Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) welcomes his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in Tehran on September 8. Photo: Iranian Foreign Ministry handout via AFP

Two senior Indian ministers visiting Tehran in less than a week is unusual. Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar today met his Iranian counterpart on the way to Moscow for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers meeting. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh accepted Tehran’s invitation to visit on his the way back from the SCO defense ministers meeting last Saturday.

Singh met his Chinese counterpart in Moscow last week and Jaishankar will meet China’s foreign minister tomorrow to seek a solution to Chinese incursions into Indian territories – a way out of a potentially dangerous situation.

The Tehran visits immediately triggered speculation that India is seeking to counter moves by China to encircle it. China plans to make large investments in Iran and the two may sign a long-term agreement in March. Do India’s concerns pertain only to China, or do they extend to other countries?

Over the past few years, India’s relationships with its close neighbors have turned lukewarm, either as a result of its own actions or due to circumstances beyond its control. Pakistan remains inimical and depends on China, Nepal revolted under China’s guidance, while Bangladesh was wooed back.

In this geopolitical scenario it is critical to be surrounded with good friends, and this is even more true during a crisis. Iran offers a good deal of commonality.

Like India, Iran is an inheritor of an ancient civilization, and is proud of its language, literature, cuisine, fine crafts and the fact that it was once a leading maritime and global power and a cradle of religion. Iran’s unique geographical location between not so friendly countries has necessitated following an independent line.

This gives both India and Iran a unique and independent sense of self-identity, mature thought processes and prestige, and an understanding of each other’s compulsions and limitations. Diplomats say officials from the two countries rarely go with the herd and have an independent worldview and opinions.

So is it the China factor that took the two ministers to Tehran?

“India and China were never in competition in Iran. It is not a zero-sum game,’’ says TCA Raghavan, who spent almost seven years in Pakistan as the envoy and earlier the deputy envoy. He has headed the division in the Foreign Ministry responsible for Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “China is a factor in our entire neighborhood. But just as we never saw our relations with China being at the cost of any other relationship, possibly the Iranians too do not see it like that.’’

Yet, it’s a fact that Iran has had troubled relations with the United States since the 1979 regime change, fought a marathon war with Iraq, faced attacks from Israel, and suffered under economic sanctions. It surely must be desperate for investment.

“China is the only major country that is willing to make strategic investments in Iran and settle payments and other trade-related matters outside of the US dollar-denominated financial system,’’ said Ryan Clarke, a visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

“At this point in time, this relationship is driven by near-term considerations on both sides,’’ said Clarke. “The theocratic regime in Tehran needs major investments to survive and China needs the security and stability of energy supplies, including through potential overland routes and pipelines.’’

With the world order in turmoil, the two sense a renewed opportunity to reset their relations.

Significantly affecting the two countries are muscle-flexing by China, the Covid-19 pandemic, presidential elections that could usher in US policy changes, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan (both immediate neighbors of Iran), and the Chinese incursion into the northern Indian region of Ladakh.

So what do the visits by the two ministers show?

“What it shows is that India has very important relations with Iran. It is not a question of winning back or having lost,’’ says Raghavan, adding that both countries place a premium on their mutual relations.

Defense Ministers Rajnath Singh and Amir Hatami, he said, discussed “bilateral issues, regional security issues including peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

Peace in Afghanistan is of critical importance for the region as US President Donald Trump withdraws troops and peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government begin. Other players in the region are also active. While China is offering investment to build roads and other infrastructure, immediate neighbor Pakistan is seen leveraging its deep links with the Taliban.

Neither India nor Iran can simply be spectators of the scenario that could emerge in Afghanistan. Both would gain from peace in the beleaguered nation. Jammu & Kashmir over the past three decades has suffered due to terrorism, and poor Afghans have been recruited by Pakistan to serve its interests. India is facing China’s wrath for removing the special status of the Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh regions. It can ill-afford to see a revival of terrorism in Kashmir.

What could help it put its foot in the door is a revival of a role in the Chabahar Port it couldn’t fulfill earlier because of US sanctions and the pandemic scaring away contractors. It was also supposed to help build a rail link from Chabahar port to Zahedan in Iran and offshoots to Zaranj in Afghanistan, and another towards Central Asia.

Yet India can continue sending goods to Central Asia through Bandar Abbas, and therefore doesn’t have to depend on Chabahar, though it would be a shorter trip for Indian ships.

While neither side is revealing details of the talks, a potential change of guard after the US elections could change the scenario. An easing of sanctions could make it easier for both Iran and India. Iran, a large market for India’s exports, has been one of the main sources of crude oil for India and payments are made in local currency.

“Iran is not a vacant space for others to move in or out. It has its own interests to safeguard,’’ says Raghavan. “China is a major economic force in the whole of Asia. So obviously Iran and China will have strong economic and political relations.’’

Afghanistan and Pakistan have had bittersweet relations for more than half a century. Pakistan had to bear the burden of Afghan refugees as the US waged its proxy war against Russia, and much bitterness lingers. The Durand Line that divides Pashtuns living on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border remains a thorn for some.

Afghanistan’s First Vice President Amrullah Salesh survived a bomb attack in Kabul on Wednesday. He had a day earlier commented on the Durand Line controversy, noting that Peshawar, now in Pakistan, once belonged to Afghanistan.

Yet, despite mutual suspicion, landlocked Afghanistan depends on Pakistan to get its imports and other supplies through its ports and highways.

Chabahar Port in Iran was supposed to provide Afghanistan with an alternative, and reduce its dependence on Pakistan, as well as give Iran and India an opportunity to wean themselves from the Pakistan-China alliance.

“Chabhar Port is meant to give Afghanistan certain options so that their dependence on Pakistan is not total,’’ says Raghavan. “The aim of building the port is to give an alternative. Whether India builds it or someone else, the alternative will still be there.’’