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Joint India-Iran Projects
Iran is India’s new bugbear, repeatedly raising the contentious Kashmir issue in recent months, much to the embarrassment, even anger, of New Delhi. Last week, Indian diplomats winced as the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his sermon on the eve of Id-ul-Zuha, spoke of Kashmir in the same breath as the struggles in Palestine and Afghanistan, and gave a clarion call to the Muslim ummah to counter the insidious designs of the American-Zionist cabal. Implicit in Khamenei’s sermon was the message that India was part of the diabolic plan, hatched by America and Israel, to colonise Islamic countries and suppress Muslims.
India wants to play a balancing role between Iran and the West. First, it has to win Iran’s trust on the nuclear issue.
Khamenei’s tilt against India had to be taken seriously, for, beginning July, his Id sermon was the third occasion Iran had chosen to mention Kashmir. Khamenei himself did it first on July 21, and then, on September 18, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson criticised Indian security forces for firing on Kashmiris protesting against the alleged burning of the Quran in the US. For a country to mention Kashmir thrice in five months is akin to showing a red rag to India. No wonder, South Block summoned the Iranian charge d’affaires in Delhi and issued a demarche. India also abstained during voting on the United Nations resolution condemning alleged human rights violations in Iran. This marked a departure from New Delhi’s policy of voting against the UN resolution since 2003.
Beyond all the sudden cut and thrust, diplomats struggled to understand Iran’s decision to adopt the Kashmir cause as its own. Partly, say diplomats, Iran has embraced Kashmir as part of its larger endeavour to emerge as the leader of the Muslim world. Until 10 years ago, this leadership mantle belonged to Saudi Arabia, which would periodically cite Kashmir in the course of championing various Muslim causes and struggles worldwide. The perils of leading the ummah or community became obvious to Riyadh during the 9/11 attacks—most of those who flew their planes into the World Trade Center towers were Saudi nationals. An ashamed and stung Riyadh now preferred to build its image as a liberal Islamic nation, softening its earlier strident tones and refraining from embracing every cause appearing in the Muslim firmament.
In the space the Saudis vacated, Shia Iran stepped in. America’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme, the ruling party’s brutal suppression of opposition protests disputing last year’s election results, and President Ahmadinejad’s periodic bouts of belligerence bolstered Tehran’s credentials as it tried to emerge as the leader of the Muslim world. Inevitably, Kashmir began to creep into the rhetoric of Iranian leaders. Says Raziuddin Aquil, who teaches history in Delhi University, “Iran now wants to fill up the space vacated by the Saudis as champion of Muslim struggles. The Saudis have been aligning more and more with the US and as a result have also lost credibility among Muslims, many of whom continue to see the Americans as the main enemy.” With only Al Qaeda and Taliban professing to play dissenter, Iran’s quest for pan-Islamic leadership acquires legitimacy each time it highlights struggles Muslim communities are waging in different countries. It can’t make an exception of Kashmir.
“Iran is now trying to fill up the space vacated by Saudi Arabia as the champion of all Muslim struggles in the world.”
Others feel the growing proximity between India and the US has prompted Iran’s recent remarks on Kashmir. They say Iran is reacting to US president Barack Obama’s speech to Indian Parliament, where he sought New Delhi’s help in restoring democracy and freedom in Iran and Myanmar. Former foreign minister K. Natwar Singh told Outlook, “It has to do with Obama’s visit as Iran feels we are leaning too much towards the US. There is a definite shift in the stand of the two countries.”
Few deny a a creeping mutual distanciation on issues critical to each other. For instance, Tehran seems to have come a long way from the mid-1990s, when it refused to back a Pakistan-initiated resolution at the UN on alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. Interestingly, many western countries, including the US, had backed the Pakistani move. Iran played a crucial role then to ensure the resolution was defeated. Over the years, Tehran had consistently opposed attempts to equate the movement in Kashmir with the struggle, say, in Palestine, and publicly articulated the need to resolve the issue through negotiations between India and Pakistan.
India, on its part, began to inch closer to the US from 2000, but ensured it did not sour relations with Iran. It invited then president Mohammed Khatami to be the chief guest during the Republic Day celebrations in 2003, and India and Iran also forged a strategic partnership in this decade.
“Iran’s recent remarks on Kashmir stem from Obama’s India visit. They feel we’re leaning too much towards the US.”
The shift in India’s stand came in September 2005—for the first time it voted with the US and other western countries in the International Atomic Energy Agency on a resolution against Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, which Tehran claims is for peaceful purposes but many others think otherwise. Critics pummelled New Delhi, saying its vote sought to appease the Americans, with whom India was negotiating for a nuclear deal, that India had compromised on an independent foreign policy.
No doubt, the vote strained India’s relations with Iran, but New Delhi opted for a course correction. It said Iran had a legitimate right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, but it should also fulfil its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments. Says a senior MEA official, “Our reasonable stand is well respected the world over.” Despite hiccups in the past few years, the two countries are together engaged in joint projects that will enhance their trade and give them access to markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran also happens to be a major source for India’s energy needs; India is Iran’s third largest energy market. This is why Natwar cautions, “Iran is an important country for India. Though we should keep a close watch on the developments there, we should not overreact.”
South Block also wants to play a balancing role between Iran and the West. But India can scarcely cast itself for this as long as it fails to win Iran’s trust on the nuclear issue. Nor will India look at Tehran sympathetically as long as it continues to harp on Kashmir. Obviously, should India succeed in restoring peace to Kashmir, there won’t be any troubled waters for Iran to fish in.