Iran and India are showing signs of renewed warmth in their bilateral relations post COVID-19. In less than a week Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s senior ministers – Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar – both visited Tehran. Both sides remain mum as to the motive behind the shuttle diplomacy. Rajnath accepted an invitation from Iran while Jaishankar had a layover en route to the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Moscow.
There are several possible factors that have played a motivating role in thawing relations between Iran and India. Some of these factors will be explored in the following lines. With the US presidential election nearing and President Donald Trump pressing hard on sanctions against China, India has been giving a cold shoulder to Iran in its bid to appease the White House. However, certain developments prompted an Indian revaluation of its position toward Iran, such as heightened tensions with China resulting from Indian naval ships’ sailing in Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea. Additionally, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Iranian Parliament of an impending comprehensive deal with China worth $400 billion. Frustrated by India’s foot-dragging in developing the Farzad-B gas field due to the US sanctions, Iran decided to go solo in laying the Chabahar-Zahedan rail line in which Delhi was also a partner. After Zarif’s claim of Iran signing a long-term deal with China, Indian apprehensions grew over losing operative control over Chabahar port as well, located some 70 nautical miles from Pakistan’s Beijing-operated Gwadar port and which provides the shortest route to landlocked Afghanistan besides Central Asia. After a bit of a bump in Pakistan-Saudi relations and Islamabad’s evolving warmth towards Iran, New Delhi’s concerns heightened further. If these multitude of factors were not enough in pushing India to Tehran, the specter of UNSC sanctions on Iran returning in response to the US triggering the snapback mechanism also has significant implications for India. Currently, the Chabahar port and the trade route to Afghanistan are exempted from the US sanctions.
Given the lack of information from Delhi and Tehran about the two high-profile visits, a host of questions arise in relation to the warming ties between the two capitals. Is it the China factor? Or the impending imposition of snapback sanctions trigged by Washington? Or Pakistan’s shifting focus from the Gulf states to its southwestern geographical neighbor? Or the inevitable peace deal between Kabul and the Taliban which could alter the political landscape in Afghanistan?
From Iran’s perspective, India offers it a balancing option vis-à-vis China. Tehran realizes its heavy reliance on Beijing and Moscow can be detrimental to its bargaining power in the long-term. Nonetheless, Russia and China both maintain cordial ties with Iran’s arch-rivals in the Arab world as well as Israel.
The renewed warmth towards India also hints at Iran’s desperation in the wake of China’s reluctance to sign a long-term deal first hinted by President Xi Jinping during his Tehran visit in 2016. Understandably, Iran would like to have it signed in the coming weeks. Despite Iran’s excitement after its foreign minister’s revelation on the Parliament’s floor, Beijing has not even confirmed if talks on a protracted long-term deal are being discussed.
Possibly, Iran wants to exploit India’s lobbying muscle in America too to ease Washington’s growing pressure while a parallel mediation bid continues via Switzerland. The US failed in convincing the UNSC to extend the arms embargo on Iran and in response triggered the snapback mechanism. However, this US attempt is fraught with challenges because13 members of the UNSC question its legitimacy to trigger the snapback mechanism as it withdrew from the nuclear deal. Being a founding member of the UN-endorsed nuclear deal, the US insists that it is legally eligible to invoke the snapback mechanism. With India being a stakeholder in key geo-economic and geo-strategic projects that are at risk of falling to China, Iran is possibly asking New Delhi to secure its interests at the global stage as a regional power. Historically, India and Iran have enjoyed a love-hate relationship, dotted with eras of peaceful coexistence and periods when the Persians rampaged India’s cities.
Last but not least, another factor bringing Iran and India closer together is the Taliban-Kabul peace agreement, which will result in the US military presence dwindling in Afghanistan. However, this is likely to result in significant pro-Pakistan sentiments in the country. Though Iran maintains a good relationship with the Taliban, India has been mostly a bystander as Pakistan plays a catalyzing role in the peace deal. Delhi relies on Tehran for improved ties with the defiant outfit. Interestingly, the interests of India and Iran do not overlap in Afghanistan as the former wants to use it as a launching pad against Pakistan while the latter aspires to embarrass the United States. China, on the other hand, remains the leading investor in the war-ravaged country with ambitions to deepen its stakes in mining and infrastructure development by making the country reliant on Gwadar for exports.
Pragmatically speaking, India is in no position to win Iran any respite from Washington particularly as the tense election season is in full swing. Besides, China will not hasten to sign Zarif’s purported comprehensive long-term deal as its ties to the West and Israel as well as with the Gulf states will be at stake, its largest trading partners. Mending their relations helps Iran and India balance ties with China, keep a check on Pakistan and push Afghanistan to depend on Chabahar port.