Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, in the last two months, visited Palestine, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, in that order. He has also hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and last week Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In between he gave a rushed hug to Jordanian King Abdullah. On the surface, this appears like a masterly balancing of relations with both sides of the Shia-Sunni divide manifest since Arab Spring in 2011. The rise of ISIS from within sundry Sunni groups fighting the Syrian defence forces and their sudden capture of vast swathes of northern Iraq after the sudden fall of Mosul in June 2014 rang alarm bells in Washington and other capitals aligned to it.
The old method of the US leading from behind, like during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, with cash-rich Gulf ruling families bankrolling US military equipment for their favourite anti-Assad groups, had clearly failed. Former President Barack Obama rewrote US strategic approach to the region by surmising that ISIS could not be rolled back unless Iran was unshackled from the sanctions imposed after the discovery of its clandestine nuclear enrichment programme in 2003. The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1 heralded this switch, which naturally had the Saudis and Emiratis cursing under their breath in public and quite vehemently in private. Leaked conversations of late Saudi King Abdullah had him seeking decapitation of Iran like that of a snake. Russia joined the party in 2015 by extending direct air support to the beleaguered Syrian army. The US had in any case earlier stepped in after Mosul’s fall to help reconstruct a collapsed Iraqi military hierarchy as also begun air attacks on ISIS targets. Iran unleashed its military assets in aid of Assad and against the ISIS in combination with their ally, Hezbollah, from Lebanon which altered the balance in favour of Assad.
US President Donald Trump assumed office in 2017 berating the Iran nuclear deal and promptly reversing the Obama pivot by endorsing a Saudi-convened conclave of Sunni powers. The anti-Iran forces thus found US support to contain Iranian influence across a Shia crescent stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean, reminiscent of the Achaemenid Iranian empire two-and-a-half millennia ago. Crown princes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both called Mohammed, committed their untested but equipment-heavy military against Iranian surrogates, the Houthis, in Yemen.
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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to India took place against this background. The closest India-Iran strategic convergence was post-Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan when Pakistan- aligned forces, mutating later into Taliban, captured power in Afghanistan. This lasted till 2003, the high point being Iranian president Mohammad Khatami invited as chief guest at the Indian Republic Day parade. The decline set in once the clandestine Iranian nuclear enrichment programme was discovered, leading to threatened sanctions, dialogue and then, with Ahmadinejad assuming presidency in 2005, confrontation. Concomitantly, India was negotiating a nuclear deal with US as President George Bush had concluded that both as a potential market, an Asian democracy and a balance to rising China, India needed to be liberated from technology-denial restrictions constraining it since its 1974 nuclear test. Thus, India-Iran relations became a litmus test for the US to determine whether India was willing to stand firm in opposing nuclear proliferation. As a result, no Iranian president was received in India on an official visit for 15 years despite surface bonhomie.
Therefore, it is not surprising that many of the themes in the joint statement issued at the end of Rouhani’s visit hark back to a decade and a half when meaningful engagement ceased. India needs Iran as an oil and gas resource and to provide access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran is also potentially a large market with a sophisticated though resource-constrained populace. China has been the major gainer over the last decade and a half of India, Japan and the European Union vacating market space in Iran. But despite sanctions getting lifted after the 2015 nuclear deal, foreign investment in Iran did not gush. The reasons were Iranian propensity to over-negotiate, entrenchment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the oil and gas sector and continuation of many US banking sanctions on the ground that they pertained to Iranian human rights violations and their support to terror groups. In case of India, the additional issue has been a lingering sense of betrayal, as in Iranian mind India had been rewarded with a nuclear deal despite being a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Naturally, Iran would ignore that they, despite having been signatories, breached it by their dalliance with Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan’s clandestine nuclear supermarket.
Rouhani’s visit has attempted to bridge the psychological and strategic divide. It is unlikely that Iran’s President will be able to immediately deliver on giving India control of oil and gas fields with discovered assets even when discoveries were made by Indian companies. This is so, as the more radical elements around the Supreme Leader would want Indian conduct to be watched for some time. The connectivity issue too comes with riders. While India will get some short-term control over some berths at Chabahar port, but the free-zone is controlled by Iran and its attendant difficulties as Iranian regulations and oversight will be cumbersome. China also lurks in the background and may want collaboration with Iran rather than competition for its port at Gwadar.
The most significant will be the growing chasm between Iran and the US, Israel and their camp followers in the Gulf, as Iran is unlikely to reel back voluntarily its huge strategic footprint. A new great game has begun in which even in Afghanistan, the Iranian allies may include the Taliban or even Pakistan, as it is opposed to US presence. Iranian interests lie in the US being pinned down in Afghanistan as they pinned it down in Iraq in 2005-06 using Shia militias. The battle of attrition will continue in Yemen with Iranian surrogates pitting themselves against Saudi and Emirati forces and their allies. Thus, it would be unrealistic to imagine that India and Iran can revert to the romance of the 1990s by simply a firm handshake. The hug that Modi did not give Rouhani really sums up his discomfort in really engaging, other than with moneyed Sheikhs of the Islamic world. Combined with the Muslim-baiting at home that Modi allows his fringe, the outreach to the Islamic world is more theatre than genuine balancing. The danger lies in the fact that the Iranian mind excels in exactly this kind of dissimulation. Modi may have finally met his match in Iranian clerics and IRGC. As they say, the game is on and there will be unforeseen twists and turns in India’s geopolitical environment.
K.C. Singh is a retired Indian civil servant and was the Indian ambassador to Iran.