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India-Iran ties stayed on course during Ebrahim Raisi's tenure

Modi met Raisi twice – first on the sideline of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s summit in Samarkand in Uzbekistan, and then again on the sideline of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in South Africa.
nirban Bhaumik
Last Updated : 21 May 2024, 07:33 IST
Last Updated : 21 May 2024, 07:33 IST

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New Delhi: Notwithstanding initial apprehensions in New Delhi, the relations between India and Iran did not suffer after Ebrahim Raisi was elected as the president of the Persian Gulf nation in the June 2021 polls, which marked a moderate-to-hardliner transition in Tehran.

After the ultraconservative chief justice scored over 72 per cent votes in what was dismissed by the West as a “show election”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate him. “I look forward to working with him to further strengthen the warm ties between India and Iran,” the prime minister had posted on X.

Three years later, with Tehran on Monday confirming the death of the 63-year-old president in a helicopter crash, Modi again took to X to convey his “heartfelt condolences” to his bereaved family and people of Iran. “His contribution to strengthening the India-Iran bilateral relationship will always be remembered,” he wrote.

Modi met Raisi twice – first on the sideline of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s summit in Samarkand in Uzbekistan, and then again on the sideline of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in South Africa.

The June 2021 presidential elections in Iran had left the moderates in the West Asian nation sidelined and brought the hardliners back to power. New Delhi had reached out to the new dispensation in Tehran with a bit of apprehension. The erstwhile regime of Hasan Rouhani, known as a moderate, had in August 2019 reacted to the Modi government’s move to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and reorganise the state into two union territories, by expressing concern over the “condition of people” in the valley and urged New Delhi to adopt “a fair policy” towards the people of the region. Rouhani’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in March 2020 had termed the clashes in northeast Delhi as “organized violence” against Muslims. His comment had triggered strong protests from the Modi Government.

New Delhi feared that the new hardline government of Iran might toe the line of Pakistan on the issue of J&K and make harsher comments on the issue of the allegedly growing intolerance against Muslims in India. The apprehensions were proved to be misplaced though. During his visit to Islamabad from April 22-24, Raisi refrained from echoing Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif when he made an attempt to link the situation in J&K with that of Gaza while condemning Israel’s military offensive against Palestinians. The joint statement issued after the Raisi-Sharif meeting only had a passing reference to J&K, suggesting that the issue should be resolved through “peaceful means based on the will of the people”. India lodged a routine protest with Iran.

This, however, did not turn into an irritant in the relations between New Delhi and Tehran, which clinched a deal this month for India to develop and run the operation of Shahid Beheshti Terminal of the Chabahar Port on the southeastern coast of Iran for 10 years. Washington DC warned of the possibility of sanctions on entities of India for the deal with Iran. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, however, reminded the US that it had in the past supported New Delhi’s role in developing the Chabahar Port as a transit hub for sea-land connectivity between India, Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. He advised President Joe Biden’s administration to avoid taking a narrow view of the India-Iran deal on Chabahar Port.

Jaishankar had attended the swearing-in ceremony of Raisi in August 2021 and had thus become the first dignitary from India to call on the new president of Iran. He was also the last representative of the Government of India to call on Raisi during a visit to Tehran in January this year when he was hosted by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. The visit took place amid a series of attacks on commercial vessels sailing through the Red Sea region by the Houthi militants based in Yemen and allegedly backed by Iran. One of the ships, MV Chem Pluto, an oil and chemical tanker with 21 Indians onboard as crew members, was hit by a drone when it was on the Arabian Sea on its way to Mangalore in India carrying crude oil from Al Jubail Port in Saudi Arabia on December 23 last year. The United States alleged that the drone had been fired from Iran. Tehran dismissed the allegation and New Delhi did not make any comment on it. Jaishankar, however, told Amir Abdollahian that the fraught situation was “not to the benefit of any party”. They also expressed shared concern over the situation in Gaza.

Amir-Abdollahian was also killed in the chopper crash along with Raisi. Jaishankar recalled his meetings with both of them while condoling their death.

Tehran was also quick to act on New Delhi’s request for the release of 17 Indian members of the crew of MSC Aries, a cargo vessel, which was detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran. Some of them however stayed back due to contractual obligations.

The Government of India is observing state mourning on Tuesday as a mark of respect to the president and foreign minister of Iran.

Notwithstanding the civilisational links between the two nations, the relations between New Delhi and Tehran faced challenges over the past one-and-a-half decades, primarily due to growing ties between India and the United States, particularly after the landmark 2008 nuclear deal, and the acrimony between Iran and the United States. The sanctions imposed by the US on Iran forced New Delhi to curtail trade and economic links with the Persian Gulf nation, which was always considered to be a part of the extended neighbourhood of India. The economic relations regained momentum after President Barack Obama’s Administration in Washington D.C. eased sanctions on Iran following the July 14, 2015, agreement between Tehran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China – as well as Germany and the European Union.

Obama’s successor Donald Trump in May 2018 withdrew the US from the July 2015 deal. The US reimposed sanctions on Iran six months later. India had to buckle under the US pressure and stop buying crude oil from Iran by June 2019. New Delhi managed to secure a waiver from the Trump Administration to continue its engagement with Tehran for the development of the Chabahar Port. But Iran in July 2020 started laying tracks to build the proposed 750-kilometre railway line from Chabahar Port on its southeastern coast to Zahedan, the capital of its Sistan Baluchistan province closer to its border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. India was keen to build the railway line, as it was already involved in developing the Chabahar Port to get sea-land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia through Iran, bypassing Pakistan. But the US sanctions on Iran hindered progress on the project. So was the case with the development of the Farzad-B gas field, which too was put on the back-burner due to US sanctions, and Tehran in January 2020 notified New Delhi about its decision to award the contract to an entity based in Iran.

New Delhi in June 2021 was worried over the proposed deal Iran is planning to sign with China securing a whopping $400 billion investment pledge by the communist country in its infrastructure and energy sectors over the next 25 years. What also got alarm bells ringing in New Delhi was Iran’s purported move to invite China and Pakistan to take part in the development of its Chabahar Port. Beijing and Tehran had discussed a proposal to link the Chabahar Port with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – a flagship component of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and a project opposed by India.

The three-year-long tenure of Raisi at the helm of the Government of Iran, however, did not see much progress in any Tehran-Beijing project that should cause unease in New Delhi. With India defying US sanctions to continue importing crude oil from Russia, Tehran of late nudged New Delhi for resumption of the bilateral energy trade.

New Delhi’s growing ties with Israel and the US did not adversely impact its relations with Tehran in the past three years. As Iran will get a new president after the elections on June 28, India will seek to maintain the strategic balance in its ties with the Persian Gulf nation and its growing relations with the US and Israel.

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Published 21 May 2024, 07:33 IST

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