India and Iran have signed 15 memoranda of understanding in a renewed attempt to encourage a strategic relationship. Following President Rouhani’s visit to India, it was announced on Saturday, 17th of February, that the states will seek coordination in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan by combatting extremism and drug trafficking in the region, as well as further develop energy and transport infrastructure and stimulate Indian investment in Iran. Indian development of the deep-water Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran and construction of a railway from the Port to Zahedan, located within proximity of the Afghan border, is amongst the most strategically significant projects mentioned.
The leaders from both states attested to the strength of the bilateral relationship, and its ability to bring about positive change. Modi stated, “We both will work for restoring peace, stability, prosperity and a pluralistic system in Afghanistan.” Echoing this sentiment, Rouhani pointed to the potential for the relationship to also lead to an expansion of this cooperation in working towards resolving instabilities in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
The move to deepen strategic bilateral ties is a positive step for both states, particularly due to the nature of the partnership, which is not relying on military relations to forge an alliance. Certainly, the areas agreed upon action support both India and Iran’s vital interests. Development of Chabahar Port will contribute to energy security and transport stability, with the project providing an alternative transit route to crossing Pakistani territory – a great vulnerability for India. As such, India will have a more secure method of import and export, the latter of which has huge economic potential given the previously hard to reach markets of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Iran, currently India’s third-largest crude oil supplier, is largely dependent on fossil fuel exports and as such Chabahar Port and railway development are also significant. Furthermore, the 5 memoranda seeking greater ease for Indian investment in Iran comes at a time when American hostility has potential to jeopardise the economic relief brought about by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The state of relations between India and Iran has previously been marked by vicissitudes, despite the current leader’s assertion of strong ties underpinned by historical and cultural bonds. Issues of contention have included Iranian support for Kashmiri separatism, as well as India’s siding with Western criticism of Iran’s nuclear programme pre-JCPOA. As such there have been two previous attempts to strengthen the bilateral partnership, including the 2001 Tehran Declaration, and the 2003 Delhi Declaration, both of which failed. However, for the India-Iran partnership to withstand this time, diplomatic complexities regarding third-party states, notably India’s ties with the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Chinese-Iranian relationship, will have to be tolerated.
The implications of a robust strategic relationship between India and Iran are prohibitively vast to account for, operating at global, regional and local levels.
If Indian-Iranian aspirations for the Chabahar Port and larger International North-South Transport Corridor railway project come to fruition, the geopolitical implications are tremendous. This would be in direct competition, economically and potentially militarily, with the Chinese-sponsored Pakistani Gwadar Port and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure project. Whether this prospect would enhance or erode peace and stability depends if it ‘balanced’ or provoked China.
Complexities surrounding instability in Afghanistan are prominent and peace seems unlikely in the short-term; however, one may hope that a legitimate unified approach by India and Iran may change this.
A final consideration to make is the impact this relationship indirectly has on the population of India, with approximately USD$2billion of public funds committed to infrastructure outside of India in Iran – there is a trade-off between medium-to-long-term national stability and short-term domestic security and development.
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