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From Tehran to New Delhi- An enigma of interests

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Ashutosh Sharma
Ashutosh Sharma
Ashutosh Sharma is a first-year engineering student who has exhibited a keen and avid interest in defence, history, diplomacy and geopolitics. He has a unique style of writing which vehemently analyses global scenarios from India's perspective. He has also written pieces on spirituality and dharma.

Iran, a country home to one of the oldest and most powerful civilizations, today stands deeply rooted in Islamist extremism, pan-Islamism, and expansionism. These serve as essential components of its regional diplomacy. Centuries ago, the Persian Civilization flourished under the Sasanian Empire. The period of Sasanian rule in the former Persia is regarded as the zenith of Iranian history. This golden era under the Sasanian Empire witnessed great cultural, military, and humanitarian developments until 651 AD, when Umar, the trusted companion of Muhammad, invaded Persia. What followed the invasion was the destruction and decline of Zoroastrianism, forced conversions, and brutal violence. Zoroastrians were made to pay an extra tax called jizya, failing which they were either killed, enslaved, or imprisoned. Those paying jizyas were also subjected to insults and humiliation by the tax collectors. These facts are mentioned in various sources including the ‘Encyclopaedia Iranica’. Later, in the early 16th Century, the Safavid Dynasty established Iran as a Shia State. Owing to its wealth and military, though Iran was still a leading world power, the country lost its roots in the dark. Further, the world was going to spectate unforeseen tragedies and terrorism due to these Islamic invasions in and around the Middle East and the Sahel.

This brief account was important to draw a contrast between a nation that failed to preserve its culture and ours that managed to safeguard it, whose fruits we enjoy today as a vibrant, thriving democracy that is a ray of hope for humanity in the world. Nevertheless, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 further paved the way for Iran to establish itself as a theocratic State with Ayatollah Khomeini at its helm. Before 1979, the Iranian people under Shah Mohammad Pahlavi were experiencing progressive outcomes such as women suffrage, land reforms, urbanization, and reconstruction. The Islamic Revolution plunged Iran into an extremist State with grave human rights oppressions. There are no basic freedoms for the populace, a narrow set of rules, no fair elections, and the absence of an independent judiciary.

I sincerely wished to present this analysis to all readers without bringing up religion, but the Father of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has forced me to extensively consider this factor. In his words, “Anyone who will say that religion is separate from politics is a fool; he does not know Islam or politics.” So, if I do not take these ‘quotes’ into account to justify their hypocrisy, the Iranian leadership will label me a fool. Dear readers, pardon me on that. This article pivots around fundamental aspects and issues, pertaining to the Indo-Iranian equation that are often overlooked.

In Ruhollah Khomeini’s words, “We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry ‘There is no god but Allah’ resounds over the whole world, there will be a struggle” and “Establishing the Islamic state world-wide belong to the great goals of the revolution.” He also quoted, “War! War until victory! A religion without war is a crippled religion. Allah be praised, our young warriors are putting this command into effect and fighting. They know that to kill the infidels is one of the noblest missions Allah has reserved for mankind.” A reputed politician and cleric, Ali Meshkini declared, “The only legitimate government in the world is the Iranian government.” Although the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has occasionally taken a publicly softer stance, nothing overwrites the goals set by his predecessor.

Even though the terms of engagement in diplomacy are positive and partially indifferent to ideological extremities, it is important to keep in mind the long term objectives, ideology, and aspirations of nations, something which the US failed to consider when they had a substantial partnership with China. Clearly, there is not much convergence in Tehran’s ideological and diplomatic spheres of functioning, which further begets uncertainty and makes it a complex case study.

Iran is particularly important to India for two major reasons: oil and a trade corridor connecting Central Asia to India. We are the second-largest importer of Iranian oil and have significantly increased our exports to Tehran. Under Prime Minister Modi, India has played very carefully with Iran, especially during the stint following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA or Iran Nuclear Deal and subsequent sanctions. Regular state visits by both heads of States and bilateral exchanges at the level of National Security Advisors and Deputy National Security Advisors on security matters reflects the great importance both sides attach to their ties.

At the same time, Israel and India have expanded their cooperation to a great extent. We exchange critical security technologies and have intelligence-sharing mechanisms in place. India has, so far been successfully able to maintain deep and everlasting relations with the staunch adversary of Tehran, Israel, that go beyond mere diplomatic engagements and at the same time positionally partner with Iran. The importance of Israel over Iran is perceptible from the fact that PM Modi defied protocol and gave a surprise welcome to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to India in 2018. This is a diplomatically applaudable approach.

Well, it is also imperative to examine the Iran-Pakistan-Kashmir-China nexus, something which directly impacts New Delhi’s security interests. The following accounts would not seem so rosy. Iran and Pakistan have enjoyed warm relations for decades. Pakistan and China, in fact, helped Iran in obtaining sensitive knowledge and equipment on nuclear technology after the US terminated the Atoms for Peace program, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

When the world was not supporting Pakistan on its misinformation on Kashmir, Iran offered support to its malicious agenda. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted that the Indian government should “prevent the oppression & bullying of Muslims in this region” and accused India of committing “barbaric acts” in Jammu and Kashmir and “massacre of Muslims in India”, a stance that sent ripples of joy in Islamabad. The Supreme Leader openly urged the Islamic Ummah to “sympathize with and provide assistance to Kashmir”. All this happened after the Government of India scrapped Article 370 to constitutionally unify our land with our land.

A reason why Iran has not embraced Pakistan’s position on the Indian Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, that it should be part of Pakistan is that it doubts whether Islamabad is a reliable ally. But if Pakistan somehow manages to push its narrative on Iran using Islam as a soft tool, it will propel substantial inconvenience for New Delhi. It is bizarre that even though Iran and Pakistan share the same verbatim on Kashmir, India values its relations with Iran. The main reason being that Iran is the only option we have to trade with Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, and considering this fact Iran can exploit us to its advantage.

Since we have talked about Pakistan, let us also reflect upon terrorism. It is partially immature and over-conclusive to accuse Iran of fostering terrorism in India, but one cannot ignore the fact that just as Iran has vested interests in Israel through its proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, it has similar interests in the Kashmir Valley as well. According to security officials, the terror outfits of Jaish, Lashkar, IS-Khorasan, and Taliban have joined hands to carry out terror attacks in J&K and Indian assets in Kabul. Al-Qaeda’s leadership, including its chief al Zawahiri, has repeatedly urged Muslims for a renewed jihad in Kashmir against India. This year, NIA had arrested 9 Al-Qaeda terrorists, planning to launch attacks against India.

So, how does all of this matter in the context of Iran? Even though Shiite Iran has been ideologically opposed to the Sunni Taliban, there are many reports that it has chosen to back them against the larger foe, America, by arming it and providing sanctuary to some fighters. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with a Taliban commander who claimed that “Iran supplies us with whatever we need.” And the US withdrawal from the Taliban could direct these funds against India and her infrastructure in Afghanistan. There is no reason for Iran to stop these too, to secure its domestic interests and further the agenda of supporting the “Kashmir Struggle”.

Documents recovered from Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan had revealed secret dealings between Iran and Al-Qaeda. A report revealed that “Since at least 2009, Iran has allowed al-Qaeda facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through the country, enabling them to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.” ISIS is itself a convoluted subject for true analysis, and hence I have not shed light on that in this article.

To further strengthen our argument on long-lasting Iranian interests in Kashmir, we must also view the Hamid Ansari angle. The former Vice President of India could not do more harm than what he did to our country back in 1990 when Pakistan discovered terrorism, Kashmiri Pandits were facing genocide, and Hamid Ansari was India’s Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indian intelligence officers were keeping a close watch on hotspots fuelling extremism in Kashmir such as Qom, a place in the outskirts of Tehran. Intelligence reports so formed and the information obtained was being blatantly ignored by Ansari who also discouraged these operations. An official of the Indian embassy in Tehran was abducted, tortured, and thrown on the streets by Iranian intelligentsia and the ambassador took no action.

A senior officer M.B Mathur was also abducted and mistreated but released only after a lot of resentment in the embassy and direct intervention of the then Prime Minister and senior R&AW officials. Thirdly, another Indian official, Mohd. Umar was abused after he refused to cooperate with Iranian intelligence in providing them information about Indian assets in Iran. Hamid Ansari’s inactions and perilous decisions led to the termination of critical intelligence operations and was a jolt to the security infrastructure of India, which further hampered New Delhi’s effectiveness in dealing with terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.

Diplomacy is primarily based on shared values and interests. Clearly, Iran shares a lot in common with Pakistan’s jihadist ideology. Economically though it shall and has to welcome any considerably friendly nation for investments including India. Evidently, India has still been able to maintain balanced relations with Iran due to her financial edge over Pakistan and a versatile, unbiased, and multi-faceted diplomatic outlook. However, this does not mitigate the strategic threat posed by the new colonial master of Islamabad. China and Iran have signed a strategic partnership pact for 25 years, wherein China would invest $400 billion in exchange for a substantial discount on oil and an influential geopolitical footprint in the Middle East. An article in the Foreign Policy written by Saleh and Yazdanshenas noted that ‘China fears that as the trade war between the two countries intensifies, the United States may put pressure on those countries not to supply Beijing with the energy it needs. A comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran is both a hedge and an insurance policy; it can provide China with a guaranteed and discounted source of energy.’

Beijing would try to keep India out and will have an eagle eye over the Chabahar Port as well. India is now shipping 75000 MT tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through this port, thus bypassing the Pakistani territory. The port is the single most important asset that could be used by Iran as diplomatic leverage against New Delhi in the future. Chabahar is more important to India than Iran. Shakeri, from Iran’s Institute for Strategic Research (ISR), said, ‘Chabahar’s importance to Iran was mostly in terms of international branding’. It is roughly a bid to attract investments.

Iran is vital to safeguarding India’s interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar’s recent visits to Iran hold great value in this regard. Tehran may turn to be a vital strategic partner or a liability or even a threat in the long run. Iran is a State with dynamic confrontations with the West as well as adversaries in the Gulf, and hence there cannot be a unitary approach towards it. India must show it common areas of confluence, keep a close watch on the terrorism factor, and have a quid pro quo type policy, without neglecting our moral stand on human rights issues. As Robert Frost said, ‘A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman’s birthday but never remembers her age’, India’s relations with Iran cannot be ideological but are diplomatic. India must draw its attention towards Shia oppression in Pakistan and the plight of Uighurs in China, show them the futility of raising issues that do no good to anyone’s interests, and at the same time, strategically dealign with Tehran whenever required. Natural forces are always an inspiration, stay calm and friendly when needed, show strength when necessary, but with the only objective being stability, humanity, and truth.

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Ashutosh Sharma
Ashutosh Sharma
Ashutosh Sharma is a first-year engineering student who has exhibited a keen and avid interest in defence, history, diplomacy and geopolitics. He has a unique style of writing which vehemently analyses global scenarios from India's perspective. He has also written pieces on spirituality and dharma.
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