Iran and India seek to revive Afghan alliance

India and Iran will next week try to revive a frayed 1990s partnership over Afghanistan when Iranian foreign minister Javid Zarif visits here, at a time a confluence of global and regional events is pulling New Delhi back towards Tehran after years of neglect.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 11.08.15
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New Delhi, Aug. 10: India and Iran will next week try to revive a frayed 1990s partnership over Afghanistan when Iranian foreign minister Javid Zarif visits here, at a time a confluence of global and regional events is pulling New Delhi back towards Tehran after years of neglect.

Zarif, who led Iran's negotiations that culminated in a landmark nuclear deal with world powers last month, is the highest ranking official from Tehran visiting New Delhi since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office last year.

His three-day visit, starting August 14, comes after a flurry of trips by senior Indian officials to Tehran in the lead up to Iran's nuclear breakthrough aimed at reviving economic, trade and transit plans with the West Asian nation.

But it is regional security, especially the twin threats of the Islamic State and the Taliban converging in Afghanistan, that senior officials from both nations accepted was lending uncommon urgency to the renewal of the India-Iran partnership.

The thaw between the US and Iran, especially the likely end of some sanctions against Tehran, have also opened up a window for cooperation that New Delhi can't afford to miss, experts said.

"Iran is really important for India, from an economic perspective, a connectivity perspective, and crucially from a security perspective," Gulshan Sachdeva, chairperson of the energy studies programme at Jawaharlal Nehru University and an expert on India-Iran ties told The Telegraph. "This is an important opportunity for both countries to cement afresh, a relationship they both need badly."

Transport minister Nitin Gadkari, in an April visit to Iran, inked a pact committing India to the development of Chabahar port, a project India had indicated interest in years earlier before dithering pressure from the US.

India is also keen on developing the International North South Corridor, a trade route connecting Bandar Abbas, another Iranian port, to Russia through Central Asia that will allow New Delhi's containers access they so far don't enjoy.

And next month, a team of officials from the fertilizer ministry will visit Tehran to discuss plans for a joint urea plant in Chabahar costing nearly US$ 800 mn that will use Iranian gas to produce fertilizers, officials said.

But less publicly, national security adviser Ajit Doval and foreign secretary S Jaishankar have visited Tehran over the past three months, with both the Taliban and the IS key subjects among their talking points.

And regional security and terrorism were among the key subjects Modi discussed with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when they met last month in Ufa, Russia on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.

Like India, Iran has been and remains deeply uneasy about the possibility of a Taliban return to Kabul. The Pakistan-backed, anti-Shia Taliban too has traditionally identified Iran and India as two its biggest enemies.

Through the 1990s, India and Iran jointly backed the Northern Alliance under Ahmed Shah Massoud against the Taliban and other Pakistan-backed warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

But with the death of Massoud - killed in a suicide attack two days before September 11, 2011 - the Northern Alliance fell away. And under the subsequent government of Hamid Karzai after the US invasion of Afghanistan, India emerged a key partner for Kabul.

Current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani today signaled growing frustration in Kabul with Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of persisting "with a war" against Afghanistan following a spate of terror attacks.

But India remains cautious about attempts by Pakistan to destabilize any Kabul administration unfriendly to Islamabad, and partnership with Tehran will help New Delhi offer Ghani an alternative route to security and stability, officials said.

The IS, a militant Sunni outfit that has grown out of the Al Qaeda, also considers Iran a prime enemy and is increasingly seen by India as a threat - first as a recruiter of local youth here, and next as a terror group that could target this country.