constantly tense regions of the Middle East and South Asia.