The presence of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar at the swearing-in ceremony of Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran last Thursday constitutes a major foreign policy recalibration attuned to the historic changes under- way in the regional and international situation. As recently as on July 7, the EAM had called on President-elect Raisi in Tehran and handed over to him a message of greetings from Prime Minister Modi. He was in fact the first foreign dignitary to be received by Raisi after his election victory in June.
Yet, in an extraordinary gesture, Raisi received Jaishankar for a second time on Friday. These are anything but happenstances. Delhi and Tehran are conveying their abiding regard and respect for each other. All in all, Jaishankar has visited Tehran four times in the past 18 months, more than to any other country as foreign minister.
This diplomatic signalling coincides with a radical shift in the situation around Iran as well as in India’s political economy. Washington and Tehran are inching toward an agreement and a lifting of US sanctions against Iran. This assumes of course that stalemate suits neither side and risks conflict. Suffice to say, Iran is on the threshold of a transformative period that will be hugely consequential. In anticipation, as many as 73 countries from different continents, including the European Union, sent high-level delegations to attend the ceremony in Tehran. Iran’s integration into the world community has become unstoppable.
The hands-on role that the PM and EAM have assumed to navigate the relationship with Iran also shows a deep understanding of the realignments in the world order. India’s eagerness to charter a mutually beneficial relationship anchored on economic cooperation is self-evident. The lifting of sanctions will unlock Iran’s vast resources. Raisi, in his inaugural speech, stressed that his mandate in the June election is to improve people’s livelihoods, “making the economy resilient to shocks, curbing inflation, strengthening the national currency and restoring stability to the country’s economy, supporting national production and striving for self-sufficiency in meeting basic needs, technological progress” and the “optimal management of the country’s mines, water, gas and oil resources.”
A window of opportunity is opening for India, given the complementarity between the two economies. Iran is poised to enter an epochal era of reconstruction, rehabilitation and regeneration. India’s energetic participation in it holds promise of a ‘win-win’ outcome for their respective post-pandemic economic recovery. The government should think up big ideas in industrial collaboration, engineering projects, etc. apart from revving up trade and investment. Tehran is an irreplaceable partner for Delhi in regional connectivity, which makes India a stakeholder in Iran’s massive infrastructure development. Raisi welcomes the private sector. Again, India can turn its rapidly growing needs of energy into innovative paradigms that go beyond the buyer-seller relationship in oil trade. Iran is deeply interested in the Indian market.
Historically speaking, India’s broad empathy for the 1979 Iranian Revolution was almost instinctive. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s Foreign Minister at that time, and Indira Gandhi as well as the Foreign Minister during her tenure, PV Narasimha Rao, could sense the nationalist moorings of the revolution, its strident rhetoric of political Islam notwithstanding. The Indian leaders were at once struck by the similarity in the national aspirations of the two resurgent ‘civilisation states’.
Interestingly, Raisi began his inaugural speech on Thursday with a poignant invocation of Iran’s pre-Islamic past. He said, “The new government today stands on the heights that a world civilisation with several thousand years of history has built, a culture that has been at the forefront of human history for centuries, and, by combining monotheism and progress, has provided a model of spiritual life. The culture and civilisation of Greater Iran, when it embraced Islam, recreated this pattern of progress and became the forerunner of world knowledge and literature.”
India and Iran are natural allies as regards the centrality they attach to strategic autonomy in their foreign policies. Iran has been attracted to India’s robust sense of independence — and Tehran felt despondent whenever Delhi’s diplomatic peregrinations and foreign policies took revisionist hues during the past decade or so. Jaishankar would agree with the concluding words in Raisi’s speech: “The world is changing, and the pursuit of the interests of nations depends on understanding of the new world and strategic interaction with emerging powers and a successful foreign policy is a balanced foreign policy.”
Indian analysts have rightly highlighted the two countries’ convergence of interests over the situation in Afghanistan. Yet, it must be clearly understood that the halcyon days of their close cooperation or the momentary quasi-alliance in buttressing the anti-Taliban resistance at the end of the 1990s are no longer replicable. Simply put, circumstances have changed. Nonetheless, both India and Iran do enjoy strong convergence as regards regional security. Raisi told Jaishankar on Friday, “Iran and India can play a constructive and useful role in ensuring security in the region, especially Afghanistan, and Tehran welcomes New Delhi’s role in establishment of security in Afghanistan.”
Both support the Afghan government, whom they consider to be legitimate, and insist that there has to be a political settlement. Both are stakeholders in Afghanistan’s security and stability and both are staunchly opposed to foreign interference while pursuing their specific interests. Unlike India, Iran is vociferously critical of the US occupation of Afghanistan but that is a minor detail today. The commonality here underscores that the Indian leadership was prescient in its judgment forty years ago that Iran, emerging out of the tumultuous revolution, would be a factor of regional stability and a steady partner for India in its difficult neighbourhood.
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