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India needs to have a more pragmatic Iran policy
Posted:May 5, 2017
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By Tridivesh Singh Maini & Sandeep Sachdeva
India has numerous foreign policy priorities, with ties with US, China, Russia and Pakistan understandably receiving more attention. At this point of time, however, one of the greatest challenges which India faces is its relations with Iran.
After the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) -- commonly known as Iran nuclear deal -- between Iran and the P5+1 world powers and the European Union, New Delhi has sought to strengthen its economic and strategic ties with Tehran.
The key conditions of the agreement were that Iran would roll back its nuclear programme as also bring about a significant reduction in its stockpile of enriched uranium. In return, the US and EU removed all related economic sanctions on Iran in January 2016, after the UN nuclear agency confirmed that Iran had fulfilled its obligations.
During the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Iran in May 2016, Iran and India signed a number of memorandums of understanding, though the big ticket issue was the development of the Chabahar Port. According to the bilateral agreement signed between both sides, India would develop the port and infrastructure. India committed $500 million for the same.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, while referring to the relevance of Chabahar Port, stated: “This very strategic port can very well turn into a very big symbol of cooperation between the two great countries.”
It would be pertinent to point out that Iran has recently proposed to Delhi to manage phase one of the port built by the former, while the two sides are still holding deliberations with regard to Delhi's role in expanding phase two of the port, where the Modi government is keen to invest $235 million.
During Modi’s visit, a trilateral transit agreement was signed by India, Iran and Afghanistan. This agreement allows Indian goods to reach Afghanistan through Iran. India will build a 500-km rail line from Chabahar port from the southern coast of Iran to Zahedan, close to the Afghan border, at a cost of $1.6 billion as part of the transit corridor to Afghanistan.
Commenting on the relevance of the trilateral agreement, PM Modi stated:
“It will open new routes for India, Iran and Afghanistan to connect among themselves. India and Iran also share a crucial stake in peace, stability and prosperity of the region.”
Chabahar port is especially important because Pakistan is not willing to include India in the APTTA (Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement). Afghan goods can go into India, but the trucks stop at Wagah (Pakistani side of the border). India has repeatedly stated that it is willing to allow Afghan trucks into the Indian side but due to Pakistan’s rigidity, India has been deprived of land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Many have also dubbed Chabahar as a counter to the Gwadar Port in Balochistan province of Pakistan being developed by China. It would be pertinent to point out, however, that Iran has sought Chinese participation in the Chabahar Project, and categorically stated that this is certainly not a counter to Gwadar.
While India’s outreach towards Iran makes sense, it needs to watch out for US President Donald Trump’s attitude towards Iran. The US President, during his campaign speeches, had openly spoken about scrapping the nuclear agreement.  But both his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary, James Mattis, have categorically stated that this was not possible.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest assessment unequivocally states that Iran has abided by the commitment it made and Trump’s Secretary of State too agrees that Tehran has not violated the agreement. Yet, the US has been extremely critical of the agreement and equated Iran with North Korea. It has accused Tehran of playing a negative role in the Middle East, which is harming Washington’s strategic interests in the region.
Commenting on Iran, Tillerson stated: "The Trump administration is currently conducting across the entire government a review of our Iran policy ... an unchecked Iran has the potential to follow the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it. The United States is keen to avoid a second piece of evidence that strategic patience is a failed approach."
It is not just the US policy which India has to contend with, it is also the alliance between GCC countries and Israel. Though Saudi Arabia has always shared strained ties with Israel, recently both have joined hands on the issue of Iran. Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, along with its GCC partner countries, demanded at the Munich Security Conference in February 2017 that Tehran be punished for propping up the Syrian government, developing ballistic missiles and funding separatists in Yemen.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir lambasted Iran, saying that “Iran remains the single main sponsor of terrorism in the world". Adel al-Jubeir further accused Iran in front of delegates at the conference. "It's determined to upend the order in the Middle East ... (and) until and unless Iran changes its behavior, it would be very difficult to deal with a country like this."
While Israel has spoken about strengthening ties with India it has not denied that there is a major divergence between both countries over the issue of Iran. Israeli Ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, recently remarked: ‘Nowadays, things have changed in the Middle East and Israel has good relations with a few Arab countries. We (Israel and some Arab states) have joint interests with many others. We see eye to eye on the danger coming out of Iran.’
While India can take up the issue of Iran with the US, it remains to be seen whether it has the leverage. In such a situation, India needs to pitch for a more pragmatic Iran policy and work closely with other countries which have been advocating the same. New Delhi has also been astute in seeking to further India-Russia ties which many suspected had soured due to improved ties between Russia and Pakistan -- last year both countries conducted the first ever joint military exercise in Pakistan.
The year 2017 marks seven decades of the India-Russia bilateral relationship, which remains robust. India recently participated in a conference on Afghanistan, which was also attended by representatives from Pakistan, China and Central Asian countries. The conference was held a day after the US dropped the Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB), nicknamed the "mother of all bombs", on ISIS positions in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Modi will be visiting Russia in the first week of June this year as guest of honour at the St Petersburg Economic Forum. While Trump’s rigid stance over Iran is a serious challenge, New Delhi needs to think outside the box and find common ground with countries which have significant economic and strategic interests in Iran.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. Sandeep Sachdeva is an Independent Policy Analyst. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to editor@spsindia.in)
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