India’s aim of joining the group was to be on board to remain engaged with Central Asian nations and participate in their development through opening up of trade and commerce.
By BRIG N K BHATIA
The two back-to-back visits of two Indian leaders to Tehran within a span of one week reveals the significance of Iran to India’s quest for peace and stability in the region besides expanding ties with Central Asia and Afghanistan. A significant aspect of the visits, first by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and followed by Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar , in between the ongoing Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) meetings in Moscow; first of the SCO Defence Ministers from 03 to 04 September to be followed by Foreign Ministers meeting from 10 to 11 September 2020 can not be ignored.
SCO over the last decade has emerged as an important grouping of nations, led by China and Russia to bring together Central Asian countries. India’s aim of joining the group was to be on board to remain engaged with Central Asian nations and participate in their development through opening up of trade and commerce.
India simultaneously had always relied on its relations with Iran to access Central Asia and Afghanistan. Membership of SCO, where Iran now enjoys the status of an observer and dialogue partner,coupled with good relations with Iran and establishing economic links through connectivity was therefore a logical way to enhance Indian footprints in the region.
The recent cooling off of ties between India and Iran in the backdrop of fast paced regional developments, and due to Iran’s growing desire to control the narrative in Middle East and Gulf and emerge as the pivot of anti-American alliance shaping in the region had brought it closer to China.
With both Iran and China working on a strategic agreement with a framework of US $ 400 Billion, contours of which were exposed recently, revealed how the two countries had closed up in the recent times. Although it is any body’s guess as to when the Chinese cheques finally land in Iranian hands. But the strategic alliance reflects on Chinese desire to forge closer ties with Iran for achieving its goal of Belt and Road Initiative to open up to Turkey, Europe and countries of Central Asia.
India- China troop stand-off beginning from middle of May this year has not only exacerbated tensions in the region but for now may have jeopardised the connectivity and related issues. It would for sure forced the Chinese to have a rethink on expanding its footprints through Belt and Road Initiative, which is the cornerstone of its expansionist foreign policy and economic goals.
It is here that Iran’s centrality to play a crucial role comes into play on multiple fronts impacting both India, Iran and China. Chinese may not be averse to Iran playing a mediating role.
Moving further towards Afghanistan,Iran has played a prominent role in peace overtones and evolving situation in Afghanistan having guided and mentored Taliban in signing the Peace Accord in Doha on 29 February between USA and Taliban. It would therefore play an important role in Afghanistan-Taliban talks and post reconciliation process in Afghanistan. India would certainly have this aspect in mind while engaging with Iran, for continued engagement with Afghanistan and its people.
From Indian view point connectivity with Central Asia and Afghanistan through Chabahar remains crucial with close to US $ 500 million having gone to its development. In spite of Indian non-participation in development of Chabahar-Zahedan rail line the operation of Chabahar port has continued unhindered and it is unlikely that operation of the port may be impacted in future.
The visit of two prominent Indian Ministers to Teheran within a span of a week therefore assumes significance given Iran’s position to influence China to come on the negotiating table for peace with India as any escalation on Indo-China Line of Control would impact China and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through the areas close to it. It would also be a significant impediment for China to achieve its strategic ambitions.
The outlying aim of India and China as one of the goals of their foreign policy is connectivity. And Iran has emerged a key player with a pivotal role and in this respect for both the countries to achieve their goals.
Indian initiative to connect with Iran shows Indian sincerity to engage with Iran and get the troubled relations back to their knees. Iran has also to realise that it’s single minded pursuit of hostile agenda with disregard to bilateral relations is hurting it and its people.
Iranmust have also had a rethink of the current state of Indo-Iran bilateral relations and how non engagement with India isolated it. India is not a push over and maintains a steady relationship with Iran’s neighbours. Iran must have realised that it can benefit more, were it to fester long and consistent good relations with India.
As regards SCO, Iran is at the threshold of attaining full membership of SCO with India supporting the move. With China at forefront of leading the SCO it will provide an opportunity to all the three countries to collectively enhance the role and significance of the SCO initiative.
With India having opened up to Iran with high profile visits, it would now be the turn of Iranians to deliver on mutually beneficial goals.
(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)