Talmiz Ahmad, a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has spoken to Sputnik about New Delhi’s evolving policy towards Iran under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
How would you characterise India’s relations with Iran under Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Are India’s ties with Iran dependent on its relations with the United States?
Ahmad: India’s relations with Iran have always been subjected to the vagaries of its ties with the United States. However, what has alarmed me in the recent period is India’s complete acceptance of what ex-President Donald Trump initiated in 2018.
While India has been involved in developing a substantial security relationship with the United States, it was entirely possible for Indian policy-makers to convey to Washington that New Delhi has its own interests in maintaining stable ties with Tehran.
Not only does India share the same neighbourhood with Iran and both have civilisational ties dating back a few thousand years, but there are geopolitical, economic, and security interests to be taken care of.
India is becoming part of America’s own agenda on Iran. Of late, the impression that New Delhi has sent out is that it has subordinated its interests to the US, even though everything that the US did has been illegal under international law. Iran hadn’t done anything illegal under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
While India did manage to get an exemption from the JCPOA-related American sanctions as far as its involvement in the port of Chabahar was concerned, the aggressiveness with which Washington promoted its sanctions scared away Indian companies from investing in Chabahar and complementing the government’s role in further developing the port and allied infrastructure around it.
India has always signalled to the Americans that it would remain subservient to its interests. But the Americans haven’t displayed the same reciprocity when it comes to our own regional and immediate interests.
Do you believe that the Joe Biden administration has been adopting a more moderate policy towards Iran than its predecessor? And has the change of administration in Washington benefited India-Iran ties?
Ahmad: Frankly, there hasn’t been much of a change in real terms. While Joe Biden did signal initially that getting the Americans back into the JCPOA would be a priority, the fact also remains that six rounds of negotiations have taken place and the US is still to get back into the agreement.
With regard to India, I would note that New Delhi almost doubled its annual budget allocation for the Chabahar port at the start of this year [after Biden took office]. However, I would wait until next year to see how much of the allocated budget has indeed been utilised, given that the sanctions still remain intact.
I would also like to point out here that, of late, there have been attempts by the Modi government to reengage with Iran after President Ebrahim Raisi’s election victory, despite Tehran being excluded from New Delhi’s strategic framework.
While India has opened a dialogue with the new government in Tehran, so far, I haven’t seen any evidence of anything concrete offered by India which would change the overall texture of bilateral relations.
How crucial is having warm and friendly ties with Iran for India’s geostrategic interests?
Ahmad: Iran has a very large geopolitical presence in the neighbourhood. It has a very long coastline. Then, its overall strategic value for India is only enhanced by the fact that it shares a border with both Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as with Central Asian [countries]. It is effectively a role-player in West Asia, Central Asia as well as South Asia.
Of course, it is also a major energy provider and has traditionally ranked as the largest crude supplier for New Delhi. Its geography also makes it a crucial regional connectivity hub.
How do you see India’s role in the four-nation grouping including Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the US that was unveiled last month?
Ahmad: The grouping, or Quad 2.0 as it has been referred to, makes no sense to me. You have to look at the timing before looking at the context. And I don’t think the new group will be of any strategic value for West Asia or India.
Very frankly, for India, being a member of the new group is just a publicity stunt from a government that has very little to show in terms of its foreign policy achievements. I think the new group will wither away into irrelevance with time.
I sense a strong US hand in pursuing the four nations, especially India, to come together for this grouping, just like it brokered the Abraham Accords last year.
So, has developing closer ties with the US backfired for India in its own neighbourhood?
Ahmad: For the last 15 years, India has been steadily upgrading its strategic and defence ties with the United States. To me, that is not a well-thought-out policy. It is a knee-jerk reaction of sorts to a certain challenge, which is the rise of China.
However, the pro-US policy that India has pursued in response to the challenge hasn’t benefited Indian interests as much as it should.
On the contrary, I would argue that this clear pro-US tilt may have contributed to the deterioration of relations with China and possibly led to the ongoing Ladakh standoff.
The security relationship that we have been building with the US has served American strategic interests quite well. The Quadrilateral Security Framework, or the Quad, has pulled India into the South China Sea and shown India to be an active participant in a grouping perceived to be hostile against China.
However, what about India’s 4,000-kilometre-long undemarcated border with China? Has the situation in Ladakh changed to India’s advantage since the Quad leaders’ virtual and in-person summits, both of which happened this year?
Ahmad: Russia and China are now closely collaborating, and a triumvirate of sorts has emerged at our border, involving both of them as well as Iran.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are in close coordination with these three countries and India has been left excluded in its own neighbourhood.
India has been more focused on the overall maritime scenario, while it has neglected its priorities, which remain its land borders.