by Sanjay Kapoor
Death of Iran’s Qassem Suleimani, who fostered India’s interests in Afghanistan and the Chabahar port has altered the equation
Long before Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif criticised India for the “massacres of Muslims” during the Delhi riots, an act that attracted sharp rebuke from India’s foreign ministry, there were plenty of signs that the two countries had begun to move away from each other in different directions that were prompted by their respective foreign and domestic policy compulsions and now the Coronavirus pandemic.
This drift manifested itself in the speedy manner that New Delhi announced the banning of flights from Iran after incidents of Coronavirus were reported in the US-sanction racked country. Later, it had to back-pedal a bit and allow Iran’s Mahan Air to fly to Delhi to pick the stranded countrymen and drop the Indians back home. Iranians were taken aback by the alacrity with which connection with them was severed at a time when they were reeling under a catastrophic pandemic that is destroying their economy and lives.
Many senior officials of the government have died compelling Iranian President Rouhani to demand the removal of US sanctions and immediate help to tide over this crisis. Iran has also sought assistance from India to fight the virus — as it is being denied the basic instruments to fight this virus due to the sanctions. India has not offered any aid.
Iran’s troubles and its changing world view, where it wants to create a more aggressive Islamic counterpoint against Saudi Arabia controlled Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), is impacting the balance of power in the region. It’s ambitions, though, have been hurt by the raging pandemic, which has already seen 2,600 deaths and thousands infected. Iranians have demanded from the US lifting of sanctions and has also sought India to use its considerable influence on Washington to help them. Tehran’s long grouse against Delhi, as articulated by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, is that it just does not stand up to the US.
All these reasons and more are raising severe doubts about even the recent Indian foreign policy investments in Iran including on the Chabahar port. The big question is: Will India’s attempts to have an enduring land route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, by sidestepping Pakistan, through Chabahar survive the vicissitudes of recent times? In the past few months though, the Commerce Ministry has eased rules to speed up the project, but it continues at its own pace.
The Chabahar Port
India’s existential anxieties about its creative foreign policy to side step Pakistan and rebuild ties with Iran through investing in Chabahar port have deepened ever since US signed an agreement with Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — as Taliban is called. The agreement will allow Washington to withdraw its troops that have been locked in a war for 19 years. Agreement with Taliban does not factor Indian interests and the shifting ground realities. It has been crafted by a desperate US to get out of Afghanistan before the US elections so that President Donald Trump could safely say that he fulfilled most of the electoral promises.
India has justifiable fears that the Taliban — a proxy of Pakistan — would not respect Indian interests or investments. After the agreement in Doha was signed, Taliban is expanding rapidly. Like it happened in the past, city after city may start falling. They may also unleash violence against Indian interests — the recent massacre of 25 Afghan Sikhs in a gurdwara is a case in point.
Taliban’s rise also could see the stifling of Chabahar port’s growth and the transit route to Afghanistan’s route 606 or Zaranj-Delaram road (built by India), which allows India’s ingress to garland highway and connects further to Central Asia. This could fit well with Pakistan’s plans that has been lobbying hard to prevent Chabahar from acquiring any commercial or strategic meaning.
There is a belief that the agreement with Taliban may not have taken place so soon if Iran’s Quds Force chief, Qassem Suleimani, had not been assassinated at the turn to the new year.
Islamabad has been resentful of General Suleimani and his visible proximity to India, which saw his frequent criticism of Pakistan’s use of terror as state policy. “We are telling that country (Pakistani) not to allow their borders to become a source of insecurity for the neighbouring countries; anyone who has made this plot for Pakistan is seeking to disintegrate that country,” Suleimani told an Iranian news agency. There was expectedly, great joy in Pakistani military establishment when Suleimani was killed.
A month after his death at Baghdad airport, Iran’s Ambassador to Islamabad, Syyed Muhammad Husseini, revived an old proposal to build an association of five nations to resolve problems of this region. Termed as the “golden ring”, the proposed alliance, besides Iran also included Pakistan, Turkey, Russia and China.
Is there any meaning to this proposal and its implications on the region — including Afghanistan — if so then how is it linked to General Suleimani assassination?
Undoing diplomatic initiatives
Husseini’s detailed remarks made at an Islamabad think-tank did not go unnoticed as it was seen to undo much of the diplomatic investment that Iran has made with India that included giving management control of Chabahar. Iranian Ambassador Husseini suggested linking Chabahar with China funded Pakistani port of Gwadar and jointly exploring the region. Without saying that in so many words, it was possible to sense a strategic abandonment of the Chabahar-centred trilateral initiative between Iran, India and Afghanistan. China’s promise of investment of $250 billion in Iran’s crumbling infrastructure was hastening this decision. “Construction of railway track on Pakistani territory to China, linking the two ports will lead towards economic development in this region,” said Husseini.
Such a formulation would be music to the ears of Saudi Arabia and Pakistani military establishment that has been upset with Iran’s decision to give management control of Chabahar port to India — a policy aggressively supported by the slain Quds force chief. Chabahar for Saudi Arabia meant an opportunity for Iran to spread its influence in South and Central Asia. Saudi scholars have felt that it would be in their national interest if Chabahar trilateral agreement was scuppered. Saudi diplomats have wondered why India was allowing its “imagined interests” to determine its diplomatic and strategic locus towards Iran and Central Asia. In their view, its real interests reside with the Gulf region, which provides employment to Indians and also oil to India.
Suleimani had also played a significant role in preventing the enlargement of Islamic State of Khurasan (ISK) in Afghanistan. He was seen as a thorn on the side of Saudi Arabia, the US and Pakistan and routinely obstructed plans they had for Afghanistan and the region. He helped certain Talibani groups that were preponderantly Shia, to fight the Islamic State and provided them the leverage in their negotiations with the US mediator for a just settlement. It was from this standpoint that he was an asset for India by helping in looking after its interests in Afghanistan and also in providing critical intelligence on the violent Wahabbi networks operating in Kashmir.
Once the haze of Coronavirus lifts and the death toll of this pandemic, which has killed thousands in Iran and in the neighbouring areas, gets known, the direction of the region’s foreign policy will become apparent. China that has had an early start in rebuilding itself after the Coronavirus pandemic may well have a big say in it.
(The writer is the Editor of Hardnews Magazine. This opinion was published in The Hindu Business Line. It is being republished with permission.)