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As Ebrahim Raisi takes over as President, are India-Iran ties heading for a grand re-set?

On August 5, Islamic Republic of Iran witnessed the change of baton. Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, known as conservative and a hardliner, took the oath of office as the next President. Despite his Teflon quoted image,  insiders say that Raisi also has a streak of hard pragmatism in him, which reveals itself under exceptional circumstances.  

As in the past, the results of Iran’s presidential elections were preordained. The Guardian Council, the body that oversees polls,  had already vetted candidates,  which gave Raisi a natural advantage as a frontrunner. Besides, Iranians were looking for a change of guard. Raisi’s predecessor,  Hassan Rouhani, a two-term reformist, simply could not match up to the expectations of  ordinary Iranians. During Rouhani’s tenure, the country reeled under sanctions,  an unprecedented economic crisis, and a raging Covid-19 pandemic. Consequently, protest demonstrations in Iranian cities, big and small, were rife.

There is also a bigger international context to Tehran’s woes, which helped Raisi come to power. Iran was “trumped” by the previous US president, Donald Trump. Trump not only walked out of the Iran nuclear deal hammered out by the former President Barack Obama, but also applied ‘maximum pressure tactics,’  bringing enormous misery to ordinary Iranians.

“Regime change” was on the White House’s  agenda despite cursory denials. Nevertheless, Iran, used to prolonged sanctions and hardships,  adopted a wait- and- watch approach. Its strategic patience eventually paid off when Joe Biden defeated Trump in the US presidential elections.

Also Read: Iran's new president calls for extensive ties with neighbours

Biden has already signalled his readiness to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) , although with caveats. To Rouhani’s regret the new deal  could not be accomplished ahead of the presidential election, which could have been a trophy achievement that could have helped him win the polls.  

Raisi, the conservative pragmatist is clearly in favour of the resumption of JCPOA talks, affirming his intent to go ahead with the nuclear deal during his inaugural remarks. His observations  have been echoed by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, though the US top diplomat  did warn that the window for negotiations cannot be ajar for ever.

Nevertheless, it appears that the JCPOA talks may resume soon. They are likely to ride on the five rounds of  indirect talks that have already been held in Vienna, although at a glacial pace, often interrupted by hard nosed rhetoric,  during Rouhani’s tenure.

Despite some grounds for optimism,  Israel remains the  biggest detractor of a new nuclear deal. In fact, Tel Aviv has threatened to take military action against Iran  to avenge the recent attack on an  oil tanker off the coast of Oman in which a British and Romanian were killed. Tehran  has denied any hand in the attack, but some do not rule out the possibility, citing it as an expression of delayed revenge, taken in response to the sinking of one of its biggest ships, allegedly by agents of Israeli spy agency Mossad. The two countries, Iran and Israel have been at each other’s throats since the 1979 revolution. The bad blood between the two is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Aware of the destructive potential of the enmity between the two countries, the UNSC is meeting to discuss the brewing crisis following the tanker attack.

Iran also has a problem with Saudi Arabia, but the bitterness between the two leaders of Shia and Sunni camps of Islam seems to be somewhat easing.

Iraq and Oman have stepped to ease tensions between two rival heavyweights. With the support of Baghdad and Muscat, Iran and Saudi Arabia appear to be moving towards a rapprochement in Yemen, where the two have been deeply entangled. The Iranian are apparently showing a readiness to help close the Yemen war by  retracting  their unconditional support to Houthis in Yemen. Visualising a post-conflict scenario, Iran is proposing the Hormuz Peace Plan—a regional security architecture that includes all the relevant players.

Apart from the Biden administration’s more even-handed West Asia approach, the rise of China and Russia and their willing assertion in West Asia may also strengthen Raisi’s hand. It is likely that the new Iranian President will move closer to China both in bilateral as well as in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Amid the change of guard in Tehran and shifting regional geo-political where does India stand? With Raisi’s coming, are India- Iran ties poised for a re-set?

The claims that Indo-Iranian strategic relationship is historic and civilizational, is not a cliché. One cannot deny the historical imperatives. However, the US and international sanctions against Iran over the past two decades have steered New Delhi and Tehran in an unpleasant and undesirable direction due to secondary sanctions. Occasional waivers were provided but were simply  not  enough to keep the Iranians in good humour. India was forced to cut down its oil imports much to the dismay of Iranians whose foreign minister even rushed to Delhi just before last elections, to urge India to change course.

Even the strategic Chabahar strategic project, aiming to critically connect India with Afghanistan and Central Asia, as well as North South Transport Corridor, bypassing Pakistan and countering its China centric Gwadar port, were affected or slowed down on account of the US factor.  

But efforts have been made in recent months to move forward on bilateral and regional tracks especially in the context of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. During Taliban 1.0 India and Iran had collaborated due to the similarity of their strategic concerns. These underlying concerns have not changed. This the New Delhi-Tehran collaboration of Afghanistan could once again go forward. Being a  civilisational power, Iran subscribes to the “strategic autonomy” theory, which echoes strongly in India. Such a doctrine provides a natural ideological firewall to China’s unbridled domination of the region.

Agile diplomacy by Dr S Jaishankar, the Indian External Affairs Minister  is paying off as it fully  leverages and, in fact, expands,  the existing strategic space. Jaishankar  became the first foreign leader to call on President -elect Raisi to discuss the future roadmap of India-Iran ties.

That apart, Jaishankar had a meeting with his outgoing Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif as well as the US Secretary of State Blinken. India’s top diplomat also conferred with his counterparts in Arab capitals including the Qatari Special envoy currently in New Delhi to discuss “extended Troika “talks on Afghanistan scheduled in  Doha next week. More importantly, Jaishankar’s visit this week to Tehran, at the ceremony of President Raisi oath taking, conveys a crucial message which was also reflected in Raisi’s comment that “Iran and India can play a constructive and useful role in ensuring security in the region especially in Afghanistan’ where Iran welcomes India’s role in establishment of security in the beleaguered country where according to UN special envoy Afghanistan is at a “dangerous turning point”.

However, as India also looks to and welcomes the deconfliction between US and Iran,  for the Indo-Iranian relations to really acquire the requisite sustainability, it is an imperative that riding on the re-set momentum, certain institutional mechanisms are created which should make Indo-Iran ties immune to unilateral sanctions.

(Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta. He is a regular commentator on foreign and economic policies and developments, as well as an associate with several think tanks)