Iran's new President Ebrahim Raisi, shown in Tehran on June 21, 2021, during his first press conference after his election win, has since held talks with Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Photo: AFP / Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attended the inauguration of Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on August 5. This was his second visit to Iran in a little over a month. His presence at the inauguration and the flurry of activity between the two nations indicate India’s keen interest to engage Iran as an important partner on key issues. 

Jaishankar first visited Iran on July 7 on his way to Moscow and was the first foreign leader to meet the then president-elect Raisi. These meetings come on the heels of the dynamic situation in Afghanistan after the United States withdrew its troops from Bagram Airbase in the first week of July.

The situation since then has considerably deteriorated, with the Taliban taking over Kabul this Sunday to the dismay of both Iran and India. The Taliban have also taken over a key border crossing between Afghanistan and Iran and now control most of the country including all key cities.

Iran is an important stakeholder in Afghanistan and had been hosting talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. India and Iran share a common interest in Afghanistan, with neither wanting the government to fall into the hands of the Taliban.

India on its part also desires minimal Pakistani and Chinese influence in Afghanistan, while Iran would not be completely averse to China taking a role. India has also started a dialogue with the Taliban after years of refusing to engage with them, as would be necessary for India’s strategic plans in the region after a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

This time around though, unlike during the Northern Alliance’s offensive, Tehran and Moscow would not be completely averse to a Taliban presence in Afghanistan given Iran’s and Russia’s close relationship with China.

Historically Iran has always seen Afghanistan as lying within its region of influence and has tried to wield influence there. It supported the Northern Alliance’s offensive against the Taliban in the 1990s and also held talks with the US on how to stabilize Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001.

Iran is also home to about 2.5 million Afghan refugees who have fled wars over the years.

Shipping, rail links

Chabahar port is another important point of discussion between India and Iran. The port, which is being developed by India, is crucial to New Delhi’s strategic plans. India has had interests in the port’s development since 2001.

It wants it to serve as an alternative to China-developed Gwadar port in Pakistan, which is part of its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which New Delhi sees as Beijing’s effort to increase influence in the region.

Chabahar port is expected to provide much-needed sea access to the Central Asian countries and, more important, it provides India faster access to Afghanistan as well as an alternative route that does not go through Pakistan.

India has also proposed the inclusion of the Chabahar port in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) connecting Russia to India. India is keen to complete this project as soon as possible and get it operational, especially after the China-Iran deal worth US$400 billion raising concerns about possible Chinese involvement in Chabahar.

Last month, Iran announced it had dropped India as a partner in the Chabahar-Zahedan rail project, which was to extend to the Afghanistan border, citing funding delays from India. New Delhi disputed these claims, saying it was still very much a part of the project. 

US vs Iran

While their broader strategic vision for the region might coincide, one of the key challenges to this vision would be the adverse relationship between the US and Iran. It was under pressure from the US, after the Donald Trump administration ramped up sanctions on Tehran, that India decided to stop buying oil from Iran in mid-2019.

Another point of contention is the US involvement in Afghanistan. Iran had supported the complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, while India would have liked a continued US presence in Afghanistan to ensure better stability to safeguard its own interests.

After President Joe Biden’s administration came to power it asked Iran to comply with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran refused unless the US lifted the sanctions first. Despite this, there have been negotiations in Vienna between the signatories of the JCPOA and it will be interesting to see how this pans out given the hardline stance the new Iranian president has showcased against the US up to now.

Broader Middle East relationships

India will also need to walk a tightrope given Iran’s adverse relationship with other countries in the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia have traditionally contested to be the leader of the region, while Israel and Iran have been adversaries since the formation of Israel.

India meanwhile has made meaningful inroads in its relationship with countries in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia and Israel in the recent past. Therefore, India would be keen to avoid being seen as too close to Iran to avoid endangering its other relationships, especially when tensions in the region are high.

Iran and India would hope to arrive at a meaningful consensus with respect to their strategy for Afghanistan with these recent high-level meetings. New Delhi will also hope that Tehran and Washington will be able to mend their relationship, which would work to India’s benefit. This would allow India to have a more coherent response to the situation in Afghanistan and also speed up its strategic projects in the region. 

Sumanth Samsani is a research intern at the Takshashila Institution, a think-tank and public policy school based in Bangalore.