Iran and India: Still an Essential Relationship in the Aftermath of the JCPoA

16 May 2018 Dr Auriol Weigold, FDI Senior Visiting Fellow

Background

Alter some years of negotiations, Iran agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) with the US, the UK, Russia, China, France and Germany in 2015, to find on 8 May that US President Trump, in line with his election undertaking to end it, had withdrawn the United States from the JCPoA. The effect on Iran’s regional relations and on the relationships with the US of the other JCPoA members has yet to emerge. India’s relationship with Iran is multi-focused and longstanding, while its relationship with the US experienced setbacks and delays in the implementation of their nuclear agreement, signed in December 2006. Ever-closer bilateral agreements with India, however, remain high on the US Indo-Pacific policy agenda, but, in the wake of Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPoA, that may require even more deft management to achieve.

Comment

The Indo-Iranian relationship is a significant and evolving factor in the regional politics of South and West Asia and the two countries’ strategic co-operation is deep. India maintains that diplomacy and dialogue should prevail in resolving the crisis, but the compliance demands placed by the US on its partners may strain its own relationship with India.

India’s ability to push back against China, which it now perceives to be encircling it, depends on having access to Afghanistan and, through it, to Central Asia and Europe. The way for it to do that is through its development of Iran’s Chabahar port, which also provides the vital benefit of a trilateral transit and trade agreement that bypasses Pakistan. India’s ratification of the road transport convention (TIR) and its further commitment to build a rail connection from Chabahar port to Zahedan, in Iran’s Baluchestan Province, will facilitate trade movement and cement its relationship with Iran, as well as bypassing China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative.

India first agreed to operationalise the Chabahar port some 15 years ago, during the prime ministership of Atal Vajpayee. Aware of the duration of the Indo-Iranian relationship, it became a focus of some anxiety in Washington about India’s regional political and strategic objectives. The Indo-Iranian relationship has a deep base that may well withstand the newest pressures on it.

India’s relationship with Iran in the period after Indian independence in 1947 had periods of both stress and improvement and, at the end of the Cold War, shared security threat perceptions around US ties with Arab states brought them closer. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visited Iran in 1993 and President Hashemi Rafsanjani visited India in 1995. In 2001, the Teheran Declaration paved the way for energy and commercial initiatives for which India would supply the necessary infrastructure while Iran would supply India with liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs announced as an outcome of the Declaration the ‘vast potential of bilateral co-operation’ across a range of fields, and both sides affirmed the importance of peace, security and stability in the region. The India-Iran Strategic Dialogue was another outcome of the Teheran Declaration and, at the first meeting in October 2001, addressed the above issues. The relationship developed further with the 2003 signing of the New Delhi Declaration that broadened the areas of interest and co-operation. Significantly, a commitment was made to more robust defence co-operation. The key instrument signed was a Road Map to Strategic Co-operation, which set out a framework for meeting the objectives of the New Delhi Declaration, including the development of Chabahar Port, with rail links and a north-south corridor to further consolidate the partnership.

Succumbing to US pressure, India voted against Iran’s nuclear technology development at International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meetings in the run-up to the signing of the Indo-US nuclear agreement and at several subsequent meetings. India did give Teheran a boost (although not to be realised) in April 2007 at the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) summit, when it proposed observer status for Iran despite strong US lobbying to the contrary.

The Indo-US nuclear agreement, and its possible failure in the light of India’s early intractable positions on its sovereign rights, was resolved in 2007 under an agreement, Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, which required strong negotiating skills and diplomatic balancing on India’s part.

India now maintains that diplomacy and dialogue should prevail among the JCPoA partners and will bring its skills to bear in the coming dialogue to keep some form of the Iran nuclear agreement in place.

In pursuit of its agreement to develop Chabahar Port and India’s trade and transit routes north and west, while further broadening the relationship with Iran, nine further agreements were signed at a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Iranian President Dr Hassan Rouhani on his visit to Delhi in mid-February 2018, further cementing their co-operation. India’s relations with Iran are essential to its circumnavigation of China and its place as a growing regional power. The US, in balancing power in the region, also sees as essential its bilateral agreements with India.

An outcome pushed by Washington that leaves Iran to its own agenda within any remainder of the JCPoA, may see India sanctioned for maintaining its essential relationship with Iran. Such an outcome is likely to see further complexity and the possibility of greater geopolitical instability in the western Indian Ocean Region.

About the Author

Dr Auriol Weigold is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Government and Politics, Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra. She has been a Fellow and Honorary Fellow at the Australian Prime Ministers Centre at Old Parliament House, Canberra, between 2010 and 2015, publishing on Australian and Indian prime ministerial relationships. In 2016, she spent a period as a Guest Scholar at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies at Shimla. Previously, she was Convenor of the BA International Studies at the University of Canberra and an Editor of the South Asia Masala weblog, hosted by the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. In 2008, she published her first book: ‘Churchill, Roosevelt and India: Propaganda during World War II’. Since then, she has co-edited and contributed to two further books. Her research interests include the Australia-India bilateral relationship, India’s energy and security needs, and Indo-British relations in the 1940s.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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