By Nilova Roy Chaudhury
Culminating a series of intense high-level engagements with West Asia and the Gulf, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s February 15-17 visit saw India cementing its strategic position in the region, with a well-crafted balancing act to raise its security and regional relevance.
The visit saw India and Iran ramp up their bilateral relationship by signing nine agreements, primarily to bolster the economic partnership, including a crucial one on connectivity, via the strategic Chabahar port.
Other agreements signed included double taxation avoidance, an instrument of ratification for the extradition agreement the two sides had signed in 2008 and cooperation in the areas of health, traditional systems of medicine and agriculture and allied sectors and establishment of an expert group on trade remedy measures. Agreements in the sectors of energy, infrastructure, trade, investment, security, defence, culture and people-to-people contacts provide a strong impetus to the entire spectrum of bilateral relations.
Rouhani's three-day sojourn, the first presidential visit from Iran in 10 years, came barely a month after the highly successful six-day visit to India of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran's bugbear and avowed enemy.
It also closely followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s four-day, four-nation tour to West Asia which saw him visit Palestine (the first by an Indian prime minister), the UAE, Oman, and Jordan, in transit.
India's engagement with the region will continue with visits to India by the Jordanian and Saudi monarchs expected soon.
India is among the very few countries to have deftly balanced warm and mutually beneficial relations on all sides of the West Asian divide, including the Iran–Saudi Arabia (Shia-Sunni) divide, for supremacy in the Islamic world, and the Iran-Israel hostility.
Rouhani began his visit from Hyderabad, emphasizing the civilizational, religio-cultural linkages with India by addressing Friday prayers at the city’s famed Mecca Masjd (mosque) and visiting the Golconda Fort, built in the 16th century by the Qutb Shahi rulers, who traced their ancestry to Iran.
The Rouhani government is under pressure back home because the economic recovery, expected after the nuclear pact with the P5+1 in July 2015, did not happen and is under serious threat after US President Donald Trump’s belligerent posturing against the deal. After initially keeping India at bay, it is only over the past year that Tehran has moved to shore up its ties with New Delhi.
Days after it secured naval facilities at the Duqm port in Oman, New Delhi secured access to the crucial Chabahar port, with connectivity emerging as one of the most significant aspects of bilateral discussions. Chabahar provides a strategic option to India to connect with Afghanistan and Central Asia and beyond.
India committed itself to completing the Chabahar–Zahedan rail link, connecting the port with the Iranian border town, close to Zaranj in Afghanistan, thereby providing an alternate route to Afghanistan, completely bypassing Pakistan, and linking up with the International North-South Transport Corridor.
Rouhani said Chabahar port, as a bridge connecting India to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Eastern Europe can further strengthen historical ties between the two countries and the entire region.
"Transit ties between the two countries will create multilateral and regional potentials with the countries of the region and we are ready to have trilateral and multilateral agreements to turn the transit route from Chabahar into a strategic route for regional relations," Iran’s President said.
India's recent accession to the Ashgabat Agreement, of which Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are members, will further enhance its connectivity and engagement with the region.
After his talks with Modi, one-on-one and at the delegation level, the Iranian President said energy and transportation were two great potential pillars to build strategic cooperation between Iran and India. He also pledged to stop the forces of terrorism and extremism, de-linking it from religion and agreed that there should be an end to terror sanctuaries.
Rouhani described terrorism as a problem for the region and the whole world saying, "We must fight the roots of terrorism which are mainly intellectual and cultural stemming from promoting extremist, violent ideas and we are ready to cooperate with friendly countries, including India, in this field."
In his remarks at the joint press conference with Rouhani, Modi spoke of Sufi links between the two countries and their joint determination to tackle terror. "People of both India and Iran believe in peace and tolerance drawing from the values of Sufi philosophy. Taking into account our mutual benefits, we are both committed to stop the forces of terrorism, extremism, illegal drug trafficking, cyber crime and other international crimes," Modi said.
Both India and Iran want to see their close neighbour Afghanistan as a "peaceful, secure, stable, prosperous and pluralistic country," Modi said, “free of terrorism.”
A joint statement issued after the talks said the two leaders welcomed the growing interaction between their National Security Councils and agreed to enhance regular and institutionalised consultations between them on terrorism, security and related issues such as organised crime, money-laundering, drug trafficking and cyber crime.
"Both leaders held substantive and productive discussion on cooperation in trade and investment, energy, connectivity, defence and security, and regional issues," External Affairs Ministry (MEA) spokesperson Raveesh Kumar tweeted
Deepak Mittal, joint secretary (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran) in the MEA, said, "There was unanimity between both sides that terrorism needs to be condemned and there should be an end to sanctuaries for terrorism."
India will set up ''plants in sectors such as fertilizers, petrochemicals and metallurgy in Chabahar Free Trade Zone (FTZ) on terms mutually beneficial to the concerned parties.'' This will promote India's energy security while providing financial resources and employment opportunities to Iran.
Working out an agreement over the rupee–rial trade will help both countries invest in each other’s core sectors.
Rouhani said Iran could supply India's energy needs within the framework of long-term strategic contracts. "These long-term contracts in the fields of energy and transportation will make the two countries strategic and trustful partners."
However, despite the strategic nature of the visit, there was no “hugplomacy” on display between Modi and Rouhani - as the Indian PM is known to do with many other world leaders - .but the visit underscored the fact that India will continue to keep its options open in a volatile region and will align with countries and governments premised purely on its national interests and requirements.
(The author is Editor, India Review & Analysis. She can be contacted at email@example.com)