“India should have shown more backbone,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told Indian journalists visiting Tehran recently. Zarif was speaking before the drone strike which killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s tragic accidental downing of a Ukranian passenger plane. But he had good reason for his criticism. India and Iran have always been close allies through thick and thin, both before and after the Iranian revolution in 1979. In recent years, though, US sanctions have forced India to cut back on trade and buying much cheaper oil from Iran due to fear of annoying Wahington. The Iranians understand why India’s been forced to follow the US sanctions regime but are naturally peeved. “If you remember high school, the bully usually starts with the smallest kid in the class and then goes on,” Soleimani had said.
Zarif was slated to be in New Delhi this week for the Raisina Dialogue, and word is he’s still likely to come, despite turmoil following Soleimani’s assassination.
India’s sought to keep ties good with Iran even when the US has disapproved. Last September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York. In December, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar visited Iran. This came after India got the green signal from the US to go ahead with the strategically vital Chabahar project that will offer land-locked Afghanistan a chance to avoid Pakistani ports. The Iranians had been annoyed India dragging its feet on building the Chabahar Port. But India agreed in December to accelerate work on the project.
India and Iran have other common interests because we’ve both got borders with Pakistan. India also maintains a consulate at Zahedan, in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province close to Pakistan’s border. In Afghanistan, too, India and Iran have frequently found themselves on the same side, opposing the Taliban. Jaishankar was in Tehran again last week, soon after Soleimani’s death. Iran and India live in a tough neighbourhood and need each other in many ways. And that’s why we have to follow our own regional imperatives even at the expense of upsetting the US, which has very different interests in the Gulf.
The writer is Editorial Consultant with BusinessLine