The Iran momentum
India’s decision to remove Iran from the list of countries in the restricted visa category is another indication of New Delhi’s resolve to reinvigorate its engagement with the Gulf country. The move will primarily liberalise the visa approval process for Iranian citizens, paving the way for enhanced people-to-people cooperation. But more important, it is part of a series of steps India has taken to deepen partnership with Iran since an interim agreement was reached between Tehran and six world powers (P5+1) in November 2013 over its nuclear programme. Iran used to be India’s second largest supplier of oil. But India, under pressure from western nations, voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency over its nuclear programme and subsequently cut energy imports. The interim agreement offered India a window of opportunity to revisit its Tehran policy. In February, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval went to Tehran to discuss bilateral cooperation. In April, the Iranian Ambassador to New Delhi, Gholamreza Ansari, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had accepted an invitation to visit Tehran. This new direction in India’s approach to Iran got better clarity when the final nuclear agreement was reached between Tehran and P5+1 in July: it will remove not just sanctions against Iran but also the tag of untouchability given to it by the West.
Ties with Iran are vital for India’s economic and strategic interests. India has to seize the momentum provided by the nuclear deal to step up energy trade with Iran. Imports from Iran are relatively cheap because of the geographical proximity and the extended credit period it offers. Iran has one of the largest gas reserves, and these are expected to be opened up soon for global investments. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation already has interests in the Farzad-B gas field, and Iranian gas will help India’s fuel-starved power stations. More important, New Delhi and Iran share an interest in stabilising Afghanistan. Both realise that a return of the Taliban to Kabul would affect their key interests. Iran and India have signed an agreement to develop the Chabahar port. The Iranian port, which lies outside the Gulf region and is easily accessed from India’s western coast, will give New Delhi an alternative sea-land access route into Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan and providing a gateway to the resource-rich Central Asian region. But, for the success of these projects India needs to have a consistent policy towards Iran that is defined by mutual interest and not by global pressures. The period of tepid engagement with Iran has delayed the Chabahar port project and affected India’s energy security. Now New Delhi has to make up for lost time by accelerating bilateral diplomacy.