External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Tuesday held talks with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in Tehran. The minister made a transit from Tehran while en route to Moscow for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers' meeting.
The visit comes within days of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Brigadier General Amir Hatami, in Tehran. Two back-to-back visits in less than a week’s time send out a clear message of the significance of the India-Iran relationship that has been recently hit due to sanctions imposed by the United States and is also caught in the cross-fire of deteriorating India-China ties due to flare-ups at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.
Most recently, there was a controversy over the Chabahar-Zahedan railway project in Iran with reports suggesting the country had ousted India from it. While denying these reports, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson Anurag Srivastava had in a press conference in July said, “our Ambassador was invited by the Deputy Minister and head of Iranian Railways, Saeed Rasouli, for a meeting to review the cooperation under the project and they had a good meeting. The ongoing cooperation was reviewed during that meeting and I would like to particularly draw your attention to the statement by the Deputy Minister and head of Iranian Railways who said that vested interests were behind reports that Iran has excluded India in this project.”
There were murmurs that Iran acted since India is unable to immediately finance the project due to US sanctions and a desperate Tehran was then instead looking at China to bail it out. This certainly would not sit well with India, considering it has made a concerted effort to be part of the Chabahar port and the Americans also exempted it from its sanctions. After Pakistan, a further Chinese push in India's neighbourhood as well is of concern to New Delhi.
The significance of the Chabahar port is immense. It gives India a route to Afghanistan while circumventing Pakistan. For instance, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Chabahar route was used to send a supply of 75,000 MT wheat and essential drugs to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Chabahar-Zahedan Railway project specifically is important as it “forms part of transit and transportation corridor in trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan”, as per the MoU signed between IRCON and Construction, Development of Transport and Infrastructure Company (CDTIC) of Iran.
The India-Iran joint statement of 2018 said, “With a view to fully utilize the potential of the Chabahar Port and its connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia, India conveyed its readiness to support the development of Chabahar- Zahedan Rail line. IRCON, India and CDTIC, Iran who are engaged in discussions, were tasked to finalise the technical parameters and financing options for the project in a time bound manner.”
However, discomfort was already brewing in the relationship due to American economic sanctions against Iran after pulling out of the nuclear accord -- the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This forced India to cut its oil import from Iran completely in May 2019.
Iran had earlier written to the United Nations and leaders of various countries, including India, to pressurise the US to lift the sanctions in order to help it battle the pandemic. When asked about India’s response to it, senior government sources had said lifting of sanctions is a separate matter, leaving it unclear which side India was on.
Looking at this situation, it was imperative that the two sides start engaging to iron out issues. After his meeting, Singh had tweeted to say, “Had a very fruitful meeting with Iranian defence minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami in Tehran. We discussed regional security issues including Afghanistan and the issues of bilateral cooperation.”
Meanwhile, Jaishankar in a tweet said he had a “productive meeting” where the two sides discussed “strengthening our bilateral cooperation and reviewed regional development”.