BRIGADIER RAJIV MAHNA
How to navigate through the maze of relationship with a country which is important in terms of not one but two own vital national interests, energy security and connectivity with Central Asia and, Eurasia; and that too when that country exhibits strong anti-west tendencies and postures? Answer to this query lies in the dynamic mutual relationship matrix of India and Iran, which during recent past has been characterized by the constant calibration maneuvers carried out by both the countries.
For last forty years plus, many countries and supranational bodies (UN & EU) have placed so many sanctions on Iran, that a thick book is required to describe and discuss the contours of anti-Iran sanction regime. List of allegations against it include human rights violations, supporting terrorism and the ultimate sin – clandestine development of nuclear weapons.
A brief window of reprieve opened in 2015, when Iran and several world powers, including US, reached an accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under its terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief. But in 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew US from JCPOA (also called The Iran Nuclear Agreement).It was followed by the Iranian withdrawal from the deal. In 2021 President Joe Biden indicated that US would return to the deal if Iran returned to compliance position. By September 2022negotiators had exchanged written responses of their respective countries, but the future of any outcome is very uncertain. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in US have added further twist to the tale of the resurrection of tattered Iran nuclear agreement by insisting that no deal should be made with Iran without prior sharing of the agreement with the Congress.
India clearly understands the centrality of Iran in all three connectivity projects of its interest – Chabahar Port, the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the Ashgabat Agreement.
Without making much noise, New Delhi is also aware of its misstep of 2019 when India decided to adopt, ‘zero oil import from Iran’, stance. Until 2018, Iranian sweet crude made up 11% of India’s oil imports, and was a preferred source of light, discounted oil.
Currently, as per trade reports, US, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, together make up roughly63 percent of the total value of Indian crude oil imports.Due to fluctuations observed in oil market since commencement of Russia-Ukraine war, India is actively considering diversifying its’ oil import resources.
Trend of the events of 2022, involving Indo-Iran interactions establish in unambiguous manner, that both India and Iran have entered a fresh cycle of mutual relationship calibration. In June, India abstained from a vote on Iran’s nuclear activities at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors in Vienna. Indian abstaining at Vienna happened immediately after the visit of Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian to India.
In August this year, both the countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on recognition of Certificates of Competency in Unlimited Voyages, during the visit of India’s Ports, Shipping and Waterways Minister Sarbananda Sonowal to Iran. Third meeting of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) was held in Tehran from October 17 to 19. This meeting was co-chaired by the Indian Navy.
It may be noted that Indian engagement with Iran continued despite the protests in Iran which began after the reported custodial killing of Kurdish-Iranian activist Mahsa Amini on September 16. India, a member of the HRC, has so far, refused to condemn the violence against unarmed protesters.
Presently, Iran is facing a double squeeze narrative, being propagated by the US led West. One prong of the narrative is human rights violations and second the supply of drones to Russia for employment in Ukraine. Provocative statements, like, “We will free Iran …. They will free themselves”, made by the US President while campaigning for the mid-term elections do not bode well for the slim hope which emerged at the resumption JCPOA dialogue. This situation is not new to Iran, but post Mahsa Amini incident, it does present choice dilemma(s) for India, particularly, since Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has demanded a special session of the HRC on Iran’s ongoing crackdown against peaceful protesters during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) scheduled to be held from November 7 to 18.
Pragmatic India is likely to continue positive engagement with Iran for protection of its’ vital interests. India countervails China-Pak nexus at Gwadar by presence at Chabahar Port in Iran. Shia Iran has always supported Indian J&K stance. Iranian Foreign Minister was the first official from the OIC countries to visit India after the incident of unfortunate remark made by the BJP spokesperson, very significant statement gesture, when viewed from the perspective of Indian relationship with the Islamic countries. If JCPOA comes through, it will be a big positive for India, in terms of resumption of the oil trade with Iran. Even if JCPOA does not happen, it appears that India has already commenced sharing its’ future intensions with the world. In June, at GLOBESEC 2022 Bratislava Forum (Slovakia), while explaining Indian import of oil from Russia, Indian EAM, mentioned, “Why countries in Europe and West and the United States, why don’t they allow Iranian oil in the market, why don’t they allow Venezuela oil to come to the market? They have squeezed every other source of oil we have and then say you will not go to the market and get the best deal for the people; it’s not a fair approach”. India, the ‘global swing state’ is appropriately occupying geopolitical positions in the space which has been created due to Russia-Ukraine conflict, since the resultant uncertain situation not only facilitates following ‘Strategic Autonomy’ but also provides adequate justification opportunities, both, internally and internationally for pursing such behaviour.
Signing off for the week, by quoting John McCain, “There is always an element of real politik that has to be present in the conduct of any nation’s national security affairs. At the same time, we have to also have a balance between real politik and Wilsonian principles of freedom and democracy and human rights. And, maintaining that balance is the greatest challenge that we in the West have to face because it’s many times a very difficult decision-making process”.
Brigadier Rajiv Mahna YSM, SM, VSM is an Indian Army Veteran who has chosen to remain a student for the lifetime
“We Said It”
- Failed assassination attempt on former Pak PM Imran Khan was reported on November 3, and some sections of media identified violent and intolerant society as the root cause for such desperate acts.
- This aspect was analyzed in detail in the article titled; ‘Pakistan, Terrorism and FATF’ published in ‘Beyond Boundaries’ column on 31 September 2022.