By Vivek Katju
15 February 2018
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani begins a three-day visit to India on 15 February in the backdrop of grave challenges at home and in the region.
Rising prices of food and fuel amidst high unemployment in Iran led to 10 days of violent countrywide agitation from 28 December. It pushed Rouhani, who had claimed that the economy will see an upturn following the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, on the backfoot.
Ironically, the future of the nuclear deal itself has become clouded as Trump continues to threaten not to abide by it. A month ago, he re-certified it to the US Congress, but while doing so, asserted that he was doing so for the last time unless it was modified to his satisfaction.
Trump wants Iran to abandon uranium enrichment permanently, not just till 2025 as specified in the agreement. He also wants it to curb its ballistic missile programme.
But Iran will never agree to these demands. The other P-5 countries and Germany who are part of the deal are opposed to Trump, especially as the UN agencies have certified that Iran has scrupulously adhered to the deal till date.
As Trump has to certify the deal again in mid-May, the regional balance will be further impacted unless he climbs down.
Iran had begun to adopt a more assertive stance in West Asia as the lifting of sanctions gave it more elbow-room – it will now have to become more realistic, despite all its rhetoric. Rouhani, who drove the nuclear deal despite great hard-line pressure within Iran, will have to show enormous skill to navigate the difficulties that lie ahead.
How Should India Deal With Rouhani and Iran at This Stage?
Iran has a complex system of governance with many and often competing power centres. The elected President and government as well as the Parliament are always guided by the Supreme Leader who actually is at the apex of the clerical establishment.
The Revolutionary Guards are committed to upholding the values of the Khomeini revolution and are accountable not to the President, but to the Supreme Leader.
This has been a wise way of dealing with Iran and needs to continue, especially at this stage. Thus, the Rouhani visit provides an opportunity to focus not only on bilateral cooperation issues such as in the energy and connectivity sectors but on the regional situation too.
That India is reliant on West Asian countries for its oil and gas needs is obvious. However, these countries are also aware that, as the US is no longer dependent on its oil needs from this region, they need the Indian market. Thus, the energy relationship can be transformed from a simple buyer-seller matrix to one in which India can meaningfully participate in the entire energy industry.
It would be appropriate to convey to Rouhani that India expects Iran to take the changed scenario into account and to treat Indian companies fairly.
It is also a fact that the pre-nuclear deal US sanctions regime had made oil purchases from Iran and participation in projects in the energy and other sectors exceedingly difficult. Restrictions on Iranian banks and US’ blacklisting companies dealing with Iran effectively inhibited joint action.
It would be best to let the companies decide but continue to purchase oil and gas, as in the past.
The Chabahar port and industrial free zone project is important for India’s strategic interests. Prime Minister Modi needs to ensure that an impetus is given to its implementation. This visit provides an opportunity to discuss all its aspects so that it becomes fully operational in the shortest time, and movement of goods via Chabahar into Afghanistan and beyond becomes viable.
On the regional front, Modi may use the opportunity to assess Rouhani’s thinking, inter-alia, on the Afghan situation where a complete shift of alignments has taken place. Iran and Russia along with Pakistan are now supporting the Taliban.
This has added to the group’s intransigence and violent opposition to the Ghani/Abdullah government, apart from encouraging Pakistan to continue with its support to anti-India and anti-Afghan terrorist groups.
The Rouhani visit will showcase Modi’s successful and active West Asia diplomacy. He has dealt separately with different countries to promote Indian interests, both economic and strategic, which are very substantial in the region.
As the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post noted in its edition of 13 February, “Modi’s welcome of Netanyahu, followed quickly by his current trip to the Palestinian Authority, Oman and the United Arab Emirates and now his hosting of Rouhani reflects his foreign policy of being able to deal individually, for the benefit of India, with different countries even if they are loggerheads”.
Vivek Katju is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs.