Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) welcoming his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the ministry headquarters in the capital Tehran. Photo: Iranian Foreign Ministry/AFP

By a fortuitous happening, the official heading the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran Division in India’s External Affairs Ministry, J P Singh, was in Iran on the weekend, hot on the heels of senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

It is improbable they met. It is equally improbable that the Indian diplomat failed to take note of the Taliban co-founder’s mission to Tehran. 

India’s policies on Afghanistan and Iran are poised for a radical makeover. An opportunity presents itself to dovetail them into a new regional strategy. Creative thinking is needed while navigating among friends and rivals in an increasingly crowded, complicated and competitive regional environment. 

According to media reports, J P Singh held political consultations in Tehran and also took stock of the development of the Shahid Beheshti terminal at Chabahar Port at his meeting with Rasoul Mousavi, assistant to Iran’s foreign minister and director-general for West Asia in the Foreign Ministry.

Importantly, he called on Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi to discuss the regional and international situation. 

Indian diplomacy is being proactive, given the fast-moving developments in the situation around Iran. The Persian Gulf is at a historic crossroads, with the new Joe Biden administration in the US attributing “a critical early priority” to the Iran nuclear issue. 

President Biden’s choice of Robert Malley as the new US special envoy for Iran and Maher Al-Bitar as director of intelligence in the National Security Council undoubtedly signal that a determined push to engage with Iran is just ahead. Clearly, Biden will not brook “spoilers,” especially Israel. 

Robert Malley was the lead US negotiator in the Barack Obama administration when the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement was concluded.

From left, US National Security Council Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf States Robert Malley, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman at the Iran nuclear talks at a hotel in Vienna, Austria on June 30, 2015. Photo: AFP/Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency

Three key points

His return is indicative of three things: a) Biden wants negotiations to start immediately and has brought in a veteran “Iran hand” who is completely familiar with the issues; b) in Malley, Biden has a negotiator whom he trusts and whom Iranians would have dealt with; c) Malley believes that the normalization of Iran ties is in US interests and is crucial to the new West Asian strategy that Biden has spoken about. 

Maher Al-Bitar, on the other hand, is a veteran on West Asian affairs with expertise in intelligence work who served as general counsel to Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee and played a key role in the first impeachment of former president Donald Trump. Biden has known him for a long time. 

But, significantly, he is a Palestinian-American who worked as the director of Israeli Occupation-Palestinian affairs on the National Security Council under Obama and had a stint with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the Near East in Jerusalem.

Traditionally, Israel has influenced White House policies in the Middle East by “indoctrinating” the NSC with dubious, doctored intelligence on Iran that served its purpose. However, with the induction of Malley and Bitar, that is not going to be possible.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Biden is indifferent to Israel’s genuine security concerns. Rather, Biden will not allow Israel to undermine his policies on Iran. 

Suffice to say, the Indian establishment should take the usual Israeli bluster vis-à-vis Iran with an extra pinch of salt. Israel is throwing tantrums and threatens to attack Iran, feeling frustrated over Biden’s intention to reverse Trump’s Iran policy, but even within Israel, these threats ring hollow. 

In the above scenario, a US-Iranian engagement is to be expected shortly, which will lead to the lifting of sanctions. That means India can look forward to reviving cooperation with Iran on the big scale that Prime Minister Narendra Modi conceived in 2016-2017.

The timing of J P Singh’s consultations shows that New Delhi senses that the ground is shifting in the Iran situation. Singh has conveyed an invitation to Aragchi to visit Delhi for a “political dialogue” with top policymakers, and a session of the joint economic commission is also being planned.  

On January 31, 2021, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C-L) of the Taliban in Tehran. Photo: AFP/Tasnim News

Iran and Afghanistan

Meanwhile, Mullah Baradar’s mission to Tehran has thrown much light on Iran’s thinking on the Afghan situation. Among Indian analysts, there is a notion that Iran has aligned with the Taliban. Nothing could be further from the actual state of play.

Indeed Iran, like most countries, has kept lines of communication open to the Taliban in recognition of their control over nearly half the country, but that never translated as Tehran favoring a Taliban takeover. On the contrary, it is useful to recall that Tehran almost went to war with the Taliban once in the late 1990s after the killing of several Iranian diplomats in the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Iran’s top priorities are border security – especially drug trafficking and cross-border terrorism – and, secondly, the great concern over Shiite empowerment in Afghanistan. To this end, Tehran keeps good relations with the established government in Kabul. Most important, Iran wants an inclusive settlement in Afghanistan that accommodates the interests of all ethnic and religious groups.

Interestingly, Tehran coordinated Mullah Baradar’s visit with the Afghan government before scheduling it, thus underscoring the robust support it extended to the idea of a genuine power-sharing in Kabul that is acceptable to the incumbent government.

Top Iranian security officials have unequivocally conveyed to the Taliban delegation that Tehran is firmly opposed to any takeover in Kabul, no matter Iran’s deep aversion to the continued Western occupation of Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the visiting delegation: “We support an inclusive Islamic government with the presence of all ethnicities and faiths, and deem it necessary for Afghanistan.” 

Fundamentally, India and Iran are on the same page as regards the Afghan peace process. This gives India the opportunity to turn the regional connectivity that Chabahar Port provides to work closely with Iran at a practical level to stabilize the Afghan situation, which is a shared objective.

If the US-Iran engagement gains traction, it is entirely conceivable that Chabahar Port would overnight transform as the regional hub for the international community to connect Afghanistan and Central Asia with the world market. 

Officials attend an inauguration ceremony for the first export convoy to India via Iran at Chabahar seaport in Chabahar, Iran on February 25, 2019. Photo: AFP/Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency

‘Big picture’

Indian diplomacy should work with a “big picture” in view, with the full realization that the Pakistan-centric Afghan policies hitherto pursued, heavily orientated toward security concerns, have outlived their utility. The good part is that there is no conflict of interest between India and Iran in regard to regional security and stability.

If a broad-based inclusive government takes shape in the peace process with genuine power-sharing among various groups and factions, India and Iran stand to gain from the Afghan peace dividend. And as stakeholders, their cooperation can be a game-changer in regional security.

The bottom line is that India and Iran have common moorings in their strategic autonomy. (Indira Gandhi was the first Indian leader to realize this.)

Once the sanctions are lifted, Iran’s integration into the world economy will dramatically deepen. There is no country in the entire West Asian region that can match Iran even remotely in the sheer scale of its vast and diverse mineral resources, strong agricultural and industrial base, high level of scientific and technological know-how, large domestic market and trained manpower.  

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.