The re-election of Hassan Rouhani as Iranian President for a second term has special significance for India as also for the rest of the world. Rouhani, who enjoys support of former reformist President Mohammed Khatami, represents the aspirations of the Iranian majority, which wants their country to remain an honourable member of the comity of the nations so that it focuses on ensuring peace and prosperity.
The insular approach of the powerful clergy, loyal to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who unsuccessfully backed the defeated presidential candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, had led to Iran’s international isolation, caused by its uncompromising stand over the country’s so-called peaceful nuclear programme. This unrealistic approach was responsible for the imposition of crippling UN sanctions in 2006 with the Security Council passing Resolution 1696 following Iran’s refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment programme.
Rouhani’s non-confrontationist policy of dealing with the international community resulted in a historic accord in 2015 with the West, including the US, over Iran’s nuclear programme, leading to the lifting of the UN sanctions. This was a major gain for Rouhani during his previous stint as President, which infused a new life in the Iranian economy. Iran’s oil, gas, manufacturing and other sectors again started growing at a fast pace.
Last year, when India’s oil imports increased considerably, major help came from Iran which emerged as the fourth biggest oil supplier to this country owing to the lifting of the UN sanctions. India has also agreed to be a participant in the Iranian land-based gas pipeline (Iran-Pakistan-India) project which will reach India’s borders through Pakistan once it is finally completed.
Last year during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran, India and Iran along with Afghanistan reached a trilateral trade accord for developing Chabahar port and some related projects. An agreement between India’s EXIM Bank and Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization (PMO) was also finalised for making a $150 million credit line available for the project. It was agreed that Chabahar port would be connected to an Afghanistan highway providing a direct link to the Central Asian republics. India has no land route to do business with these countries.
The goodwill generated by Modi’s visit resulted in India releasing $700 million to Iran as part payment out of $6 billion oil-related Iranian dues with India. Earlier during the period of sanctions against Iran, India would remain unmoved despite pressures from Teheran to clear the dues because of the US factor.
However, here one thing must be clear in our mind. Teheran has been maintaining a policy of “Iran first” which will remain unchanged irrespective of who the President of Iran is. Here is an example: Despite much bonhomie created by the Modi visit, hardly a few months had elapsed when Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan Governor Ali Oset Hashemi reached an agreement with Pakistan’s Balochistan province Chief Minister Nawab Sanaullah Zehri to convert Gwadar and Chabahar as “sister port cities”.
The agreement was very damaging for India’s interests in Iran and its neighbourhood as Chabahar getting any kind of link with Gwadar would lead to a lot of complications. Despite its location in Pakistan, Gwadar port is a Chinese project for all practical purposes. The China-Pakistan duo will never allow India to get the intended commercial and other advantages.
But Iran cannot be expected to be much bothered about it. Despite a history of friendly relations with India, it can go to any extent for securing its own interests. What the Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Honerdoost, said soon after Modi’s visit to Teheran should serve as an eye-opener. He made it clear at the first available opportunity that the Chabahar port agreement involving India, Iran and Afghanistan was certainly “not finished” for all times to come and that the idea of developing Chabahar with outside help was “not limited to these three countries.”
What the Iranian envoy said should be accepted as the viewpoint of the powerful clergy too, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. President Rouhani cannot dare to go against their approach. India needs to understand that the Iranian political system is not a democracy in the conventional sense. Clergy-dominated institutions are so powerful that they can block any major step taken by the President. Nothing is possible unless it is approved by the Supreme Leader, who is otherwise an elected constitutional authority. He enjoys veto power over any decision taken by any institution or authority.
The powerful clergy is well protected by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has its stakes in economic projects too. The IRGC and other such institutions cannot be bypassed even by the elected President of Iran.
The top Ayatollah or the Supreme Leader is elected for life by the Assembly of Experts, which consists of 88 senior clergymen elected once in eight years through direct voting.
Even Iran’s parliament, comprising two Houses — the Lower House or the Consultative Assembly and the Upper House or the Guardian Council — is subservient to the Supreme Leader. The Consultative Assembly consists of members elected through the secret ballot. The Guardian Council, which has veto power, is composed of 12 members — 50 per cent of them are jurists selected by the Lower House and the other 50 per cent are clergy men chosen by the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader selects between 30 and 40 people to constitute the powerful Expediency Council to assist him in overseeing the entire system.
The President of Iran runs the system with all these institutions watching his functioning very closely. Rouhani can go only to an extent to implement his liberal and reformist ideas. He is believed to be interested in having close relations with all major powers of the world, including India. He has succeeded in freeing Iran from the UN and US sanctions, but the Persian Gulf nation is badly caught in the West Asian Sunni-Shia imbroglio with the US-backed Saudi Arabia pitted against it. It supports Shia regimes like that in Syria with Chinese and Russian backing whereas the West has expressed the view that peace can return to Syria only if the Bashar Al-Assad regime there is replaced by an elected government.
Iran’s involvement in the West Asian crisis may remain a major roadblock in President Rouhani’s efforts for forging friendly relations with the West, including the US. In such a situation, there is little possibility of Iran not remaining at daggers drawn with the US despite the historic nuclear deal signed between Iran and the West. India will have to observe utmost caution in its dealings with Teheran even if there are attractive offers from Rouhani’s Iran.