On June 19th, 2021, the hardliner judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi won the Iranian presidential seat. In polls conducted amidst amid historically low voter turnout, his win has eased the path for Iran’s leadership to fortify the conservative legacy of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom Raisi is extremely close. The politically anti-reformist, staunchly conservative Iranian “deep State” constructed of an intricate constellation of interlinked religious, military and political authorities, was able to elect Raisi due to the support of Khamenei, as well as the disputed disqualification of the other more-centrist pro-reform candidates by the skewed and murky vetting process of the Guardian Council on the basis of religious and political affiliations. The voter turnout was only 28.9 million or 48.8% of the electorate, the lowest since the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1979 revolution. This is due to several reasons. Through a “recurrent spasm of demonstrations” since 2019, Iranian voters have expressed their disillusionment and disgust at the self-interested political apparatus and its illiberal policies, especially the atrocious human rights record of the candidate backed by Khamenei which has brought into question the very legitimacy of the Iranian State. The fracturing of the reformist camp and the prevailing disenchantment of the voters with the chasmic political authority created an environment that Khamenei exploited to thrust into the presidency a leader who will not challenge his debatable authority and legacy, and will no longer need to be representative to the urban middle class that has steadily backed social reforms.
Iran’s presidential elections are likely to have a wider impact on the regional calculus and geostrategic relations between Iran and the international community. The purpose of this article is to analyse the impact of the Iranian presidential polls on the relations between India and Iran. It will thus, first provide a brief history of the relations between India and Iran. Second, it will seek to determine how the result of the election will have spillover consequences for the diverse yet delicate constellation of India-Iran relations.
History of India-Iran Relations
India and Iran have fostered historical ties for over five millennia and engaged in deep cultural and economic exchanges through the transnational Silk Route. These cultural ties were made more embedded by the fact that Persian became widely spoken during the Mughal era, and have also resulted in an enduring Parsi population in India today. In contemporary times, there are several reasons why the maintenance of cordial relations between these countries has been a pervasive imperative of their foreign relations. These factors include the large Shia Muslim population in India, the instability in Afghanistan, India’s evolving energy security policy and Iran’s rich mineral resources, and Iran’s geostrategic importance as it links the energy-rich regions of Central Asia to the Caspian region – both of which are also central to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Both India and Iran have built their diplomatic relations on the principle of reciprocity and equitable distribution of benefits. If Iran is important to India due to its pool of energy resources and its strategic geographical location, India is also of significant importance to Iran as it is gradually developing its economical and political power. Indeed, Iran has viewed its cordial relations with India as an important guarantor against international isolation. India has a huge market which is also attractive to Iran. Despite these compatible interests, India-Iran relations have not yet evolved into a viable and productive strategic partnership. Though both the countries had a strong relationship immediately after the Indian independence in 1947, the events of the Cold War where they aligned to opposing blocs and alliances complicated the cordiality of their relations. While Iran under Shah Pahlavi aligned under the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), an intergovernmental military alliance under the Western bloc, India under Jawaharlal Nehru pioneered the non-aligned movement while also exploring closer relations with the Soviet bloc. Nevertheless, there was no major deterioration in India-Iran relations during the Cold War, and even after the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. Though observers at that time had expected that these relations would ameliorate after the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet Union’s invasion into Afghanistan in December 1979 impeded those possibilities. The two countries found themselves diplomatically opposed once again, as Iran aligned with the Northern Alliance headed by Ahmad Shah Masud, and India backed the government of Babrak Karmal which had been installed by the Soviets. The rapprochement between these two countries commenced with the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in February 1989, and improved considerably after the Taliban’s 9/11 attacks on the United States homeland. At this point, India, Iran and the USA found themselves in a comfortable and generally unanimous partnership, as effectively ousting the increasingly powerful Taliban from Afghanistan was in all their domestic as well as foreign interests. Indeed, the pinnacle of the relations between India and Iran occurred when the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami visited India as a special guest in the Independence Day celebrations in 2003, and agreed to build a bilateral strategic partnership. However, this reconciliation between the countries was not permanent, catalyzed by Iran’s internationally controversial nuclear programme. Though India was interested in developing closer ties with Iran, it was also determinedly looking to build and improve its relationship with the USA, which was diametrically opposed to Iran acquiring nuclear capabilities. Therefore, India voted against Iran’s proposals for an indigenous nuclear program thrice at the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The first vote (2005) condemned Iran for its failure to adhere to nuclear safeguards commitments; the second vote (2006) was accompanied by a resolution to forward Iran’s dossier to the United Nations Security Council for enforcement action; and, the third vote (2009) was accompanied by an IAEA resolution directing Iran to halt construction of a uranium enrichment plant at Qom. The accumulation of these voting decisions on the part of India did serve to cause further difficulties in its relationship with Iran, and abjured any chances of a lasting strategic partnership. Even so, trade and economic connectivity between the two countries has continued despite sanction. India still imports oil from Iran, which has an estimated 137.6 billion barrels of oil reserves and 1,046 cubic feet of natural gas, and is thus essential to India’s energy security policy. Indeed, when European corporations denied insurance to tankers transporting oil from Iran, India offered State-backed insurance for the same. India-Iran relations have been moderated and deeply affected by the role of the USA in the region as it aggressively works to build a presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), as well as its repeated sanctions against Iran. However, the two countries have also explored and continue to foster deep economic and trade relations despite these factors.
The relations between the two countries have evolved under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. One of Modi’s stated objectives during campaigning, and when he assumed office after the Lok Sabha Elections of 2014, was to develop a foreign and diplomatic policy that focuses keenly on India’s neighbourhood, through an integrated Look East and Link West Policy. Rekindling and rebuilding good relations with Iran was a component of the latter, and Modi was actively exploring ways to create goodwill with the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. Thus, after releasing more than US$700 million that was due to Iran, he visited Iran on May 22nd, 2016 – fifteen years after the visit made by his predecessor, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2001. The purpose of this visit was to explore the overlaps and opportunities for cooperation in the security and economic spaces of both the countries, with specific emphasis on developing frameworks of cooperation in “regional connectivity and infrastructure, developing energy partnership, boosting bilateral trade, facilitating people-to-people interaction in various spheres and promoting peace and stability in the region.” Around a dozen bilateral agreements were signed during this time, most significantly with regard to the Chabahar port and a Trilateral Transport and Transit Corridor. A contract was negotiated between India Ports Global Private Limited and Arya Bander of Iran aiming to construct and functionalize five berths with cargo-handling capabilities and two terminals within ten years. The Exim Bank and Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to release US$150 million in credit for the Chabahar port, accompanied by another MoU between IRCON International Limited of India and the Construction and the Development of Transport and Infrastructure Company of Iran to cooperate on constructing 500km-long railway line between Chabahar and Zahedan. The Indian Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas had also visited Iran in April 2016, and both parties had agreed to prioritise the finalising of an agreement about the Farzad-B gas field, also consenting that Indian corporations would seek to invest around US$20 billion in the Chabahar Special Economic Zone to construct and operationalise petrochemical and fertilizer plants. Though US-Iran relations had improved somewhat during the Obama administration, and sanctions on Iran were lifted, the US was still uncomfortable with India’s closeness with Iran. After Modi’s visit to the US in June 2017 after the Donald Trump administration came to power, he also visited Israel in July 2017, being the first Indian Prime Minister to do so. Iran and Israel have wide-ranging conflicts with one another, and Israel became an important factor in India-Iran relations. India and Israel cooperate on a variety of areas including agriculture, cultural exchanges and defence, with Israel being the third-largest supplier of weapons to India. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also raised his concern over the Modi government’s treatment of the Kashmiri people in the contentious issue of Jammu and Kashmir, equating it with Israel’s cruelty to the Palestinians, and called for solidarity with Muslims all over the world. Though India’s relations with Iran were already becoming challenging yet again, Khamenei’s statement supporting the people of Bahrain, Kashmir and Yemen who were rebelling against the government did not appeal to India, nor did the fact that Iran and Pakistan were gradually becoming even closer. The third blow to India-Iran relations came with Trump withdrawing from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the US, France, Germany, United Kingdom, China and the EU on the grounds that it did not effectively tackle Iran’s nuclear program, and that it coalesced into internal security threats to the US and its allies. India was the second largest importer of oil from Iran at that time, importing an average 600 barrels per day. Thus, India was gravely affected by the sanctions imposed by the USA on Iran on August 7, 2018 and November 5, 2018, which required that all countries that Iran exported crude oil to either terminate those trade relations or be vulnerable to punitive action from the US as well. Though India limited its oil imports from August 2018 onwards, it also made it clear to the USA that it could not completely stop its import of crude oil from Iran due to its substantial energy requirements, and sought a waiver from the sanctions. The US granted India among other countries a waiver until March 2019 to import 1.25 million tonnes of oil a month, and commence its undertaking at the Chabahar port. However, it became a matter of concern to India that the USA announced in April 2019 that no extensions would be allowed on the waiver for any countries, making it imperative to completely halt any oil exports from Iran by May 2, 2019. Additionally, Iran’s tacit and limited support to the Taliban intending to problematize US military objectives in Afghanistan while also stopping short of backing the Taliban’s expansionism, has also irritated India.
Consequences of Election – An Analysis
The election in Iran, and who would come to power through it is therefore important to India because there are several zones of conflict and agreement between the two countries at the moment, especially economically. Since the emphasis of India-Iran foreign relations has been on bilateral economic cooperation, it is natural that India would want to ensure that the next Iranian President would be amenable to upholding the agreements made between the countries, while also exploring more profitable ones. The US-factor is also immensely significant here. As India desires to explore cooperation in energy and regional security with Iran, the election of a President who is opposed to the US would complicate the fragile Iran-India relations more, because strategic partnership with USA is also one of India’s primary foreign policy imperatives. While the Biden administration is seeking to normalize relations with Iran, there are several issues that complicate the matter and subsequently affect India-Iran relations as well. There have been some negotiations between the new Biden administration and Iran to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement on curbing uranium enrichment and lift key sanctions on insurance, oil and shipping; but both sides still have several disagreements on the specificities of the matter. Raisi’s victory has the potential of complicating these deliberations as he was the recipient of US sanctions in the 1980s due to his involvement in the mass illegal execution of Iranian political prisoners through the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and is a hardliner who has openly stated his disdain for any moderations on Iran’s nuclear capabilities by the IAEA or the USA. However, Raisi has also expressed his support for the deal, though his stance is convoluted by the human rights sanctions against him. For India, these negotiations over the nuclear deal are especially important because Iran is witnessing an economy crippled by the pandemic and US sanctions, which is contravening to India’s interests in developing the Chabahar port. The port is essential to India due to geographical location near the Sistan and Baluchistan province on Pakistan’s Makran Coast in the Indian Ocean, to the Chinese-funded port of Gwadar, and to Afghanistan; and the revival of the Iranian economy is essential to the success of this venture, especially as India has allocated INR 100 crores to it in 2021. Unless the USA fully withdraws its sanctions, Iran’s economy will remain crippled and the development of the Chabahar port will remain stalled. The USA also delayed the clearance of imports of heavy machinery for the project, and India is concerned about solidifying ties with Iran amidst the USA’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the resurgence of the Taliban. The tensions between USA and Iran also spill over to the proposed connectivity projects between Iran and India, with the latter hoping that the USA will appreciate its nuanced relationship with the former, despite the failure of the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline project of the 1990s. The 200 km-long Chabahar-Mirak-Zaranj-Dilaram road network providing Indian trading interests easy access to the mineral-rich Central Asian region and to Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, has already seen an investment of US$100 million by India. India is also in the process of concluding an agreement to construct a 900 km-long railway line that would connect the resource-rich Hajigak region in Bamian province of Afghanistan to the Chabahar port, thus providing India with easy connectivity to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Another initiative currently being emphasized by India to connect to Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC). This ship, rail and road route is being constructed with the objective of connecting the major metropolises in India to those in Russia, Iran, Europe and Central Asia (including Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku, Bandar Abbas, Astrakhan, Bandar Anzali, etc.). Though two dry runs have already undertaken in 2014 (Mumbai to Baku via Bandar Abbas) and in 2016 (Mumbai to Astrakhan via Bandar Abbas, Tehran and Bandar Anzali), this project is also moving slowly due to US sanctions. This link is also essential as a regional security concern of India, as possessing a reliable and swift route to Afghanistan would also allow it to better mitigate the Taliban threat more autonomously, and counter Chinese ascendency in the region. Thus, if Raisi and Biden do not manage to find a common ground, India’s economic and security interests in the region are liable to be injured. How Raisi’s win will have broader consequences on the Middle East is also important for India-Iran relations. The Middle East is crucial to India’s economy and bilateral trade, and supplies approximately two-thirds of India’s total oil import. There is also a large Indian diaspora working in the Persian Gulf region, particularly the UAE, which accounts for a considerable share in the total remittances received from abroad. There has been a recent geopolitical realignment in the Middle East, with the normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, which has been beneficial to India. With Pakistan deliberating a regional alliance with Turkey and Iran, along with China to expel USA from the Middle East, as professed by Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan in 2020, Modi’s deepening engagement with the Arab Gulf coupled has added more nuances to the issue; as has the weakening Middle East-Pakistan relations. Given that Raisi is a hardliner conservative with a historical agenda of aiming to aggressively expand Iran’s control over the region, his win could injure the precarious balance that been maintained in the Middle East. Unless the Arab Gulf and Iran coordinate on finding ways to cooperate on regional security, India will find itself trapped between the two countries and their conflicting interests. However, Raisi has declared that there “are no obstacles” to repairing ties with the Middle East and Iran’s neighbours, with the latter also seeking to mend ties as there is a general perception that Biden’s administration may raise the sanctions. In April 2021, Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in talks in Baghdad, with the former hoping to avoid a direct confrontation like the 2019 alleged Iranian attack through suicide drones on Abqaiq and Khurais, which are the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. Similar talks were held by the United Arab Emirates as well, after another suspected Iranian attack assaulted tankers off its coast. Though this does not mean that a full rapprochement is likely, it is probable that Raisi will assertively better Iran-Middle East relations to achieve economic imperatives, which may also be in India’s interest as well. India is also aggressively negotiating with Iran to be involved in the development of the Farzad-B gas field in the region discovered by ONGC Videsh. However, on 17th May 2021, the Iranian National Oil Company and the Petropars Group signed an MoU, with Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zanganeh declaring that the gas field will be developed domestically. India has longstanding interests in that region and being alienated from the development process is contrary to Indian interests. Iran had announced that the reason they were planning to domestically develop the gas field was because of the cratering economy due to US sanctions. Thus, here too, unless the indirect dialogue between Iran and the Biden administration bears fruit – important variables being how Raisi decides to communicate with the USA and how Biden chooses to deal with Raisi’s problematic reputation – India’s interests in the region will remain stunted.
In terms of international relations, Raisi’s unsavoury human rights record also complicates India’s relations with Iran as too close a relationship with the latter may reflect unfavourably upon India in the perceptions of the international community. Raisi is the leader of one of the most controversial, secretive and brutal judicial systems in the world, and was sanctioned by the US Treasury “for his administrative oversight over the executions of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their crime and the torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners of Iran.” Raisi’s judicial system also has a long record of targeting dual nationals with Western ties to utilize them as leverage in acrimonious negotiations. He was also “involved” in the violent crackdown by security forces on Green Movement protesters in 2009 regarding Ahmadinejad’s dubious re-election. This is further problematized by the fact that both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised their alarm on the violations of human rights being perpetrated by the Modi government “through unlawful restrictions on peaceful protests and by silencing critics and dissent” and allowing violence based on caste, sex and gender to continue unimpeded, especially against India’s Muslim community; with Amnesty International being forced to shutter its outpost in India in September 2020. The Biden-Harris administration’s recent commitment to “restore America’s role and voice as a human rights champion on a global scale” and Biden’s condemnation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and the abrogation of Article 370 granting special status to Kashmir in his Agenda for Muslim-American Communities, has ensured that India’s deteriorating human rights record is in full display to the global community. Thus, a close Modi-Raisi alliance may not be approvingly perceived by the international human rights community, and is likely to tarnish India’s global image and strategic, economic and diplomatic future.
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