Dr. Leyaqat Khan
CENTRE FOR DISTANCE AND ONLINE EDUCATION, AMU
India-Iran relations have a history which is unique of its kind. Underlining the importance of this relationship, first Prime Minister of independent India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in his book “Discovery of India” observed, “Few people have more closely related in origin and throughout history than, the people of India and Iran. Both the countries are legatees to their respective vibrant civilizations which maintained closer historical link throughout the ages and as a result affected and influenced each other. The very name “India” owes its origin to the Persian pronunciation “Hindus”.
In his recent visit to Iran, when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked that India’s friendship with Iran is as old as the history itself, he was actually espousing these historical sentiments. Notwithstanding these historical connections, the relationship between India and Iran since the time formal official diplomacy began between them in the 1950s, has been less than cordial with intermittent periods of close cooperation and discordant entanglement. Once a neighbour, as imperial India was inclusive of Pakistan, partition of the Indian Sub-continent brought a change not only just in geographical outlook but it also led to the change in orientation of both the countries. During the beginning of the cold war rivalry, these two countries had entirely different stand on world affairs as Iran joined the grouping led by the United States in the form of its membership to The Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), originally known as the Baghdad Pact and India became a flag bearer of the Non Alignment Movement. Though Iran disentangled itself from its pro-America tilt with the overthrow of the Shah regime in 1979, yet, it did not have much effect in terms of its relations with India because India did not welcome the 1979 Revolution for its overt religious tone. The end of cold war with its sweeping changes on the global politics also had its effect on India-Iran relations. Moreover, the changing regional dynamics of the 1990’s provided opportunities for India-Iran relations. Interest began to converge between these two countries on many issues. Both found common ground in their opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both saw the need to resist the superpower of the world’s domineering streak in the region. The relations between these two countries continued to move on, on an even note with some hitches and hiccups coming in between. However, at no point of time, it could be said that the conduct of relations between these two countries reached to the level of hostility. As a result of US pressure, although India did vote against Iran in a resolution passed by the United Nations censuring Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but, India continued to buy Iranian oil despite US intense pressure to do otherwise. India halted its Iranian oil imports only recently in 2015 for a brief period just before the nuclear deal between Iran and P5 +1 countries. India very skilfully maintained its relations with Iran particularly in the light of US displeasure to the Iran’s nuclear pursuit and India’s own civilian Nuclear Cooperation deal with the U.S. Iran on its part supported India in the international bodies like the Organization of Islamic Countries where Pakistan an influential member tried to draft anti-India resolution.
Iran is particularly crucial for India because of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), where the Chabahar port is of particular relevance to India. Through the Delaram-Zaranj highway, this port will provide access for Indian commodities to Afghanistan and beyond. In fact, in October 2017, India was able to send the first shipment of wheat to Afghanistan via Chabahar port, totalling 1 million tonnes.1 India hopes to counter Pakistan’s Gwadar port with the Chabahar port because it is concerned that China will be able to monitor the activities of the Indian and American navies through Gwadar port, and that Gwadar port could serve as a base for Chinese ships and submarines, posing a direct threat to India.2
In terms of energy security, India’s desire to be recognised as a world power necessitates the country’s continued economic expansion. And, in order to achieve that goal, India, the world’s fourth-largest energy consumer, must maintain an uninterrupted supply of energy supplies.3 As a result, India’s energy security has become a major foreign policy concern. India’s energy needs are also rising as a result of its growing population.
According to recent estimates, oil imports from other countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Mexico account for 80% of India’s total imports.4 Iraq and Saudi Arabia have recently emerged as India’s largest oil suppliers.5 On the other hand, global efforts to clean up the environment have prompted India to explore for other energy sources to coal. As a result, Iran is a natural choice for India, with its substantial energy resources estimated at 1376 billion barrels of oil and 1,046 cubic feet of natural gas, making it the world’s third-largest crude oil reserves and second-largest natural gas reserves6 and sixth-largest oil exporter7.
India and Iran might have a mutually beneficial partnership. India’s rising global prominence, large economy, human resource base, and large markets make it a key regional player. As a result, India’s rise as a rising economic and political force could be beneficial to Iran’s efforts to break out of international isolation. In India, Iran’s resources may find a large market. India and Iran, on the other hand, have yet to achieve the desired level of cooperation. Although the relationship has remained friendly, it has not yet progressed to the point of strategic partnership.8
US Factor in India-Iran Relations
As a result, the US factor and sanctions had a direct impact on India-Iran relations. Furthermore, the United States became the sole superpower with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. With this new reality, India was obliged to adjust and soon re approached with the United States, as both New Delhi and Washington discovered common ground. Both, for example, were concerned about China’s growing global influence. Other challenges include India’s ambition to play a larger role in global affairs, and the US might assist it in this endeavour by supporting its request for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. Another example of how the US might help India is the signing of a civil nuclear deal between the two countries. As a result, India could no longer afford to ignore the US while preserving its ties with Iran.
India-Iran Relations under Modi
Prime Minister Modi stated during his election campaign and after assuming office during the 16th Lok Sabha elections in 2014 that his government will focus more on the neighbourhood. He left on a two-day trip to Iran on May 22, 2016. As part of its “Look West” policy, India was also aiming to rekindle ties with Iran. It was a historic visit because it was the first time an Indian prime minister had visited Iran in fifteen years.9 Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee paid the last visit to the country in 2001. Prior to his arrival, the Indian government released nearly US$700 million in payments owed to Iran in an effort to build goodwill.10
During the visit, about 12 bilateral agreements were inked, the most noteworthy of which was a Chabahar port agreement and a Trilateral Transport and Transit Corridor agreement between the Iranian and Afghan presidents. According to the Chabahar agreement, India Ports Global Private Limited and Arya Bander of Iran would work together for ten years to develop and operationalize two terminals and five berths with cargo handling capacity. Another Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Exim Bank and Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization for a US$150 million credit for Chabahar port. Another MoU was signed between India’s IRCON International Limited and Iran’s Construction, Development, Transport, and Infrastructure Company, in which the latter agreed to assist IRCON in the construction of a 500-kilometer railway line between Chabahar and Zahedan.11
Modi’s visit was preceded by an April 2016 visit of the Indian Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas. During his deliberations, both India and Iran indicated confidence in their ability to reach a priority agreement on the Farzad-B gas field. Both parties also agreed that Indian companies will invest approximately $20 billion in the Chabahar Special Economic Zone to build petrochemical and fertiliser factories.12 These high-level trips demonstrated India’s intention in resuming its relations with Iran, but obstacles arose. Despite the Obama administration’s lifting of sanctions on Iran in January 2016, the enhanced connection between India and Iran remains a source of concern for the US.13
Modi visited the United States for two days in June 2017, his first since President Trump took office. Modi travelled to Israel in July 2017. In the last 70 years, he was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. Israel, like the United States, wields enormous influence over India’s relations with Iran. Both Iran and Israel regard each other as a potential existential threat. On the other side, India has managed to maintain friendly relations with Israel. Both countries collaborate closely in practically every field, from agriculture to defence, which is the most significant. India’s third-largest weaponry supplier is Israel.14 As a result, Tehran was not pleased with Modi’s visit to Israel. This is demonstrated by the fact that, after a seven-year hiatus, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, highlighted the topic of Jammu and Kashmir twice in response to Modi’s visit to Israel, linking Kashmiri sufferings to Palestinian sufferings. “Muslims all across the world should openly support the people of Bahrain, Kashmir, and Yemen, and denounce oppressors and dictators who harmed people during Ramadan,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said.15 This was a positive step for Pakistan, which hoped to see more of this type of support for Kashmiris in the future.
President Trump announced his withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was agreed in 2015 by Iran, the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, and the European Union.16 President Trump believed that the agreement fell short of tackling Iran’s missile program17 and failed to secure the US and its allies’ national security interests. As a result, the United States slapped its first set of sanctions against Iran on August 7, 2018, followed by another set on November 5, 2018.18 Other countries were expected to suspend their crude oil imports from Iran or face retaliation. This put countries like India, which was one of the top importers of Iranian oil at the time, in a perilous position.
India began reducing its oil imports from Iran in August 2018 in the hopes of obtaining a waiver from US sanctions.19 New Delhi made it apparent to the US that it would not be able to bring oil imports from Iran to zero by November due to its vast energy needs.20 The United States, for its part, continued to provide India with alternative energy supplies in order to protect the Indian economy.21 In the end, India was allowed a waiver to import 1.25 million tonnes of oil per month until March 2019, along with a few other countries.22 India was also granted a waiver, allowing it to begin operations at the port of Chabahar. 23
However, the US announced in April 2019 that no additional waivers would be granted, and that nations that had previously been granted exemptions would be required to reduce their oil imports from Iran to zero by May 2, 2019. The Indian foreign minister’s request for more time to import Iranian oil to her US colleague has so far been ignored.24
To make matters worse, Iran’s recent backing for the Taliban would undoubtedly worry India.25 Apart from that, disagreements over the Farzad-B gas field show how fragile the India-Iran relationship is, despite the fact that it is commonly understood that the two countries have a long history together.26 As a result, India requires Iran for its energy needs and regional strategic interests, whereas the United States is India’s primary strategic partner. As a result, according to Anita Inder Singh, an international affairs specialist, India has “walked a tightrope in the past” and will certainly do so again.27
When a country aspiring for global power status revives its relations with the other one vying for its claim for a legitimate regional power position, that too, both lying in the adjacent geopolitical realms of the increasingly important Asian region, it is but natural to evince interest in the community of strategic observers. Since the time international sanction against Iran has been eased in January, 2016, India is one of the first countries in the world to reach out to Iran with a big trade deal including the signing of the ambitious Chabahar Port construction project. Though India-Iran relations in the recent past were not going on a very smooth plain mainly because of the international pressure, yet, India faired better than many other countries in terms of its relations with Iran, particularly when the United States took special interest on seeing to it that Iran doesn’t come out of its international isolation. Coming together of India and Iran on a more intimate plane, evidenced by the recent signing of 21 bilateral trade agreements, carries with it a wider implication which does not just affect these two countries but will have its impact in a decisive manner on the regional and global political contour.
The majority of today’s battles are fought for energy resources all over the planet. This fact demonstrates that, in today’s world, energy security is the most crucial priority for countries. This is also true in the case of India, which aspires to become a worldwide economic and political power. The Indian government must ensure that the country has enough stable energy sources, both conventional and unconventional, to meet this aim. As a result, India is working hard to assure different sources of energy, from Iran to the United States. India is an important country in this region for the United States. For the US to keep tabs on China, particularly its activities in the Indian Ocean, India is critical. Despite the efforts from the United States, India has been able to continue some level of collaboration with Iran.
As a result, for the foreseeable future, energy security will continue to be India’s primary concern in order to maintain its economic growth. In this context, India has been playing a delicate game of balancing its relationship with energy-rich Iran and the US. Although India claims to have an autonomous foreign policy, a closer examination reveals that it is not free of US pressure when it comes to Iran. Unfortunately, due to US pressure, initiatives that could bring peace to the region, such as the IPI gas pipeline, were never completed. India has once again found itself in a tough predicament as the Trump administration tightens its grip around Iran. While India seeks to be seen as a rising power, it may be time for the country to begin making decisions without regard for US pressure. This could also aid in the restoration of peace and security in the region.
- Soltaninejad Mohammad, “Iran-India Relations: The Unfulfilled Strategic Partnership,” India Quarterly 73, no. 1 (January 24, 2017): 1-2.
- “India Ships Wheat to Afghanistan via Chabahar,” Hindu, October 29, 2017.
- “India is the Fourth Largest Energy Consumer in the World: Report,” Hindu Business Line, March 19, 2013.
- “India’s Oil Import Bill to Jump by 25 % in FY 18,” Economic Times, March 26, 2018.
- “Iraq, Not Saudi Arabia, is India’s Top Oil Supplier,” NDTV, July 25, 2016.
- Dadwal Shebonti Ray, “India-Iran Energy Ties: A Balancing Act,” Strategic Analysis 36, issue 6 (2012): 930-940.
- Anthony Craig, “World’s Top 10 Oil Exporters,” Investopedia, October 28, 2018.
- Soltaninejad Mohammad, “Iran-India Relations: The Unfulfilled Strategic Partnership,” India Quarterly 73, no. 1 (January 24, 2017): 1-2.
- Ankit Panda, “Long Overdue: India’s Modi Visits Iran, Signing Key Agreements, Setting Broad Agenda,” Diplomat, May 24, 2016.
- Kabir Taneja, “The Reality of India-Iran Ties,” Diplomat, July 11, 2016.
- “Modi’s Iran visit: Key Takeaways,” Hindu, May 23, 2016.
- C Rajiv S Samuel “Iran Sanctions and India-Navigating the Roadblocks,” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Monograph Series, no. 52, July, 2016.
- “Nuclear Sanctions Lifted as Iran, US Agree on Prisoner Swap,” Reuters, January 16, 2016.
- “5 Reasons Why Israel Matters to India,” Economic Times, July 4, 2017.
- “Iranian Leader Backs Palestine, Kashmir Struggle,” Hindu, June 27, 2017.
- “Iran Deal: Trump Breaks With European Allies Over ‘horrible, one sided’ Nuclear Agreement,” Guardian, May 9, 2018.
- “What is the Iran Deal and Why Does Trump Want to Scrap It?,” Guardian, May 9, 2018.
- Ravi Joshi, “Does Trump Have a Policy on Iran?,” Observer Research Foundation, November 26, 2018.
- “India Wants US Sanctions Waiver after Cutting Iran Oil Imports: Officials,” Reuters, October 8, 2018.
- “Exploring Alternative Oil Supplies So ‘Our Friend’ India isn’t Affected, US official on Iran Sanctions,” Hindustan Times, September 29, 2018.
- “US Agrees to Grant India Waiver From Iran Sanctions,” Economic Times, November 1, 2018.
- “With US Sanctions Waiver, Chabahar Port Set to Commence Operations by Month End,” Businessline, November 7, 2018.
- “India in Middle of Polls, Let Iran Oil Imports Continue: Sushma Swaraj to Pompeo,” Hindustan Times, 30 April, 2019.
- Samuel Ramani, “Managed Instability: Iran, the Taliban and Afghanistan,” Diplomat, November 14, 2018.
- “India to Offer Tehran $4bn for Farzad-B Gas Field Development,” Dawn, April 5, 2018.
- Anita Inder Singh, “Walking the Tightrope,” Hindu, November 30, 2018.