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.
India was particularly grateful to Iran because that country did not join Saudi Arabia and Turkey in taking a pro-Pakistan line on Kashmir. Of course, for a long period (including the whole of the 1990s), almost the whole world sided with Pakistan on Kashmir, pushing for Delhi to release its grip on the country’s only Muslim-majority state. China, the EU and the US were on the Pakistan side, as were the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Only Russia was on India’s side. During those lonely daus, Iran was steadfast in not joining the Bill Clinton-led chorus on Kashmir, a fact that led to Delhi enhancing ties with that country, including transport projects that helped India to secure access to Central Asia in a context where it had been barred by Pakistan from accessing that region via Afghanistan. India emerged as a major market for Iranian hydrocarbon and as a source of refined fuel, a situation that continues to this day. Also, after voting against Iran in the IAEA because of the fear that otherwise the US Congress would vote against the India-US nuclear deal, India once again began to adopt a balanced stand, backing Iran’s right to nuclear technology though not to the atomic bomb. Trade continued to expand, despite US sanctions on Iran and silent pressure from Washington to cut off all links between Teheran and Delhi.
Iran being a Shia country and the Shias of Kashmir not sharing the same perceptions as the Sunnis of the Kashmir Valley about Indian rule, it had been assumed in Delhi that Tehran would not seek to stoke the Kashmir fire. And for decades, this was the case. It was therefore with shock that South Block listened to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, calling on Muslims all over the world to take action on Kashmir. This was a return to the policy followed by the Shah of Iran, and clearly Supreme Leader Khamenei was willing to sacrifice Iran’s ties with India and perhaps its business links in order to declare his support for the ongoing struggle in Kashmir. The External Affairs Ministry issued a demarche to the Iranian envoy to New Delhi - perhaps for the first time - and at the UN Human Rights debate, India abstained from voting against a resolution condemning human rights violations in Iran, whereas till then, it had always voted against such a motion and in support of Iran.
The resolution against Iran got passed by a huge majority, even though another key geopolitical player, Saudi Arabia, also abstained. The Ministry of External Affairs is watching to see if Supreme Leader Khamenei repeats the Kashmir comment. If he does, then business links will get affected, and India may join the US and the EU in the enforcement of sanctions against Iran Grand Ayatollah Khamenei obviously believes that India is no different from the US and Israel. Hence he sees not two but three satans, the US, Israel and India. Being Iranian, he exempts Europe from such a classification. The Iranian people have always had an affinity to Europe, and President Ahmedinejad himself has been seeking to improve ties with European countries, especially with Germany, a country much admired by him and by the Supreme Leader. Should Iran abandon its earlier stance on Kashmir and join with Pakistan in calling this an issue as core to the Muslim psyche as Palestine, that would mark a shift in Iranian policy in a way that would create substantial disquiet in India. The expectation has been that Iran would continue to be an important partner of India, a stand that has been explained to the US several times by India. However, to India, Kashmir is a core issue, over which there can be no compromise, except those that recognize Indian sovereignty.
How will the Iranian ruling group react to the anger in Delhi about Grand Ayatollah Khamenei’s comment? Today, the US and the EU have placed Kashmir on the back-burner, because of the need to develop better commercial ties with India. The growth of the Indian market has been so fast that it cannot be ignored. When Bill Clinton imposed harsh sanctions on India after the 1998 nuclear tests, the only losers were US companies, who were eliminated from competing against EU and other firms. Four years later, when several western governments created a false panic about a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, it was Ambassador Blackwill in Delhi and Colin Powell in Washington who came up with the idea of mass evacuation of nationals of the US and the EU from India. Although it was clear that the Pakistan army would never risk a nuclear retaliation by launching an attack on India, while India had a “No First Use” policy that eliminated any chance of striking first, the US administration and a few think-tank funded by the US Defense and State departments spread the propaganda that a nuclear war was imminent. The country that knows the Pakistan army best is China, and Chinese diplomats refused to join US and EU diplomats in running away from Delhi on the first flight that they could catch, together with tens of thousands of their fellow-countrymen. This ignominious flight led to a feeling of contempt for the countries that had ordered their nationals to run away from India, and helped ensure that thereafter, companies from Southeast and East Asia overtook Western companies in India.
Although Iran under Khamenei seems to have decided to make an enemy out of India, the good news for Delhi is that far more important country - China - seems to have become more sensitive to the fact that Kashmir is as core to India as Tibet is to China. By giving only stapled visas to Kasmiris, the Chinese had annoyed the Indians, but it seems that such a policy has been abandoned by Beijing. The giving up of stapled visas for Kashmiris will help make the atmosphere for Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India next month more productive. What has been lost in Iran seems to be getting gained in China. Just as Pakistan sees Kashmir as core, so does India. Hence the prospect of decades of tension between India and Pakistan. However, now Islamabad can be happy that it has found a champion in Supreme Leader Khamenei of Iran, who has called for a war against India on the issue of Kashmir.