India-Iran relations at nadir
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - India's relations with Iran have hit a low. A fortnight ago, India
abstained on a United Nations resolution critical of the human-rights situation
in Iran. It had hitherto supported Iran by voting against this resolution.
The vote comes close on the heels of a statement issued by Iran's Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling on Muslims to rescue "nations from the
demonic clutches of hegemonic powers". Among the "nations" that needed
rescuing, according to the ayatollah, was Kashmir, parts of which are
administered by Indian and Pakistan.
"The major duty of the elite of the Islamic ummah [brotherhood] is to
provide help to the Palestinian nation and the besieged people of Gaza, to
sympathize and provide assistance to the nations of
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Kashmir," Khamenei said in a message to hajj
Khamenei's reference to Kashmir as a "nation" that needed rescuing ruffled
feathers in Delhi. An annoyed India summoned the Iranian charge d'affaires in
Delhi and issued him a demarche, expressing India's "deep disappointment and
regret" over the remarks.
This is the third time since July that Iran has needled India on the Kashmir
issue. In July, Khamenei spoke of Iran's sympathy for "the oppressed people" of
Kashmir. Then in September, the Iranian Foreign Ministry criticized the killing
of protesters in Kashmir who were protesting the alleged desecration of the
Koran in the United States.
"It was perfectly acceptable for Muslims to react to the desecration of the
Koran and countering such reactions could be interpreted as supporting acts of
sacrilege," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. India responded by issuing Iran
a demarche and also banning an Iranian television channel - Press TV, which had
telecast inflammatory visuals - from broadcasting in Kashmir.
Indian commentators have linked Iran's provocation of India on Kashmir to its
irritation with Delhi's warming ties with the US. In 2005-06, a period when
India was in crucial negotiations with the US on a civilian nuclear deal, it
repeatedly voted against Iran's nuclear program via the International Atomic
Energy Agency, triggering suspicions that it had done so under US pressure.
Likewise, its decision to pull out of the Iran-Pakistan-India oil pipeline
project is believed to have been prompted by the Americans.
Analysts have said that Iran's adoption of the Kashmir cause as its own is part
of a larger attempt to assume the leadership mantle for the Muslim world.
"Because of their close association with the US, Saudi Arabia and other Arab
governments have lost respectability in the eyes of the Muslims worldwide.
Their espousal of issues that agitate Muslims across the world lacks
credibility," Raziuddin Aquil, a history professor at Delhi University, told
Asia Times Online. None of the Arab governments are questioning the US role in
Afghanistan or Iraq. It is into this leadership vacuum that Iran has stepped.
Its highlighting of struggles that Muslim communities are waging, whether in
Gaza or Kashmir, must be seen in this context, Aquil said.
India's sharp response to Iran is not surprising. Kashmir is an issue on which
India has always been unwilling to suffer interference or comments, however
mild. Even visiting heads of state have not been spared a public ticking off
for unsolicited advice on resolving the problem. Iran's repeated needling of
India on Kashmir was therefore bound to have repercussions. The Indian
withdrawal of support for Iran in the UN, through its abstention in the vote on
its human-rights record, was the result.
While the US role in determining the depth and direction of India-Iran
relations is significant, there are other factors that are equally, if not more
According to P R Kumaraswamy, who teaches West Asian politics at the Jawaharlal
Nehru University in New Delhi, the Arabs are very worried about Iran, a view
that has been laid bare by WikiLeaks' latest disclosures of US diplomats'
cables. In private conversations, the Arabs clearly say that Tehran is a
Arab countries figure in a big way on India's radar in terms of energy, trade
and work opportunities for Indians. Millions of Indians work in various Arab
countries, accounting for around 40% of remittances to India. Their number is
expected to increase by 5-10% in the coming decade. Trade stands at US$114
billion and is expected to double by 2014. India's crude oil imports are mainly
from Arab countries - Saudi Arabia (18%), Kuwait (10%), Iraq (9%) and the
United Arab Emirates (8%). In comparison, Iran accounts for 14% of India's
"India can override US and Israeli concerns vis-a-vis Iran, but it cannot
ignore Arab pressure," Kumaraswamy said, stressing that in crafting its Iran
policy, "India is accommodating Arab concerns". The Arab world, he points out,
plays a more influential role in India's foreign policy than is commonly
Indian analysts often draw attention to the long civilizational bonds that have
existed between India and Iran. Indeed, trade and cultural ties go back several
However, relations have not always been smooth. India and Iran were on opposite
sides during the Cold War. Iran under the shah was a close ally of the
Americans and Pakistanis. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, ties were
again tense as Iran warmed up to Islamic Pakistan rather than secular India.
It was in the early 1990s that India-Iran relations improved. In 1994, Iran
stopped a Pakistan-led Organization of the Islamic Conference attempt to table
a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council condemning India's human rights
violations in Kashmir. Ties grew thereafter, blossoming in a shared antipathy
to the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban. India worked with Iran and Russia to provide
support through Tajikistan to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance.
India and Iran have signed agreements on transport corridors, supply of
liquefied natural gas (LNG) and so on. But several of these deals haven't moved
beyond the planning stage, or have run into problems. Although Iran is an
important source of energy, technological bottlenecks and Tehran's hiking the
price of LNG have undermined Iran's role as a source of energy for India.
Iran's supply of oil and gas "lacks supply reliability", Kumaraswamy pointed
With Pakistan refusing India overland access to Afghanistan, Iran is key to
India's land access to there and beyond to Central Asia. Some analysts have
warned that its increasing spats with Iran could cost India dearly in this
regard. Besides, at a time when Delhi is concerned over the resurgence of the
Taliban, can India afford to lose an important ally in Iran on the Afghan
Kumaraswamy points out that "Iran cooperated with India on Afghanistan in the
past not out of generosity, but because there was a convergence of interests."
Just as shared interests prompted Iran to cooperate with the Americans in Iraq,
so also in Afghanistan Iran can be expected to work with India vis-a-vis the
Taliban, although they have serious differences on the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization's role in Afghanistan.
To Iran and many here in India too, Delhi's positions on Iran's nuclear program
are increasingly the outcome of American influence on India's Iran policy.
However, the truth is far more complex. India's policy is closer to the Arab
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in