India – Iran relations: Converging Interests or Drifting Equations

December 5, 2008
Event: 
Fellows' Seminar
Type: 
Only by Invitation
Time: 
1030 to 1300 hrs

Chair: Ranjit Gupta
Discussants: Ishrat Aziz and Anwar Alam

The West Asian region is currently in a state of flux. Iraq is far from being stabilized and questions are being raised over the continued US military presence in Iraq. However, Iraq and the US have signed a security pact known as Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which requires US to withdraw its forces by the end of 2011. But there has been protest against the provisions of the pact within Iraq and in its neighbouring countries particularly in Iran. Tension between Iran and the US over Iran’s nuclear programme continues.

Strong historical and cultural relations between India and Iran have always played a significant role in bringing the two countries closer to each other. Religious affinity has also played an important role. Islam has been a bridge between India and Iran. India has the world’s second largest Shia population. These factors would continue to dominate relations between the two in the future as well.

The importance of Iran for India lies in its geographical position, size, energy resources and provision of access to Central Asia. Despite their different perceptions, the Indian leadership has underlined the strategic importance of Iran for India. Earlier, during the Shah regime, the Iran-China-Pakistan alliance, Western hostility and Iran’s closeness to the US and its desire to play an active role in Gulf region did not allow India-Iran relations to grow beyond a point. Iran was the first country to diplomatically recognise Pakistan. After the Islamic revolution, India’s relations with Iran remained minimal. Iran’s stand on the Kashmir issue and the Babri Masjid led to new constraints in their relations.

However, in the post-Cold War era, similar security threat perceptions brought about a phase of renewed engagement with a number of high level visits from both sides. The turning point was the visit of former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao to Tehran in 1993. These ties were further strengthened by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Tehran in 2001 when he signed the ‘Tehran Declaration’ and several other economic and trade cooperation agreements. The strategic cooperation between the two got a further boost during Mohammad Khatami’s visit in January 2003 culminating in the signing of the ‘New Delhi Declaration.’

Recently, steps have been taken to enhance cooperation in economic, energy, political and security arenas and there have been high-level visits on both sides. The most recent one being by President Ahmadinjad to New Delhi in April 2008 and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Tehran in November 2008. During these visit, several documents were signed to strengthen and cement existing ties.

Energy is the common meeting point for India and Iran. At present, the thrust of India’s energy cooperation with Iran is on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project and the $20 billion LNG deal. However, both projects are yet to be finalised due to pricing and security-related differences that continue to hamper any forward movement. Analysts believe that Iran backed out of the LNG deal because of India’s vote against Iran in IAEA in September 2005 and again in 2006 to refer Iran to the UN Security Council regarding its nuclear programme. It is also argued that the US has been against any deal with Iran.

Despite converging interests and problems between India and Iran it can be said that in the changing geopolitical environment both at the regional and international levels, the two countries will not be able to neglect each other’s concerns.

Points raised during the Discussion

Economic factors are more important in Indo-Iran relations.

Problem between Iran and Israel is not ideological but strategic.

Iran denied Indian flights during 1990-1991 Kuwait crisis.

Iran has not yet decided on the type of relationship it wishes to maintain with India.

Convergence of interest between India and Iran should be taken seriously.

Shia population could help to maintain good relations between the two countries.

Prepared by Dr. M.Mahtab Alam Rizvi, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.