By MAJ GEN N K BHATIA
Iran will swear in ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi as the new President of Iran on 5 August 2021. India will be attending his inauguration and will be represented by its External Affairs Minister. There is an equal measure of hope as well as challenges in the Indo-Iranian bilateral relations in the backdrop of geo-political developments that primarily impact both countries.
President elect Ebrahim Raisi will hold his position with blessings and under shadows of Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, having been elected to his position with a dubious record of being a prosecutor for the Islamic regime wherein his main claim to fame has been his role as the lead prosecutor in trial of political opponents of the Islamic regime during its one of the troubled times in 1988. This had led to mass elimination of political prisoners that were considered opposed to Iran’s Shiite regime. Thereafter he has continued to serve in various judicial appointments, prominently as Tehran’s prosecutor, head of the General Inspection Organization, prosecutor general of the Special Court of the Clergy, and a deputy chief justice.
Raisi has also held the position of vice president of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, a key institution that will select Iran’s next supreme leader after 82-year-old Khamenei. It is strongly rumoured that Ebrahim Raisi will don the mantle of Supreme Leader after Ayatollah Ali Khameni, and his new position is in preparation for the ultimate role in Iran’s theocratic set up.
Elevation of Ebrahim Raisi as President of Iran has almost eliminated the ambitions and hopes of any moderate Iranian leader to emerge in the current setup. His election therefore is a sure shot guarantee to push its majority young population into isolation and away from any meaningful role in affairs of state. Iran’s majority population comprising women and youth thus looks at the future with a sense of frustration and dismay. It is anybody’s guess as to how the new regime will tackle the simmering unrest that is brewing within its society.
The recent riots over drought situation and the consequential firing by security forces on a hapless population in the Southern Iranian province of Khuzestan leading to the death of innocents is the most recent example of discontentment within Iranian society. Response of Iranian authorities has been harsh and shows one of the many challenges that the new President will face.
The domestic situation in Iran is the direct fallout of its policies and plans to exacerbate and foment the fragile and delicately poised situation in the Persian Gulf region, in a direct challenge to the established world order in the region. As stated by the new President elect Ebrahim Raisi in his first press conference after his election, Iran’s “regional activities and ballistic missile programme” were non-negotiable”, thereby indicating that he would continue to progress its nuclear and missile programmes and support for its Shia proxies. The statement also clearly indicated that Iran’s confrontationist stand was unlikely to change any time soon. To the contrary the Iranian activities have only become more profound in the backdrop of targeting of Iranian nuclear scientists through remotely controlled means and stand-off between western Navies and actions of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy and Coast Guard in the Gulf region of Middle East.
In the latest incidents over the last few days an Israeli-managed tanker off the Omani coast was attacked leading to killing of two crew members. In another attack, an oil tanker was seized in the Gulf off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Both incidents have been attributed to Iran backed forces. Retaliatory action against Iranian forces is a certainty, revealing the fragile nature of the situation in the gulf.
However, the main reason for economic woes of Iran, its nuclear programme, and consequences thereof, seem to be impacting all spheres of Iranian state. Prior to the election of Ebrahim Raisi all stakeholders and signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had begun a series of negotiations to resolve the issues relating to Iranian nuclear programme. After substantial negotiations over six rounds, the talks halted after the election of Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi. Currently, there appears to be a stalemate in the talks and Iranian economic woes continue unabated, imposing hardships on its hapless population.
The Indo-Iranian bilateral relations have been on the down swing for a while, primarily due to reasons relating to geo politics and worsening US-Iran stand-off on nuclear issues, leading to economic sanctions that precluded any bilateral trade that was the backbone of relationship between the two countries. Resultantly bilateral relations have been in a free fall notwithstanding statements to the contrary by both sides.
But in fast paced developments that impacted Iran as well as India in equal measure, Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr Jai Shankar paid a flying visit to Tehran en route to Moscow on 07 July 2021. The visit of EAM was borne out of necessity for India in the backdrop of rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where interests of both India and Iran converge. The rapid advance of Taliban forces and its occupation of large tracts of rural territory, more importantly towards North Afghanistan, would have for sure rattled Iran since it has considerable interest in the region, including support for the large Shia population.
Although Iran has been a vocal critic of US and western troop presence in the region and had supported the US-Taliban Agreement and their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the pace of rapid advance of Taliban would surely have surprised Iranians as much as it has surprised other nations, including Indians.
India remains interested in Afghanistan and is looking for ways to remain relevant in the emerging equations in that country. With Pakistan being totally opposed to Indian role in Afghanistan, it is but natural that India made an exploration of options to engage with Iran to open up to new equations that may emerge in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future. As things stand today, Iran appears India’s only hope to give its interests a push in Afghanistan if Taliban is able to gain a foothold in Afghanistan in coming days. As of now, how things play out in the days ahead remains uncertain.
Indo-Iran bilateral relations have many facets and dimensions, stretching from oil imports to connectivity. How these unfold and attain full measure of semblance is difficult to predict. But renewed engagement between the two nations with a sense of urgency rekindles hopes for the future.
(The author is Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)