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EAM Jaishankar in Tehran: Renewed Focus on Maritime Security and Regional Connectivity

Dr Deepika Saraswat is an Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 19, 2024

    External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s two-day visit to Iran on 14–15 January 2024 is a crucially timed diplomatic engagement. First, it came in the context of a deteriorating regional security environment owing to the ongoing Hamas–Israel war, the ISIS-claimed terrorist attacks in Iran and the maritime security crisis created by the Houthi targeting of commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden spilling into the Arabian Sea. Second, it brought into renewed focus India’s partnership with Iran on Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Another mega-connectivity project, India–Middle East–Europe Economic Corridor, was announced on the side-lines of the G20 summit held in New Delhi last year.

    Rising Maritime Security Concerns 

    Over the last four decades, Iran has successfully leveraged its ideology of revolutionary Islamism to mobilise the so-called ‘axis of resistance’, a region-wide network of state and non-state actors who share Iran’s ideological and geopolitical goal of countering the US regional presence and Israel. These include the Hamas, Hezbollah, Houthis and Syria. In recent years, Tehran has used its influence over these actors to pushback against US threats and pressure, showing that insecurity for Iran is equivalent to insecurity for the region.

    After Hamas attacks invited severe Israeli military response in Gaza, Iranian-backed forces have sought to engage Israel on multiple fronts underscoring that any hostile action against any of Iran’s allies risks snowballing into a wider regional war. Hezbollah, operating out of southern Lebanon, has fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel, and Israeli warplanes have been hitting Hezbollah military sites to push them away from the border. Houthis have launched more than 100 drone and missile strikes aimed at targeting Israeli-linked commercial shipping in the Red Sea and beyond.

    On 24 December 2023, MV Chem Pluto, a Liberia-flagged, Japanese-owned and Netherlands-operated chemical tanker, with 21 Indian crew on board, was struck with a drone in the Indian Ocean 200 nautical miles (370 km) off the coast of Veraval in the Indian state of Gujarat. The vessel was heading from Saudi Arabia to India, and was allegedly affiliated to Israel.1   Indian Coast Guard offshore patrol vessel ICGC Vikram was the first to arrive at the scene and escorted the damaged vessel to Mumbai port.

    Subsequently, the Indian Navy deployed Task Force Groups comprising destroyers and frigates, long-range maritime patrol aircraft and RPAs/drones, substantially enhancing maritime surveillance and domain awareness efforts in the central/north Arabian Sea. Together with the Indian Coast Guard, it also enhanced surveillance in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

    Notably, India has not joined Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational security mission under the aegis of Combined Maritime Forces’ Task Force 153, which was announced on 18 December 2023 by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a visit to Bahrain. In November 2023, India had elevated to full-membership of the CMF, one year after it joined as ‘Associated Partner’.2 Still, India like several prominent members of the CMF, such as France, Italy, Spain, Saudi Arabia and Spain, has preferred to complement the US-led mission, avoiding a direct association in the context of Hamas–Israel war, and United States’ ‘unconditional backing’ of Israel.3

    Jaishankar’s visit came two days after the US and Britain launched military strikes on 30 locations in Yemen. During a televised joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Abdollahian, Jaishankar offered condolences over terrorist attacks in Kerman. At the same time, the minister stressed India’s “uncompromising position against terrorism in all forms and manifestations”, indirectly alluding to Hamas and possibly Houthis.4 Further, not only did Jaishankar deny Tehran the satisfaction of a public condemnation of Israel’s war in Gaza, he called for addressing the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza and went on to urge “all parties to avoid escalatory and provocative actions and facilitate movement towards dialogue and diplomacy”.5 The visit underscored that India’s principled position of non-intervention in West Asia’s conflicts should not be confused with passivity, especially when Indian interests are at stake.

    A Growing Connectivity Partnership

    In the joint press statement, Jaishankar noted that regional connectivity remains a “critical pillar” of India–Iran relations and is expanding into new geographies. Emphasising on India’s commitment to Chabahar project, he called for establishing a “sustainable and long-term roadmap” for India’s continued involvement and the need to monitor its progress under the direct supervision of the political leadership.6

    The Union Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways Sarbananda Sonowal visited Chabahar in August 2023 to review the progress and hand over six mobile harbour cranes (MHC) to the port operator Indian Ports Global Chabahar Free Trade Zone (IPGCFTZ). Tehran and New Delhi have made rapid progress in finalising a 10-year pact for India’s operations at the port.7 Earlier in 2021, India changed its plans to erect four new rail mounted quay cranes (RMQCs) or ship-to-shore cranes at Chabahar as no crane maker showed interest in India's tender due to US sanctions on Iran. However, India was able to deliver two tranches of MHCs of 100 tonnes capacity each manufactured by Italy’s Italgru S.r.l in January and March that year.8 Due to significant improvements in the cargo-handling capacity of the port, Indian operations at the port were declared commercially viable in 2023, paving the way for serious discussion reaching a long-term contract.9

    Over the last two years, INSTC has gained momentum as a ‘sanctions-free’ route for Russia’s trade with India and Iran. Also, Iran’s full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at the end of the 23rd summit of the SCO Council of Heads of States virtually hosted by New Delhi has had a positive impact on India and Iran’s joint efforts to encourage Central Asian countries to use Chabahar for their trade with India. The first meeting of the India–Central Asia Joint Working Group (JWG) was held in Mumbai in April last year. Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for Economic Diplomacy Mahdi Safari proposed to hold the next round in Tehran.10

    In parallel to the INSTC, India and Iran have found convergence in developing transit and transportation potential of Armenia in the Caucasus. Following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan has been insistent on opening of the so-called Zangezur Corridor to link with its exclave in Nakhichevan via Armenia’s Syunik province bordering Iran. Armenia and Iran have opposed Baku’s irredentist claims over internationally recognised territory of Armenia, and have been courting Indian involvement in the Persian Gulf-Black Sea international transport corridor, as an additional route for India to reach Europe.

    Analysts see the new corridor as a tool of ‘soft balancing’ the growing cooperation between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan in the Caucasus.11 The first India–Armenia–Iran trilateral consultations were held in Yerevan in April 2023, where senior officials from the three countries discussed the INSTC, trade, connectivity and culture, and agreed to “continue consultations” in the format.12

    To sum up, Jaishankar’s visit is a timely reminder that India’s partnership stands on its own, and Indian interests demand more rather than less engagement with Tehran. As India deepens cooperation with the United States and allies in West Asia, it is determined to maintain its long-standing independent vision of the region.  

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.