Foreign Policy Watch: India-Iran

The diplomatic cost


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much.

Mains level: Paper 2- Changing India-Iran relations.


The CAA and violence in Delhi have started to take its toll on India’s secular foreign policy.

The US and other’s reaction to the situation in India

  • Trump visit to India: President Trump referred to India as a democracy which was peaceful and tolerant. He lauded freedom, rule of law, liberty and protection of human dignity, adding graphically that where India had the holy Ganges, it also had the Golden Temple and Jama Masjid.
    • Assurance to the critics at home: He thereby cleverly reassured critics at home, especially in the US Congress, that he was not ignoring the values the two great democracies shared.
    • However, as the situation in Delhi spun into violence the next day, in an untutored media interaction at the US ambassador’s residence, he ducked questions about the CAA or Delhi riots, nonchalantly remarking it was “up to India” to deal with it.
    • This may have brought comfort to the Indian government but the world at large differed.
  • Response from the other countries: Delhi had already exchanged angry words with Malaysia, Turkey and even Indonesia over their varied critique of India’s handling of its Muslim minority when Iran joined the issue.

Iran’s response to violence in India

  • Condemnation by foreign ministers: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the “wave of organised violence against Indian Muslims”, adding that “Iran has been a friend of India”.
    • India’s foreign ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest the inappropriateness of the minister’s remark.
  • The reaction by the Iranian Supreme Leader: Soon after, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei found the time, in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak, to excoriate the Indian government.
    • Adding insult to injury, he appended #IndianMuslimsInDanger.
  • No reaction on China problems: A facile response, can be that Iran is being hypocritical as it has not expressed remorse over the Chinese repression of Uyghurs.
  • The difference in India’s importance to China: China is a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, which also sustains the Iranian economy despite US sanctions. On the other hand, India has a Shia population second only to that of Iran.

Relations with Iran

  • Two consulates in India: There are two Iranian consulates in India in Hyderabad and Mumbai. Iran seeks the third one in Lucknow.
    • Qom also hosts many Shia students, particularly from the Kargil region.
  • Historic links between the two countries: After Humanyun’s exile in Iran (1530-40) before recovering the Indian throne, the Persian language and culture fired the cultural renaissance at the Mughal court.
    • Religio-cultural heritage importance: India is important for Iran for its religio-cultural heritage, unlike China, which is needed for transactional and strategic reasons.
  • Two interrelated questions flow from this reasoning:
    • 1. What is Iran’s importance for India and the trajectory of India-Iran relations over the last two decades?
    • 2. And why is Iran adopting this sharp tone over what the Indian government argues is an internal matter?
  • Convergence in the relations: The closest India-Iran strategic convergence began in the 1990s, particularly after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996. These ties blossomed under reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
  • Tehran Declaration: In 2001, the two signed the Teheran Declaration. Khatami in his opening remarks said that Iran always admired India’s secular credentials and Vajpayee had maintained that tradition.
    • In 2003, Khatami was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day and a New Delhi Declaration was issued.
  • Deterioration in relations and impact of India-US relation: The relationship began to slip as Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme and assistance from Pakistan’s rogue scientist A Q Khan was uncovered in mid-2003.
    • Impact of India-US closeness: Concomitantly, India was drawing closer to the US and negotiating a nuclear cooperation agreement.
    • The US used the nuclear issue to cause a cleavage as Indian and Iranian interests began seriously diverging.
    • Taliban factor: In any case, the Taliban had been ejected from Afghanistan and US troops literally surrounded Iran, having in 2003 overthrown Saddam Hussein. Geo-strategy trumped diplomacy.

The US-Iran relation cycle

  • The nuclear deal with Iran: Iran-US relations also went through a cycle, with President Barack Obama recalibrating US policy towards the Gulf and West Asia.
    • Countering ISIS: Calculating that without Iran, ISIS could not be countered, the US in 2015 endorsed the nuclear deal that P-5 and Germany negotiated to end the nuclear stand-off.
  • Missing warmth of the 1990s: Although India-Iran relations after that returned to near normal as most US sanctions were lifted, the warmth of the 1990s was missing.
    • Iran was now beginning to extend its influence and role across Iraq and West Asia.
  • Maximum Pressure strategy of the US: President Donald Trump in 2016 reversed US policy and since then “maximum pressure” has been applied on Iran via tightened sanctions.
  • India’s engagement with Saudi Arabia and UAE: PM Modi also moved more forthrightly to engage Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
  • The fallout of the US strategy reversal: A fallout of the US policy reversal has been an exacerbation of not only the Shia-Sunni split but a Sunni-Sunni split as Qatar and Turkey are with Iran.

Changing polity and increasing influence in the neighbourhood

  • Conservatives elected to power: In Iran’s parliamentary election on February 28, extremely conservative members have been elected, the moderates having been vetoed by the Guardians Council earlier.
    • Turnout was a low 43 per cent, due partly to fear of the coronavirus.
  • Increasing influence in the neighbourhood: Iran is even more isolated, though determined to resist US demands, due to communications being curtailed due to the virus.
    • Relations with the Taliban: It has good working relations with the Taliban and converging interests to see that US troops exit the region.
    • The friendly government in Baghdad: Iran is battling to ensure a friendly government in Baghdad, despite the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani, by keeping militias aligned to it in play.


  • Perception of India: Khamenei’s tweet reflects the perception that India is in the US-Saudi-Emirati corner and of little use as long as Trump is president.
    • Growing closeness Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Ahmedabad would have led Iran to this conclusion.
  • Leveraging India’s dependence: In the Islamic world, Iran by publicly defending Indian Muslims embarrasses the silent Saudis.
    • It also calculates that India needs access to Afghanistan through Chabahar to assist the Ghani government or influence developments there.


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