Scripting a new chapter in India-Iran relations

tehran-1 Building on centuries of civilisational connect and shared interests amid a shifting regional geopolitical landscape, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to Tehran (May 22-23) opened a new chapter in India’s relations with an emerging power in the West Asia region. Enhancing connectivity and commerce, combined with rejuvenating cultural connections, were the overarching themes that framed the first standalone bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Iran in over a decade and culminated in a road map for advancing India-Iran relations in the next decades of the 21st centurytehran-4

PM Modi’s wide-ranging talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran have set the tone for expanding bilateral relations in areas of connectivity and infrastructure, energy partnership and bilateral trade and investment. The talks placed the India-Iran relations in a wider regional perspective and focussed on promoting regular consultations on peace and stability in the region and beyond, and encouraging people-to-people contacts and relations between the two countries. India and Iran signed 12 pacts in diverse areas including connectivity, trade, railways, security and cultural relations. “The agenda and scope of our partnership is truly substantial. The outcomes and agreements signed today open a new chapter in our strategic partnership,” said PM Modi at a joint media interaction with the Iranian leader.

The Chabahar moment

The showpiece of PM Modi’s maiden visit to Iran was the signing of a raft of agreements pivoted around India’s assistance to building of the Chabahar port, a game-changer for spurring connectivity in the region and providing access to the landlocked Afghanistan. “The bilateral agreement to develop the Chabahar port and related infrastructure, and availability of about US$ 500 million from India for this purpose, is an important milestone. This major effort would boost economic growth in the region. We are committed to take steps for early implementation of the agreements signed today,” said PM Modi. In yet another milestone, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani joined the Indian PM and President Rouhani in Tehran as the three leaders signed a landmark pact for Trilateral Transport & Transit Corridor. “This can alter the course of region’s history. The three-nation pact will strengthen our ability to stand in mutual support against those whose only motto is to maim and kill innocents,” he said, placing the deal against the backdrop of rising terrorism in the region.

Economic ties on upswing

Besides connectivity deals that will closely integrate the region in an arc of prosperity, India and Iran unveiled new initiatives to galvanise their economic relationship which is set to acquire a new vitality after the lifting of sanctions following Iran’s landmark nuclear deal with P5+1 countries. These include plans by Indian companies to set up plants in sectors such as fertilisers, petrochemicals and metallurgy in Chabahar Free Trade Zone (FTZ) and the setting up of Bilateral Ministerial Task Force to spur Indian investments in Chabahar FTZ. India is poised to play a transformative role in the development of railways in Iran through close collaboration between IRCON and Iran’s Construction, Development of Transport and Infrastructure Company (CDTIC).

The economic ties are set for an upswing with the two sides set to step up negotiations for an early conclusion of a Preferential Trade Agreement and Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement and Bilateral Investment. In a boost for Tehran’s economic prospects, India backed the accession of Iran to the World Trade Organisation. The opening of a regional office by Confederation of the Indian Industry (CII) will aid in enhancing the quantum of bilateral trade and investment.

India’s ongoing participation and investment in the development of oil and gas sector in Iran got a boost with the decision to conclude a commercial agreement for OVL’s participation in Farzad B gas block by the third quarter of 2016.

Focus on security 

Another important takeaway was the decision to deepen security and counter-terror cooperation. India and Iran agreed to enhance interaction between defence and security institutions, with special focus on maritime security. Amid the flux and volatility in the West Asia region, the two sides vowed to combat terrorism and radicalism. “India and Iran share a crucial stake in peace, stability and prosperity of the region. We have shared concerns at the spread of forces of instability, radicalism and terror in our region. We have agreed to consult closely and regularly on combating threats of terrorism, radicalism, drug trafficking and cyber-crime,” said PM Modi.

Cultural connect

The essence of India-Iran relationship remains an enduring civilisational bonding and this was reflected in the signing of some culture-related pacts. The inking of an MoU between the ICCR and the Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation (ICRO), renewal of cultural exchange programme, setting up of an eminent persons group to explore new avenues of cooperation, establishing a Chair for Hindi language in Tehran University and supporting the Persian language courses in India are set to rejuvenate cultural relations and promote greater people-to-people contacts between the two nations. “India and Iran are not new friends. Our dosti (friendship) is as old as history. Through centuries, our societies have stayed connected through art and architecture, ideas and traditions, and culture and commerce,” said PM Modi. This sentiment was heartily reciprocated by Iran’s top leadership.

The net takeaway from the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Tehran was the initiation of a set of steps for transformation of India-Iran relations by moving beyond buyer-seller relationship in the energy sector to a comprehensive economic and strategic partnership. PM Modi’s visit to Tehran took place barely a couple of months after his trip to Riyadh and signalled New Delhi’s strategic design to bolster relationships with major powers in the region.

Only half-a-step

Taking a long-range view, which was reflected in the joint statement, “Civilisational Connect, Contemporary Context,” PM Modi summed up the future trajectory of the evolving India-Iran relationship in simple but resonant words: “Our friendship will be a factor of stability in our region.” Iconic Persian poet Ghalib said it beautifully in his couplet, quoted by Mr Modi: “Once we make up our mind, the distance between Kaashi and Kaashan is only half a step.”


(This article was originally published in India Perspectives)

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