Close attention was paid by sections of India’s strategic community (and understandably so) to the statement of Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Javad Zarif, during his visit to Pakistan, in which he extended an invitation to Pakistan to join the ambitious Chabahar Project (about 70 kilometres from China’s ambitious Gwadar Project).
Zarif, while delivering a lecture at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), stated:
We offered to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). We have also offered Pakistan and China to participate in Chahbahar
He further went on to state that Iran’s ties with India were not in any way targeted at Pakistan, just as Islamabad’s ties with Riyadh were not against Iran.
Surprise in India
This invitation surprised many in India, given the fact that it has provided financial assistance for Phase 1 of the project and will operate two berths. During Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit in February 2018, one of the tangible outcomes was the lease contract signed by IPGL (Indian Port Global Limited) and Iran’s Port and Maritime Organization, for operating Phase 1 (Shahid Beheshti Port) over an 18-month period. The joint statement also made a clear reference to India’s unwavering commitment to the Chabahar-Zahedan Rail Line, which will enable transportation of goods all the way up to the Afghan border. The Indian side also stated that it would like to see Chabahar as part of the INSTC (International North South Transport Corridor). The INSTC will help in connecting India to Russia and Europe, via Iran.
Chabahar as India’s answer to Gwadar
Many in India have looked at Chabahar as India’s answer to the Gwadar Project, and of course its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The project is especially important to New Delhi because it enables India to bypass Pakistan, which has flatly refused to give India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In 2016, during Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s visit to Iran, India, Iran, and Afghanistan had signed a three nation transport and transit corridor pact to enhance connecitivity. While leaders of all three countries spoke about the relevance of this agreement in the context of connectivity, the Iranian President had made it clear that it was not targeted at anyone. Said Rouhani:
[This pact is] not against any other country […] it is beneficial to the entire region.
India also sent a consignment of wheat (15,000 tonnes) to Afghanistan through the Chabahar Port in 2017. The shipment was dispatched from Kandla (Gujarat, India) and reached Chabahar in Iran. From Chabahar it was transported by road to Nimroz Province in Afghanistan.
Replying to Zarif’s statements in a press briefing, India’s Spokesman Raveesh Kumar stated that:
[It is the] prerogative of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to choose its partners for the development of infrastructure facilities there.
Kumar also explained the strategic relevance of the project given its geo-political importance.
India-Iran ties beyond the Chabahar Port
Ever since the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries, business linkages – and not just the Chabahar Project – between Iran and India have gotten a fillip. In 2017, India’s oil imports from Iran went up to 4.37 million barrel per day, even though there was a dip between April-December 2017 due to tensions between both countries on the Farzand B gas field. (Iran was supposed to award the gas field to India, but there have been differences on terms and conditions.) During Rouhani’s visit, both countries decided to address the obstacles related to banking and taxation, in order to bring about closer economic linkages.
Iran has thus emerged as an important strategic and trade partner for India.
What may have surprised sections of Indian government, along with its strategic thinkers, would be the Iranian invitation given to Pakistan, in spite of bilateral tensions between the two. In May 2017, for example, the Iranian Army Chief, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, had threatened to strike terror camps in Baluchistan (Pakistan) after the killing of ten Iranian guards by Jaish-Al-Adl in the Sistan-Baluchestan province. Said Baqeri:
[…] unless Pakistan control[s] the borders, arrest[s] the terrorist[s] and shut[s] down their bases […] we will hit their safe havens and cells wherever they are.
Since then tensions between the United States and Iran have also risen, and the latter has a close relationship with China. This has reshaped the Pakistan-Iran dynamic.
New Delhi’s real challenge
The real challenge for India in the near future is the hawkish stand of US President Donald Trump’s most recent appointee: Michael Pompeo (who was earlier head of the CIA, a main American intelligence agency). Trump is also likely to replace his current National Security Advisor, HR Mcmaster, and one possible replacement is John Bolton (former US Ambassador to the United Nations), a known hawk on Iran.
Pompeo would go along with Trump, and have no qualms in scrapping the Iran Nuclear Deal in May 2018, the next date when the issue comes up for consideration.
Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, had differed with Trump on this issue on more than one occasion. During the election campaign, Trump had criticized the Nuclear Agreement. He had dubbed the agreement a ‘disaster’ and ‘the worst deal ever negotiated’. In an address to a Pro-Israel Lobby group, AIPAC, the US President had gone to the extent of stating that dismantling the deal would be his first priority.
Tillerson, no dove on Iran by any stretch of imagination, had categorically stated that dismantling the deal was not in US interests, though the US President disagreed. Commenting on their disagreements about Iran, Trump had stated:
When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible […] it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.
Tillerson was closely working with European countries to rework the deal, and address some of the Trump administration’s concerns.
The Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, has also predicted that Trump will walk out of the Deal: “The Iran deal will be another issue that’s coming up in May, and right now it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be extended.”
More aggressive Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is likely to become more aggressive after the exit of Tillerson. In fact, on the eve of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s arrival in the US, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, criticized the Iran Nuclear deal. Said the Saudi Foreign Minister:
Our view of the nuclear deal is that it’s a flawed agreement.
During the Saudi Prince’s visit, Trump too did not miss out on an opportunity to lambast the Iran nuclear agreement. While commenting on the future of the deal, the US President stated:
The Iran deal is coming up soon and you will see what will happen […] Iran hasn’t been treating that part of the world, or the world appropriately.
According to the Arab News it was also decided that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the US would set up a trilateral security forum which would look not just at issues pertaining to Middle East and Iran, but also South Asia.
India would be advised to be cautious, and while some sections the Right have been ecstatic with Trump’s stance vis-à-vis Pakistan (not to mention China), New Delhi needs to be prepared for some turbulence as a consequence of the recent changes within the Trump Administration. New Delhi needs to articulate its strategic and economic interests in Iran, not just to the US, but also to Saudi Arabia. In the past, the US has not objected to Iran’s close ties with India, but it remains to be seen whether or not Trump and his team will exhibit flexibility and pragmatism vis-à-vis Iran.
New Delhi has a myriad of foreign policy challenges, and Trump’s rigidity towards Iran is likely to be a major one in the near future.