We woke up in the morning of 26 June with this statement of Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he declares India to be a tyrant and an oppressor. Needless to say, this did not go down well with many Indians who see Iran as a friend. As to why this is the case at all is beyond reason or logic. But let us explore some possible reasons for India’s affinity to Iran before taking a reality check.
India mostly sees Iran in the larger regional picture together with its other Islamic brethren in West Asia. Iran is Persian and a Shia-majority state, while most of the other Islamic states in the region, including Pakistan, are Sunni-majority. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s bête noire, is Arab. Mecca and Medina are also in Saudi Arabia.
The expansion of Islam started from present-day Saudi Arabia. Most of the regions in North Africa and West Asia were conquered and converted by the Arabs by eighth century AD. Iran, which was ruled by the Sassanid dynasty, fought against the Islamic forces in the battle of Qadisiyah in 636 AD and lost. It was thereafter gradually conquered and converted. The story of the conquest and subjugation of a foreign people by Islamic invaders is very similar to the one in India. But similarities don’t just end there.
Like India, Iran had an ancient civilisation. The Zoroastrians invoke much romanticism in India. The Avesta is believed to be close to the Vedas. Their worship of eternal fire is also closer to Hindu ideas than Islamic. The misfortune that befell the Zoroastrians due to Islamic persecution in Iran resonates in the experience of the Hindus and Buddhists in India. The Parsis (Zoroastrians) who came here to avoid prosecution are seen as having had a benevolent effect on the Indian melting pot. Despite Iran coming under Islamic rule, many Indians continue to see Persians as different from the Arab invaders. Some even imagine a kind of spiritual connect between Iran and India due to a shared ancient history.
The third aspect that endears Iran to India is geopolitics. Pakistan has had close ties with the Sunni world in general and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies in particular. Pakistan’s hostility to India forced Indians to look for other friends in the Islamic world. India has since looked at Iran for friendship. Despite Iran’s maintenance of strict neutrality between India and Pakistan, Indians have looked for and ‘found’ assurance in their relationship with Iran.
None of the reasons for this one-sided Indian love holds any ground today except in the mind of sentimental Indians. Iran, as an Islamic state, has completed a full transition and the only civilisation it sees itself as part of is Islamic. Khamenei’s statement should make it amply clear to any woolly eyed Indian that Iran is an Islamic state and proud of it. Whenever it points to its Persian history, it is only to differentiate itself from the Arabs. This is not due to any love for its past but because of its competition to be the leader of the Islamic world – another thing that Khamenei’s statement pointed to.
In the modern, twenty-first-century world, what should matter to the Indians is their national interest. Emotional connections built on false premises are unlikely to get us anywhere. And we have an entire region in South East Asia where people follow Buddhism and look towards India as the birthplace of their religion – a region that we have ignored since independence. India’s obsession with West Asia is in stark contrast to its apathy to the East Asian countries with which we have no less ancient ties.
But I digress. India’s national interest vis-à-vis the West Asian region can be broadly divided into economic and political interests. India is dependent on oil imports from the Persian Gulf to the tune of around 80 per cent of its needs. After China and the United States, it is the largest oil-importing nation in the world. In such a scenario, it helps to be friends with a country that is a large exporter of oil. Besides, India needs a market for its products, and Iran provides a close and easy market. The economic relationship between Iran and India is and will likely continue to be beneficial to both the states, particularly in the buyer-seller mode.
However, India’s expectations of a bigger and closer economic embrace with Iran have hit a roadblock for various reasons. All major Indian projects in Iran face hard negotiations, heartburn or, worse, disillusionment. Farzad B gas field is a classic example. Discovered by a consortium of Indian companies, Iran initially agreed to give drilling rights to India. But the on-again, off-again sanctions on Iran led to bickering between both the sides on the issue. Recently, news emerged that the Iranians had signed an initial agreement with Russian giant Gazprom for the gas field.
Notwithstanding the economic relations, Iran looks less appealing to India when seen from a geopolitical lens than, say, ten years ago. Iran continues to maintain strict neutrality between India and Pakistan. And if we go by Khamenei’s statement, it has in fact chosen the Pakistani side. The ‘neutrality’ of Iran is evident in more places than one.
The hyped Chabahar port in Iran being developed by India is sold by New Delhi as an achievement of Indo-Iranian friendship. It is actually more of an achievement for Tehran to get New Delhi to foot the bill for developing a port in the country. On its part, Tehran has made it clear that the port is not exclusive to India. It has invited participation and investment from China and Pakistan. As far as the strategic value of the port is concerned, every Indian shipment into or out of Chabahar port will be scanned by Iranian guards. When India tried to ship dynamite sticks to Afghanistan via Iran to help in the construction of Salma dam there, Iranians refused to comply. Under these circumstances, to expect Iran to help Indian strategic interests either in Afghanistan or anywhere else is completely imaginary.
Contrast this with the relationship of India with the Gulf monarchies in the last couple of years. After Pakistan initially refused to join the Islamic Military Alliance led by Saudi Arabia (directed at Iran), United Arab Emirates (UAE) decided to improve its relations with New Delhi. Delegates visited each other’s countries in quick succession and Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian head of government to visit UAE in 34 years, in 2015. India took up the offer of the UAE government to fill Indian strategic reserves with their oil in a mutually beneficial deal. The UAE also agreed to invest $75 billion in Indian infrastructure development. By 2017, UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan had become the first non-‘head of state’ to be the chief guest at an Indian Republic Day parade.
While less successful in absolute terms, Saudi Arabia and India are working to improve relations too. Prime Minister Modi met King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Turkey, 2015. The Prime Minister also visited Riyadh in 2016. When conflict in Yemen broke out, King Salman called the Indian Prime Minister to explain the formation of the Islamic alliance and Saudi military intervention. It also cooperated during the evacuation of Indian citizens from Yemen.
Besides these positive developments, the Gulf monarchies have recently been vocal against Islamic terrorism. After the rise of Islamic extremism around the world, views of the ruling elite from UAE and Saudi Arabia have aligned closer to India’s position in recent years. Organisations like al-Qaeda and Islamic State pose as grave a threat to these states as India. For long, we have viewed Saudi Arabia as an exporter of the Wahhabi variety of Islamic extremism to other regions. But more recently, the kingdom has helped India by deporting violent characters and supporting Indian anti-terrorism efforts. It has deported both Abu Jundal and Abu Sufiyan (aliases) in 2012 and 2015 respectively, underlining the seriousness of its anti-terrorism credentials. What is evident is that like Western countries, the Gulf monarchies have learnt the dangers of Islamic extremism and are now working to counter it. Recently, they have gone as far as to sanction Qatar for supporting Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the Nusra variety of Jihadis.
India has vital interests in the Gulf. The UAE is the largest trading partner after the US and China for New Delhi. In fact, the UAE imported $30 billion worth of Indian products in 2015-16. Millions of Indian workers earn a living in the Gulf countries and send billions of dollars home. In geographic terms, the region is as close to India as Iran. However, unlike Iran, the rich Gulf kingdoms can invest billions of dollars to help development in India. What held back India’s relations with the monarchies was a perception of their closeness with Pakistan and aid to Islamic extremists. Both the policies seem to be changing.
Coming back to Iran. New Delhi’s need for the Shia state comes from its position as a gateway to Central Asia and Russia. Since Pakistan has been unwilling to allow road transport between India and these regions, we are attempting to achieve this via Iran. On paper, the plan sounds great, but it depends entirely on Iranian goodwill. Going by Khamenei’s statement, that is no easy thing to achieve. We might be falling into a trap by investing billions of dollars into a country that is not ready to give concrete assurances and has been playing on all sides.
In 2012, an Israeli diplomat was attacked in a targeted blast in New Delhi. This was an attempt by Iran to retaliate against Israeli assassinations of Iranian scientists. While the Israel-Iran hostility is well-known to the world, the choice of the Indian capital as a place for Iranian retaliation reveals a lot. Knowing fully well that it would lead to souring of relations with New Delhi, Tehran still went ahead with it. India may or may not be a friend of Tehran’s but it certainly is not important in the eyes of the Iranian mullahcracy.
The one-sided Indian romance with Iran over some imaginary civilisational and cultural ties is not only misguided but dangerous. In contrast, the rich Gulf monarchies hosting millions of Indian workers are willing and ready to improve relations with India. Bonhomie with Iran based on imaginary pretexts not only upsets these kingdoms but also irks Israel and the US. And New Delhi’s attempts to compensate for its military timidity, in attempts to reach Central Asia via Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, through diplomatic push, to get the same via Iran, reeks more of desperation than policy.
India should maintain strict neutrality in the current Sunni-Shia rivalry in West Asia. If Iran can maintain the same with Pakistan-India or China-India hyphenations, so can New Delhi. At the same time, we should also be open to improvement in relations with the Gulf monarchies. The elite of the region are fickle with an inflated sense of ego. The current violence in West Asia is an example of this. We can and should watch out for our interests. India does not owe Iran anything. New Delhi does not need to stick its neck out for Tehran when the Western world acts against it either.
Rajesh Soami is a Research Scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University currently pursuing PhD in International Relations. He is also a badminton enthusiast. He tweets @RajeshSoami.
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