shift in indo-iran
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Shashank Joshi |

While Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s death comes as a blow to Iran’s reformists, the template of Tehran-New Delhi ties established during his presidency is likely to endure geopolitical shifts

The death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on January 8 was a landmark for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rafsanjani was a pivotal figure in the country’s path since the 1979 revolution: a founding father, a military leader in the war with Iraq, and twice President. More parochially, his presidency also saw a historic shift in ties with India, laying the groundwork for the cooperation that has unfolded, haltingly, over the past 20 years.

From radical to moderate

Rafsanjani’s two nicknames, “Akbar Shah” and “the shark”, convey his blend of power, cunning, and adaptability. His funeral last week drew more than two million people, comparable only to that of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. But in his most recent political incarnation, Rafsanjani was also a source of support for Iran’s beleaguered reformists.

The man who had helped elevate Ali Khamenei after Khomeini’s death, presided over an assassination spree of dissidents at home and in Europe, refused to lift the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, and was famously, fabulously, corrupt — this same man became, in the final decade of his life, a totem of pragmatism, moderation, and reform.

Rafsanjani’s two nicknames, “Akbar Shah” and “the shark”, convey his blend of power, cunning, and adaptability.

It was Rafsanjani who warned that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2009 would bring “Islamic fascism”, blamed the Bashar al-Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons in 2013, and supported Hassan Rouhani’s successful bid for the presidency that same year.

He was pushed to the margins of politics, had two of his children jailed, and was blocked from returning to the presidency himself. And so the mourners thronging the streets of the capital last Tuesday — never a comfortable sight for the regime — included the rare sight of supporters of the Green Movement, crushed by force in 2009, and vocal critics of Russia, alongside which Iran is fighting in Syria.

read more: Moderate Iran gets a hit as former President Rafsanjani dies from heart attack

Transforming ties with India

Rafsanjani’s flexibility also played a role in the evolution of Iran’s ties with India. In the early 1990s, the situation was delicate. In September 1993, P.V. Narasimha Rao became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Iran since the revolution.

This, President Rafsanjani noted, was “a turning point”. In March 1994, Iran bailed out India in the UN Commission on Human Rights, blocking a consensus on Kashmir. Five months later, in August, this bonhomie was interrupted.

Mr. Rouhani, then secretary of Iran’s powerful Supreme National Security Council and deputy speaker of parliament, paid a visit to India. Iran’s now-President spoke his mind: on the “persecution” of minorities, on the Babri Masjid, and on the importance of India-Pakistan talks, including “true” representatives of Kashmiris, such as the Hurriyat Conference, to resolve the conflict in the Valley.

This “unfortunate departure from diplomatic norms”, as one Indian newspaper put it at the time, cast a pall over relations. Worse still, in October, Rafsanjani canceled his own visit, concerned at being associated too closely with India while the then Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was preparing once more to censure India on Kashmir. The snub was taken badly in India.

But within a year, things had changed. Perhaps the Taliban’s spectacular advance in Afghanistan by then with the support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence had concentrated minds in both countries. And so, in April 1995, Rafsanjani finally arrived in New Delhi, to be greeted by Prime Minister Rao himself.

It turned out to be a landmark visit. Speaking to over 10,000 Shias at Lucknow’s Bara Imambara — and promising ₹10 million for its upkeep — Rafsanjani gave an unexpected endorsement of Indian secularism, dodged a Pakistani journalist’s question on the Babri Masjid (“I believe there is no need for further propaganda in this regard”), and even praised India’s “serious will” on Kashmir while dismissing Pakistan’s call for American mediation.

In substantive terms, Rafsanjani signed a three-way India-Iran-Turkmenistan transit agreement, allowing India to avoid Russian or Ukrainian ports.

He also urged a Tehran-Delhi-Beijing axis — his proposal, sandwiched between India’s 1993 and 1996 border agreements with China, was perhaps less quixotic than it looks today.

Indian officials, in turn, batted away American criticism of Iran, going so far as to mock then U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin for complaining that his trip to Delhi had coincided with Rafsanjani’s. India’s warm welcome to both was itself a foreshadowing of what, a decade later, would come to be called multi-alignment.

Rafsanjani did not single-handedly change the relationship. Structural factors, such as India’s economic liberalization and the situation in Afghanistan, were more important. But as a relative pragmatist, he was able to overcome those in Tehran who had argued for a tilt to Pakistan and a continued focus on Kashmir and communal issues.

Although Ayatollah Khamenei would make a pointed intervention on Kashmir in 2010, calling it a “nation” and comparing it to Gaza, I can find no account of Rafsanjani’s successors, Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Rouhani, of doing anything similar. In fact, Rafsanjani’s trip marked several themes that would shape India-Iranian relations for the next two decades.

One was economic diplomacy focussed on connectivity, energy, and trade. Another was mutual concern over the future of Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s role there. A third was India’s effort — not always successful — to prevent relations with Washington and Tehran from interfering with one another. How have these developed?

read more: Pakistan, China and Russia: New Great Game in South & Central Asia?

Economic diplomacy

Economic diplomacy has only grown in importance, as a rising India has looked to Central Asia and Iran has emerged from the sanctions straightjacket. This explains last May’s historic agreement over the Chabahar port, even if Iran is considerably more relaxed than India about Gwadar, China’s regional infrastructure plans, and the Chinese navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean.

Last year, India’s oil imports from Iran trebled from the previous year, pushing it into fourth place in the ranking of Indian suppliers, and there is pressure on the Reserve Bank of India to allow Iranian banks to open branches in India, which would boost the relatively modest amount of bilateral trade.

This explains last May’s historic agreement over the Chabahar port, even if Iran is considerably more relaxed than India about Gwadar, China’s regional infrastructure plans, and the Chinese navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean.

Afghanistan is a more complicated story, with Tehran now openly flirting with parts of the Taliban even as Delhi and Kabul draw closer together. Recall that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a U.S. drone strike in May 2016 came as he was returning to Balochistan from Iran, possibly after a long stay. Although Taliban delegations have been coming to Iran for years, they attended December’s International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran with no semblance of secrecy.

Afghanistan is a more complicated story, with Tehran now openly flirting with parts of the Taliban even as Delhi and Kabul draw closer together.

As for the Tehran-Washington balancing act, this has eased in recent years as the Obama administration in the U.S. has taken a softer approach. With Boeing and Airbus queuing up to sell to Iran, it’s easier for India to do so. But Donald Trump will assume the presidency in three days, surrounded by congenital Iran hawks such as National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Defence Secretary James Mattis, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Within the past few days, President-elect Trump has repeated, to a British newspaper, his view that Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran is “one of the worst deals ever made”.

He will not rip it up on Inauguration Day. Neither Europe nor Mr. Trump’s apparent hero, Russian President Vladimir Putin, would agree to a reimposition of sanctions. But with Mr. Rouhani seeking re-election this year, and hardliners breathing down his neck, it’s not difficult to imagine a spiral of U.S. and Iranian steps that leads to its unravelling. Will the self-styled arch-dealmaker demand that American support to India on Pakistan require a quid pro quo from India on Iran?

This piece was first published in The Hindu

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