M D Nalapat
Iran has figured significantly in the Indian strategic calculus for a considerable period of time. Although relations with that important country were strained during the period when the Shah of Iran ruled the Peacock throne, they became better when Mohammad Khatami was President. He succeeded in ensuring an increase in the number of Iranian students studying in Indian universities, and presided over an increase in trade and in other contacts. As President, Hashemi Rafsanjani also paid a lot of attention to India, a link that has continued even after he stepped down from that post. However, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has not been as attentive towards the importance of India, and ties have become weaker since he took office. Part of the reason has been the rise in tensions between Iran and two allies of India, the US and Israel. During his first visit to Tehran, this columnist saw several banners and signboards wishing death to Israel and the US, and in his talk to students at Shahid Behesti University, began by pointing out that India regarded both Israel and the US as very close allies, and if anyone in the audience objected to listening to a speaker admitting that fact, she or he was welcome to leave. However, the natural good manners of the Persian people asserted themselves over the hatred for the US and Israel that forms an intrinsic part of some elements of Iranian society, and nobody left the hall. This great culture, one that has lasted for thousands of years, is one of the major reasons why India and Iran are likely to remain close to each other.
The Shah of Iran was a close ally of the US, which is probably why he took a very strong pro-Pakistan position during both the 1965 as well as the 1971 conflict between India and the world’s second-most populous Muslim country (after Indonesia). As a result of the clear tilt of the Shah of Iran towards Pakistan, relations with Delhi suffered, and remained chilly till the Shah abdicated in 1979. Soon after that, the war between Iraq and Iran started, and this became the cause for India to withdraw its military trainers from Iraq, as there was no intention to take sides in a conflict between two of the most important countries of the Middle East. The withdrawal of military cooperation by India annoyed Saddam Hussein, especially as the Iraqi strongman had been as close a friend of India as Egypt’s Gamal abdel Nasser had been in the past. However, the gesture did not lead to any improvement in ties with Iran. These had to wait till Rafsanjani and Khatami took over.