Iran is no pushover, a point it has proved through years of US sanctions, economic boycotts and political ostracism. Rather, it has been able to maintain its position in the Persian Gulf and even push back through proxies, like the Houthis in Yemen or Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Ambassador Dilip Sinha, a former diplomat who headed the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan division in the Ministry of External Affairs, told StratNews Global in an interview that this is important to understand as all these groups barring Hamas, are Shia or affiliated to the Shia faith. Iran sees itself as the lone Shia power in a largely Sunni Arab region and plays its politics accordingly.
India, despite having excellent relations with the Sunni Arabs, does not see this as excluding ties with Iran, which explains External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s visit to Tehran some days back. There were many issues on the agenda, chief among them Chabahar port which India is helping develop. But progress has been slow.
“There are many issues here, says Sinha, “our own hesitations in going ahead with Chabahar in a big way given that the Americans have sanctions on Iran, which affects several Indian companies. So, we have to keep looking over our shoulder at the US.”
In his view, there are also internal issues in Iran which affect the development of Chabahar port. It is in the eastern province of Sistan Balochistan and the people are not Iranian, they are Baloch and Sunni and often get help from people in the neighbouring Balochistan province of Pakistan.
“The region is disturbed for both Iran and Pakistan and that makes Iran look at Sistan Balochistan as a place where there’s trouble and therefore the need to maintain law and order.”
How important is Chabahar in terms of India’s access to Afghanistan and Central Asia? Since Pakistan does not allow India to trade directly with Afghanistan through its territory, Delhi has no option but to ship goods to Chabahar and then by road from there to Afghanistan.
Sinha acknowledges that “Afghanistan is a black hole, we put in a lot of money, the whole world put in a lot of money and things went to nought with the coming of the Taliban. Even Central Asia, the entire region put together will not have a GDP of more than half a trillion dollars, it is also a backwater and India’s trade is nominal plus we have connectivity issues. But the fact remains Afghanistan and Central Asia are important for us because we have traditional historic relations with these countries which are rich in resources.
The fact that they are in our neighbourhood makes it strategically important that we have good relations.”
He believes that despite all the pessimism surrounding the region and its politics, “We have to keep trying simply because it is in our neighbourhood.”
Staying engaged with Iran and keeping lines of communication open with Afghanistan and Central Asia, is vital to countering China. Sinha points out that all the western regions of China are inhabited by non-Han people who have closer ethnic ties with Central Asia. For China, keeping Central Asia quiet and friendly is important otherwise all its western provinces will be up in flames.