External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will be in Iran over the weekend on a bilateral visit, her first after lifting of crippling western sanctions on the country. Her trip is to signal India’s efforts to step up its engagements in the region with both the competing Sunni and Shia powers. She leaves for Tehran on Saturday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Saudi Arabia early this month. He had already been to the UAE last year. Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan was in Iran a few days after Modi’s Saudi visit. Pradhan's trip was to scale up oil and gas trade and investments in Iran as well as opportunities in fertiliser and steel. Swaraj will focus on political and diplomatic ties and build on the trade and commercial interests. A visit by Prime Minister Modi later in the year is also on the cards, as an invitation of President Hassan Rouhani is pending.
No talk about Kulbhushan Yadav with Iran
Swaraj’s visit comes at a time when Pakistan has charged Indian national Kulbhushan Yadav of being a RAW agent and having slipped into Balochistan from the Iranian border. The story broke during the Iranian President Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan. Pakistan’s Army Chief Raheel Sharif claimed that he had asked the President not to allow its soil to be used by Pakistan’s enemy. President Rouhani rejected the claim that the issue of Indian spy agency’s involvement in Pakistan was discussed during his meeting with the country’s leadership, the Dawn News reported.
According to reports from Pakistan, Interior Secretary Arif Ahmed Khan, is said to have written to the Iranian’s saying Islamabad "expects Iran to seriously look at Islamabad's assertions and take every step to stem incursion of Indian spies into Pakistani territory." Iran’s reply to that is not known.
Asked if the topic of Kulbhushan’s arrest would be discussed during Swaraj’s meeting with the Irani’s foreign minister Javad Zarif, MEA spokesman Vikas Swarup said, "No, certainly not.’’ He said it was something which had to be discussed with Pakistan as India awaits counsellor access to its citizen. New Delhi has dismissed Pakistan’s allegations and Yadav’s confessions as tutored allegations.
India looks to promote its business interests
Having hit the right button in Riyadh, India wants to make sure that its relations with Iran also receive equal importance. Since the nuclear agreement, Iran is emerging from its isolation and is looking forward to rebuilding its oil economy and its ageing infrastructure.
India has to leverage its position as a country which continued to do business with Iran even when it was under sanctions. Good quality basmati rice, other agricultural products, medicines and medical equipment were exported all through the sanction period. India had also continued to buy some amount of oil from Iran, though was forced to lower the quantity because of the difficulties in payment. Before the sanctions, Iran was the second largest supplier of oil to India. But from this month, India will be buying around 400,000 barrels per day of Iranian oil.
China first on the ground in post sanction Iran
With the lifting of sanctions in January, it is not just India but the world is looking to promote business in Iran. One of the first leaders to visit post sanction Iran was Chinese President Xi Jinping. China and Iran signed 17 agreements and promised to increase bilateral trade by $600 billion in the next 10 years. President Rouhani himself had travelled to Europe and signed deals worth $18 billion.
Compared to that, India has been lagging behind. Iranian’s feel that unlike other countries, India has not moved fast enough after sanctions were lifted. India should have been able to leverage its past record.
The Iranians are also tough negotiators.
But during Dharendra Pradhan’s visit, it was announced that India and Iran will develop Farzad B, a gas project in the Persian Gulf by a consortium of New Delhi-based explorers led by state-run ONGC Videsh.
The Chabahar port
A key project which has long been hanging fire has been the Chabahar port. The MoU for this was signed as early 2003. But the tough sanction regime made progress difficult. Delhi’s effort was to bypass Pakistan, which does not allow transit of Indian goods through its territory, and use the Chabahar port in Iran to forward the goods by road and rail to Afghanistan and onward to Central Asian nations. India has already built the Delaram–in Zaranj Highway in Afghanistan border to facilitate movement of goods from Chabahar.
India has sanctioned around $85 million for the construction of two berths at Chabahar and the development of a container terminal. This was India and Iran’s answer to Pakistan Gwadar port built with Chinese assistance. There are details which still need to be worked out. India also hopes to build the Chahbahar-Zahedan-Mashhad railway line. It wants to supply rail tracks, rolling stock, signaling and other equipment.
Besides promoting Indian business, Sushma Swaraj will also discuss the situation in the region, where the Sunni-Shia conflict has led to a war in Yemen, and instability in Iraq, the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State. The problems of Sunni terror group, at one time supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, is now threatening not just the Persian Gulf area but Europe and the world.
The situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban appears to be going from strength to strength is again a major concern for both India and Iran. During the Taliban regime, India, Russia and Iran worked together to strengthen the Northern Alliance. India and Iran are both deeply worried about the Taliban's growing strength in Afghanistan.