It is no secret that Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans to visit Israel. But it is a measure of the confidence in the depth of ties between Tel Aviv and New Delhi — and the importance of Iran for India’s interests that the PM is able to visit Tehran first. And rightly so. Iran’s re-emergence in world affairs after decades of isolation is forcing significant realignments in the region. With a population of 77 million, an educated workforce, civilisational confidence and geostrategic location as a potential bridge between Europe and Asia, Iran is not a country that the world or India can ignore. Even though India-Iran ties have had an on-off character owing to the sanctions imposed by the US, which forced New Delhi to scale back contact, there is plenty of mutual interest to consolidate ties. Iran needs investment to rebuild its infrastructure while India is driven by strategic imperatives that go beyond the customary focus on hydrocarbons.
This is evident from the bilateral contract that will allow India to develop the Chahbahar port, through an initial $150 million line of credit from the Exim Bank. This is an agenda item that has barely moved since 2003 but now assumes urgency owing to Beijing’s plans to operationalise the Gwadar port as part of the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. To counter this India wants to participate in railway projects that connect Chahbahar-Zahedan-Mashhad (in Iran) which can be a potential gateway for Indian goods heading to Russia and Europe. Through the Tripartite Trade and Transport Agreement signed with Afghanistan, India will help develop the Chahbahar-Zahedan-Zaranj corridor that will develop connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia, countering the lack of two-way transit rights through Pakistan to Afghanistan, which Islamabad has not accorded to India despite the obvious economic benefits to the three countries.
The list of bilateral agreements signed during Modi’s visit suggests that both sides are keen on improving contact between their policy collectives and wider publics. MoUs on culture have been signed in addition to those extending dialogues between think tanks and training of diplomats. All this will hopefully lead to a greater acquaintance with Iranian society, politics and artistic expression that Indian audiences have lost touch with over the decades. The commitments to develop Chahbahar port and connectivity within Iran and Afghanistan are significant ventures. But New Delhi ought to ensure that they are delivered on time. India’s record on delivering promised infrastructure is patchy as the experience with Nepal shows. We cannot continue to let China move into vacuums we have created.