Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his 6-day long visit to the US with a bang — a stunning stage appearance with President Trump at the Howdy Modi in Houston last Sunday.
But on Thursday, he ended up with a hastily arranged meeting with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in New York just before the latter’s departure for Tehran. The symbolism is at once obvious.
Only 4 days earlier, in a famous remark at the Howdy Modi, Trump thrilled the Sangh Parivar audience with a stirring call that the US and India should jointly fight “radical Islamic terrorism.” Modi and the audience cheered in the mistaken belief that Trump was condemning Pakistan, but only to be told the next day by POTUS himself that he was only referring to Iran.
However, if photojournalism is any indicator, Modi looked subdued at the meeting with Rouhani. It must have been a difficult meeting. The Iranian report was rather taciturn. The primary purpose seems to have been to break the ice.
The India-Iran relations have been on a roller-coaster under Modi’s watch. He gave high hopes to Rouhani when they met for the first time on the sidelines of the historic Ufa summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2015 by proposing multi-billion dollar investment plans in Iran’s economy spanning the industrial and infrastructural fields.
India does not have many friends today and Iran is one of them. Modi government’s image is very poor in the Muslim world.
Rouhani took the idea seriously and fast-tracked the contract for India to develop and operate one of the container terminals in the strategic Chabahar Port in the Sistan-Baluchistan province, ignoring Pakistan’s disquiet over such an Indian presence hardly 80 kms from its restive border regions.
Rouhani upset the Pakistanis further by accepting the Indian offer to build a railway line connecting Chabahar with Zahedan on the Iran-Afghan border further north.
Indians were jubilant that in geopolitical terms, India’s cooperation in regional connectivity with Iran matched China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
All that is history, of course. Iran’s ambassador to India Ali Chegeni regretted recently that India not only buckled under American pressure to stop its oil imports from Iran but also slowed down its project work at Chabahar. The tensions are showing. Iran has taken a critical position on the situation in J&K.
Yet, it was Iran which in 1994 had helped India to prevent an OIC resolution on the human rights situation in J&K from being tabled at the UN forum, breaking the group’s consensus and demanding that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan.
Yes, Iran played a helpful role in ensuring that the Shia-majority Kargil region of J&K stayed out of the Pakistan-sponsored insurgency in the early nineties. The Narasimha Rao government allowed the then Iranian Ambassador to India Sheikh Attar to visit Kargil when the region was closed to the international community and foreign media.
Yes, it was the same Iran with which India also had cooperation at the level of intelligence agencies in the early nineties.
What explains the present crisis? Succinctly put, India’s policies in the Persian Gulf have come under the influence of the Israel-Saudi-UAE axis. Indian diplomacy is quite adept at balancing the relations with Iran on one side and the Israel-Saudi-UAE troika on the other. But the present ruling elite abandoned that policy and began identifying with the troika.
Conceivably, the US encouraged this shift. But the main factor has been the bonhomie that has come to exist at the leadership level with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. If a marker is to be put on the downhill slide of India-Iran relations, it must be Modi’s extended 5-day visit to Israel in July 2017.
India-Iran relations suffered as a result of Delhi’s gravitation toward the orbit of what Iran calls the “B Team” of the US. Iran never stood in the way of India keeping diversified relationships in West Asia, including with its adversaries such as the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia, but the plain truth is Delhi simply cooled down on the relationship with Iran.
How the B Team worked on the Indian leadership remains a mystery, but the Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis played their cards well, knowing exactly which strings to pull with the movers and shakers of the present ruling dispensation in Delhi.
Suffice to say, Modi’s meeting with Rouhani on Thursday was an act of atonement. India is in a chastened mood today. Delhi dumped Iran as a major supplier of oil (on concessional terms) and instead opted to buy from the US and Saudi Arabia and the UAE (at market price), but there has been no quid pro quo.
Trump is deepening the US-Pakistan relations and has waded into the Kashmir issue. As for the Sheikhs, they probably had no intentions to make big investments in India. Meanwhile, Netanyahu, one of Modi’s closest friends in the world circuit, lost the election and if he fails to form the next government, may lose his immunity from prosecution and end up in jail on corruption charges.
Without doubt, Modi has done the right thing by calling on Rouhani. The latter was short of time as he was leaving for the airport and still had to give an interview to ABC News, but Iranians nonetheless accommodated Modi’s request for the meeting.
India does not have many friends today and Iran is one of them. Modi government’s image is very poor in the Muslim world. India’s march toward Hindu Rashtra and the lockdown in J&K have generated negative opinion internationally.
Even “time-tested friends” like Russia are getting disillusioned with our “Chanakyan” diplomacy. How long can India remain ambivalent? Our credibility as a dependable partner is plunging. Which makes the Modi-Rouhani meeting a morality play.
It may seem an uphill task to repair the damage to India’s relationship with Iran. But on the contrary, it is easily undertaken if only there is political will. Tehran attaches high importance to India and Delhi needs to reciprocate the goodwill. The prospects are simply seamless to build a relationship of mutual benefit.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.