Sulking Iran is bad news for India: Modi govt needs to soothe Tehran's ruffled feathers

India and Iran haven't quite embraced each other like long lost brothers no sooner Western sanctions against Iran were lifted, buoyed by photos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi pumping President Hassan Rouhani's hands at Ufa in Russia a few days before Tehran clinched a historic deal with the P5+1 group of world powers ending its international isolation.

It would be wrong to presume that behind the scenes India and Iran are getting on like a house on fire after the sanctions-lifting nuclear deal, or assume that Modi's visit to the resurgent Shia nation during his Middle East tour later this year is a certainty.

I can see Iran's sullen pout which doesn't augur well for Indian firms, including PSUs, eyeing opportunities in refineries, oil and gas exploration, power, fertilizer and automobile sectors besides big ticket infrastructure projects in the post sanctions scenario.

A sulking Iran is also bad news for our security interests in Afghanistan where President Ashraf Ghani, Pakistan and China are viciously elbowing out India. But teaming up with Iran will offer India strategic opportunities there as in the 1990s when they jointly backed the Northern Alliance against Pakistan's ISI-sponsored Taliban.


A file image of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani with PM Narendra Modi at Brics Summit in Ufa. AFP

Iran is also a proven bulwark against the expansion of two entities India dreads — Islamic State and al Qaeda. Both Iran and India — home to 50 million Shias; the second largest Shia population in the world after Iran — are targets of Sunni extremism which includes the Taliban, LeT, and Jaishe Mohammad besides Islamic State and al Qaeda.

The new imperative is to soothe Iran's ruffled feathers. In our own interest, we must try to recreate the India-Iran camaraderie of 2003 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee invited Iranian President Mohammad Khatami as the chief guest at India's Republic Day celebrations. Khatami signed not only huge energy deals but acceded to India's fervent plea for access to Iranian air bases in the event of a fourth war with Pakistan.

In contrast, today bilateral ties are so strained that Iran recently revoked visas on arrival for Indians. The highly significant move is essentially Tehran's retaliation against India bracketing a proven friend like Iran with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Nigeria when it comes to granting Indian visas. Despite protests, Iran still figures on what's called the Prior Reference Category, or PRC list from which China was recently removed when the facility of e-visa was extended to it.

Visa applications from nationals of eight countries still on the PRC list are not decided by Indian diplomatic missions abroad but are referred to Foreigners' Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi for clearance invariably resulting in delays. Iranians call it the "negative" list and find it extremely insulting to be treated at par with Pakistanis who are known security hazards and obviously vetted very carefully before being allowed into India. Iran expects and deserves to be treated better.

The Indian visa regime has over decades evolved into one of the most liberal in the whole world. New Delhi can surely accommodate Iranian sensibilities particularly because Tehran has been extremely sensitive to Indian interests. If Modi can issue e-visas to citizens of a country George Fernandes called India's Number 1 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee cited as the reason for India's 1998 nuclear tests in his written explanation to Bill Clinton, it's child's play for him to remove Iran from the PRC list.

To be sure, PRC is not the sole sticking point. An official Iranian communication to India's National Security Advisor cites nine Government of India circulars and notices imposing "restrictions over Iranian citizens and companies in different spheres like purchase of property for opening branches, offices, and bank accounts and transfer of money" which are "hampering the expansion of relations in the field of economy and commerce".

The communication firmly states that India's "attitude towards Iran should be changed" and places on record Iran's expectation "that its name is deleted from circulars and orders and all restrictions imposed are removed" as they are "not in conformity with the historical and cordial ties between the two countries".

There is no doubt that USA and Israel are dictating India's Iran policy for more than a decade. There is no other explanation for the sea change in New Delhi's attitude since 2003 when we invited President Khatami as chief guest at our Republic Day celebrations. The UPA regime (2004-14) is responsible for the shift which naturally angered Iran.

To please Washington-Tel Aviv, Manmohan Singh's government which was then negotiating the controversial civil nuclear deal with USA, voted three times in four years against Iran at IAEA. India's vote against Iran in 2005, 2006 and 2009 were rightly condemned by Left parties as a sell-out to USA-Israel.

Tehran quietly mended its fences with Washington culminating in the historic nuclear accord between Iran and the international community unveiled in Vienna on 14 July. But Israel still remains Iran's enemy. And Israel's growing clout in New Delhi (thanks to Modi's fondness for the Jewish nation) does impact India's treatment of Iran.

Significantly, even as Indian private and state-run companies are salivating at the prospects of an economic bonanza in Iran with the lifting of sanctions and there is talk of Modi visiting Iran during his trip to the Middle East this year, New Delhi's official response to Iran's 14 July agreement with world powers has been conspicuously muted and lukewarm although most countries went into raptures.

Nailing the Israeli factor in New Delhi's low-key response, Krishnan Srinivasan, former Foreign Secretary, no less, wrote in The Telegraph: "Unlike the rest of the world, the Indian reaction, probably influenced by Israel, has been tepid, despite the economic prospects that the agreement opens for India in access to energy and Central Asia."

Rajinder Kumar, who recently retired as Special Director of Intelligence Bureau and is one of India's foremost experts on counter-intelligence experts vis-à-vis Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran, told Firstpost that Iran is "essentially a friendly nation and there are no major security issues between us but we were concerned by its support to groups demonstrating during President Bush's visit and propagation of ideology inciting people against our other friends".

By 'other friends', Kumar means Israel, which even a known hawk in the security establishment like Kumar, is wary of naming considering growing Israeli clout in India. But Kumar's remarks reinforce Srinivasan's observation about Israel's shadow on India-Iran relations.

Another sore point is the demonisation of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), particularly in the wake of detention of our tanker M T Desh Shanti in 2013. Probanly taking the cue from External Affairs Ministry, the Indian media painted IRGC as a rogue organization beyond the control of civilian authorities - a la ISI.

But Indian officials who served in Iran say it's unfair to mention IRGC and ISI in the same breath. They told Firstpost that while ISI is an extra-constitutional outfit reporting to Pakistani army chief, IRGC is directly controlled by the Supreme Leader or Rahbar heading Iran's constitutional structure. The Rahbar is elected by the Assembly of Experts - a body of 86 clerics elected for eight years. The Rahbar, ranked higher than the President, appoints a major-general to head IRGC who is answerable and him - the nation's highest constitutional authority. In that sense, IRGC is accountable just like our RAW or IB.

Vilifying IRGC, which has the final say in security, intelligence and defence matters, is surely not a good idea. It's Iran's eyes and ears - and fighting arm. New Delhi's strategic interests inside Iran and in the tough neighbourhood where we have a stake, are best served by maintaining a cordial relationship with IRGC which dutifully ensures the security of our missions in Bandar Abbas and Zahedan monitoring Pakistan safely from Iranian soil.

Now is the time for India to address Iranian concerns and grievances conveyed verbally and in writing to New Delhi. India has every right to cultivate USA and Israel but not by humiliating a traditional friend like Iran which has always stood by us. We must give Iran its due before relations become really sour.

The ball, as they say, is now in India's court. Let's see whether Modi, who warmly shook hands with Rouhani on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit at Ufa in Russia, takes a leaf out of the first BJP Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's book and genuinely reaches out to Iran to reset ties in India's national interest.

Foreign Minister and chief architect of the nuclear accord Javad Zarif's visit to New Delhi on August 14 provides India a perfect opportunity to make a new beginning with an old friend.

SNM Abdi is a Firstpost columnist and former Deputy Editor of Outlook

Updated Date: Aug 10, 2015 22:52 PM

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