After Pakistan, Iran brings home the Chinese Dragon

Some Indian and Iranian antiquarians might nostalgically speak about the commonality of their ethnocultural origin but in practical dealings, these long-forgotten and outdated pleasantries hardly play any meaningful role. Yes, for a very short duration of the Pan-Iranian movement spearheaded by the founder of Pahlavi ruling house, Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iranian academics and pragmatic scholars did conduct valuable researches in the phenomenon. However, Indians seem to have given only lip service to it. 

A partial freeze in India-Iran relations set in as early as 1979, when, in the aftermath of the ouster of monarchy, Teheran passed into the hands of orthodox ecclesiastical fraternity. The Ayatollahs, reminiscent of the Zoroastrian mobid (clerical) hierarchical structure— no doubt a significant social entity— had, hitherto, remained apolitical, or at the best, played a minimal advisory role if and when domestic exigency so demanded. The difference is that following the Islamic revolution, the Iranian clergy cleverly sidelined the Iranian Left, the real vanguard of the revolutionary movement, and directly grabbed political power. It ruthlessly attuned the entire Iranian polity to its time-hardened pro-Islamic stereotype. Keeping clear of religious tag, Indian political arrangement only sullenly watched the history of the region shaping quite differently.

With the introduction of the rule of the Iranian Islamic Republic in 1979, Indo-Iranian trajectory of relations shifted from benign intimacy to disgusting caution. India strictly followed the international norm of non-interference in the internal affairs of a state. Under the guidance of Imam Khomeini, the hero of the Islamic revolution, the Ayatollahs set forth an effective mechanism for a quick shift from Pan-Iran-ism to Pan-Islamism. A large number of Pan-Iranian fans, staunch nationalists and upholders of Iran’s civilizational permanence left their native land and sought refuge in western countries, especially the US, to escape persecution. The long drawn conflict between reason and dogma reappeared in its new avatar.

Obviously, in ideological terms, Islamic Republic of Iran was bound to enter a phase of deep skepticism and hostility towards the Arab world in general and Saudi Arab monarchy in particular, an institution Iran stubbornly refused to recognize as the epicentre of Islamism on the globe.

Iran is a nation that does not easily untie the accumulated baggage of loathing against its adversary. The Ayatollah’s antagonism against the US is that (a) it supported monarchical rule in Iran and suppressed populist movements especially of the Jibh-e-Milli in the 1950s (b) it offers solid support to the State of Israel against Palestinians (c) it protects and manipulates monarchy in Saudi Arabia and through it controls the vast oil reserves and the strategic routes in the Gulf.

Iran’s animosity against the State of Israel is rather amusing and without any cogent reasons like (a) Iran wants to shame the Arab states for their conciliatory attitude towards a people who have been castigated in the Islamic scriptures. Iran wants to send the message that it, a non-Semitic nation, is more Islamic than the Semitic Muslims (b) Israel is no less than canker eating into the vitals of Islamic body in the Middle East, and (c) Israel is a modern military power with the potential of exerting large scale influence on the history of the region, something that minimizes the stature of Iran.

Iran is at loggerheads with the Saudis for these reasons: (a) Arabs have been the historical dominators of Iran (b) there is a great ethnolinguistic and cultural divide between Iran and the Arabs and Saudi is considered the leader of the Arab world (c) Ayatollah Khomeini had declared that monarchy was disallowed in Islam and hence Saudi monarchy is void of legitimacy. (d) The Saudi ruling house cannot and is not the custodian of the twin holy shrines, the Mecca and Medina. Iran does not recognize it as the custodian.

It will be recollected that when anti-Saudi monarchy sentiment was at its height, nearly four hundred Iranian Hajj pilgrims were killed in the riots that erupted within the precincts of the sanctum sanctorum of the Mecca. Calling herself more Islamic than the Arabs, Iran wants to be recognized as the leader of the Islamic world. That seems wishful thinking because Muslims, despite the slogan of Islamic fraternity, are sensitive to factionalism. 

Obsessed with these political-cum-regional paradigms, Iran, under the Ayatollahs thought of going nuclear to cow down Israel and also obtain an edge over the entire Arab world, particularly the Saudi. The take of Saudi Arabia and Israel from Iran’s nuke ambition was that they could be vulnerable to Iran’s nuclear-rattle, and, therefore, ganged up with the US to subvert Iran’s nuclear undertaking. Washington had earlier done it in Iraq, though after the destruction of that country no tangible proof of late Saddam Hussein coming anywhere close to making the dirty bomb was found. Destruction of Iraq and not Iran or Pakistan will be discussed for long by historians as one of the controversial decisions of US military strategy planners.

When Washington rushed to impose sanctions on Iran on the nuclear count, it showed that the US was not fully prepared to talk to the Iranian side without doing the exercise of sabre-rattling. Iran is a very tough country to negotiate with and the Americans have very little experience of dealing with a nation of split personality like Iran.

What do we mean by split personality? By and large, most countries including ours, engaged in business with Iran have little knowledge of a historical reality. The non-Semitic Muslims anywhere in the world, especially in the Asian continent, all have a split personality. They have never been able to come out of the delusion whether Islam brought them something more useful and viable in comparison to the cultural ethos to which their elders had tenaciously remained glued millennium after millennium. This is true not only of Iran but also for Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and India including the Kashmiri and even the Central Asian (Turkistan) and Eurasian Muslims.

It is only among the non-Semitic Muslim societies that the debate about true Musulman and pseudo-Musulman has been raging with unabated intensity over the centuries. In the eyes of the Arab Muslims all non-Semitic Muslims are more or less spurious Muslims. This is the reason why the non-Semitic Muslims have invariably resorted to the destruction of all cultural symbols of pre-Islamic times in their lands. The revolts surfacing in Muslim countries in our times in the shape of protests, violence or militancy is, in fact, the reflex of that split personality and a struggle for finding out how the gap can be bridged over? A glaring example is of nearly two crore mohajirs of Pakistan desirous of returning to their parent land – India.

Chabahar Port and India

Apparently, American pressure and India’s compulsions thereof could assume the potential of forcing India to slow down the progress of work at Chabahar in the Straits of Hormoz. Whether Iran’s pre-planned deal with China discussed during President Xi’s visit to Tehran in 2016 had whetted the appetite of Iran of obtaining hefty financial packages from China or not remains a moot point.  Whatever transpired between them, Iran, nonetheless, thought it is more in her interests to enter into partnership with India on Chabahar and other two projects. Iran is well aware of the implications of wriggling out of any one of the three deals made with India. Moreover, Iran with her big oil reserves, and a nation with a strong ego is not to be compared with Pakistan that will put all eggs in China’s basket as in the case of Gwadar.

If India undersize her stakes in Chabahar, she may face hurdles in completing the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link of 680 km and also the Farzad-B gas exploration and exploitation project which was originally discovered by the Indian gas giant ONGC. However, India cannot escape the blame of soft peddling with the projects in terms of finances and technological infrastructure. I was part of PM Narendra Modi’s team during his official visit to Tehran in 2017 and the Iranian side repeatedly desired that India keeps the time frame for the completion of the projects. They were skeptical, nevertheless.

India should seriously consider that it was with great persuasions that the US allowed a waiver on Chabahar. As such, India should have made the hay while the sun was shining. India should expedite the import of necessary machinery and equipment from European countries by impressing upon them that India had to work under a waiver which might be withdrawn at any time given the unpredictability of the ruling apparatus of the two hostile countries. India should never give Iran a cause for concern because Teheran cannot wait indefinitely as she has to recover fast from economic crunch imposed by the sanctions.

It is for the American policy planers to debate whether it will be in the interests of Washington to push Iran into the lap of China? As per reports, Iran has been offered to bite the $400 billion dollar carrot package by China for developing the Chabahar port with the option of connecting it with Gwadar. This will bring solace to Pakistan because it changes the security strategy scenario in the region to India’s disadvantage. Iran had been raising a hue and cry over the US naval ships making their presence felt in and around the Gulf. But how much comfortable Iran will feel with Chinese naval force making its presence massively felt in the strategic Gulf region if India is out? The past century of Iran’s history is actually the history of her struggle for protecting the Gulf water channel from external influence and penetration. No regime in Teheran will afford to make the Gulf a bone of contention between mighty navies of the superpowers and thus endanger the security not only of the littoral states but also its own as well by undoing the balance of power.

It is time that India revisits the narrative and makes some pragmatic changes in her policy of handling her Iranian projects and the Gulf, without losing sight of peculiar traits of Iranian character. Even if New Delhi has some unknown assurances from Washington, these should not be allowed to influence adversely the essential contours of her foreign policy particularly towards an important neighbour like Iran. It is no strong logic to presume that Chabahar will have very limited intake capacity because no major trade transactions to the CARs (Central Asian Republics) will take place through Chabahar–Sirakhs-Turkmenistan corridor. With Indian presence in Chabahar, not only Afghanistan, Iran and the littoral states will feel more secure but the vast region called Central Asia will also find access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the most crucial world’s naval route of trade and transportation. If India abandons Chabahar it will be a big setback to the cordial Indo-Afghan relations as well.

India should galvanize into action her topmost diplomatic expertise to re-activate the deals with Iran and simultaneously prevail upon the European Union to work towards softening of American sanctions on Iran so that India-Iran link up is not disrupted and the dragon is kept at an arm’s length. This will go in the interests of the stakeholders. The US should be dissuaded from performing an act that amounts to making India suffer for the sins of others. The world’s strongest democracy has to be strongly disposed towards the interests of the world’s largest democracy. Moreover, the US has to understand that saner voices in Iran will not remain stifled for all times to come. Matured diplomacy does not mean wielding the whip all the time.

Prof. K.N. Pandita
Prof. K.N. Pandita
Prof. K.N. Pandita is the former Director of the Centre for Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir. Prof. Pandita was awarded Padma Shri by the Government of India for his contribution in the field of literature and education.

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