Three days before the Persian New Year of Nowruz, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed delegates of the pro-Palestine pressure group Global March to Jerusalem at his presidential palace in Tehran. Ahmadinejad was livid. Just two days earlier news reports had surfaced about Obama administration’s alleged threat with sanctions to India and other Asian countries if they don’t stop trading with Iran. “The Zionists are trying to damage our relationship with neighbouring countries,” he said. “They have tried to destroy Iran’s relationship with Indonesia, Malaysia and Egypt.” On India, however, he remains quite optimistic. “Don’t worry. We are on the right track,” he told Tehelka.
The last few weeks have seen some key developments that are bound to have a long-term effect on the Indo-Iran relations. Israel has directly blamed Iran for the sticky bomb attack that wounded an Israeli diplomat’s wife in New Delhi last month. Iran and India have entered into barter trade arrangements to circumvent US sanctions. And now the latest media reports suggest that America wants India to immediately stop trading with Iran. Pressure on India to break off with Iran is intense. India is toeing a more balanced line, unwilling to damage its carefully nurtured relationship with the US and Israel, while refusing to ditch its old ally Iran.
While Ahmadinejad says India-Iran ties are on the right track, former foreign minister and advisor in international affairs to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akhbar Vilayati is much more vocal about US influence on the relationship. “Many from this region are trying to influence our friendship,” he says. However, he adds: “India and Iran are working for each other’s national and regional interests regardless of what the US wants us to do.” Regarding investigations into the sticky bomb attack, he promises all help to the Indian government. “But we will help because India is our friend,” he says.
While the Indian government arrested a journalist working with an Iranian news agency and issued an open warrant against three Iranian citizens, the question being raised, both in Tehran and New Delhi, is why would Iran want to jeopardise its friendship with India at such a critical time? “Israel has not disclosed evidence about Iranian involvement. If Israel gives evidence and the Indian government finds it correct, then the Indian government has to give a strong message to Iran,” says M Mahtab Alam Rizvi, an expert on Iran at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. In Tehran, Mohsen Hosseini, vice-president of Habilin Foundation, an organisation of families of terror victims in Iran, points towards the four sticky bomb attacks in Iran in the last few years.
“In all four cases, nuclear scientists were targeted by terror groups that have close links with the CIA and Mossad. Never did we hear of cases where Israelis were targeted in such a manner, that too by Iranians,” says Hosseini.
Former deputy foreign minister Hossein Sheikh-ul-Islam links the attack with the Palestine issue. “We do not believe that terrorism is the right way to support the people of Palestine. I’m sure that the Iranian government will fully cooperate with the Indian government if Iranians are involved in this terror activity,” he says. Qamar Agha, an expert on West Asian affairs, says Iran has more to lose by engaging in such attacks. “Iran needs more friends. It will not want to lose India’s support at any cost and that’s why it even made a special concession to sell its oil in rupees,” says Agha.
At the heart of India and Israel relations lies India’s dependence on Iran for oil—it consumes nearly $11 billion worth of Iranian oil each year. Both US and Israel wants this to end. But India refused to budge. Instead it says it will abide only by the UN sanctions and will not implement other sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States and the European Union. Under the new arrangement worked out by India and Iran, payments for nearly half of its Iranian oil imports will be made in rupees, which will be used by Iran to buy Indian goods.
While talks about a possible war between Israel and Iran is doing the rounds in world capitals, Turkey will host talks between Iran and the 5+1 group (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) in April. Unlike previous occasions this time the Iranian leadership seems quite optimistic. The recent parliamentary elections saw former president and leader of opposition Mohammad Khatami vote. This is being seen as a symbol of democracy and unity by the regime. In 2009, Iran saw protests during the presidential election and was often tagged by the West as an undemocratic nation. “We are a stronger nation now. President Obama is going to elections. He would certainly want us on his side,” says Sheikh-ul-Islam. Iran has already enriched 20 per cent of uranium and has acquired fourth generation centrifuges. “This time we will certainly get a level playing field,” he adds.
Even as global powers sit to negotiate with Iran next month, the rhetoric from Israel has only increased in the last few weeks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this month that a strike on Iran “is not a matter of days or weeks, but it’s also not a matter of years”. As Iran’s friends such as India watch in nervousness, Tehran remains more defiant. Just a day before Ahmadinejad accused Israel of trying to create problems for Iran’s allies, speaker of the Iranian Parliament and potential presidential candidate Ali Larijani addressed the same delegates and called Israel a barking dog that will never bite. “Our friends say Israel will attack Iran. They were defeated by Hezbullah (of Lebanon), they dare not attack us,” he said. Larijani, also Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator, claimed the real reason behind the pressure from US, EU and Israel is not its nuclear programme. “One European foreign minister once told me that the real problem is our stand on Palestine. We have refused to allow the Zionist to fulfill their dream. Their nuclear issue is just a farce,” he added.
Iran continues to insist that development of nuclear technology is its right, but it is not interested in a bomb. “We don’t need a bomb,” says Sheikh-ul-Islam. “We don’t believe that nuclear weapons are a source of strength.” The United States and the European Union has accused India of undermining its efforts to isolate Tehran and force it to abandon its nuclear programme. India continues to insist that it will abide only by the UN sanctions and will not implement other sanctions imposed unilaterally by the US and EU.
Meanwhile, the region is preparing for another major clash between the pro-Palestinian activists who are coming from around the world and Israeli forces on 30 March—the Palestine Land Day. Activists in Asia, Europe and Africa have given a call for a million march to Israeli borders in Lebanon and Jordan. The Iranian government along with Hezbollah in Lebanon has openly supported the call.
Kunal Majumder is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.