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Iran and India walk diplomatic tightrope between China and Israel
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani starts a three-day visit to India Thursday on a trip that may end-up being be a diplomatic balancing act for both sides. India sees Iran as a way to counter the growing influence of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, while Iran may try to counter the growing ties between New Delhi, and Tehran’s arch enemy, Israel.
India and Iran have a long, common history that goes back to the time of the Moguls. Today, though, both countries are trying to find a balance in the complex, international environment that surrounds them.
"We can see the current India-Iran relations “in the context of the growing Chinese influence to the “One Belt – One Road” initiative,” says Nikita Sud, an India specialist with Oxford University.
China has created a sort of necklace of ports across Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka and Vietnam, nicknamed the “string of pearls,” that stretches from the South China Sea to the coast of east Africa. The 'sting of pearls' gained in importance after China inaugurated its first overseas military base in Djibouti last year.
“India doesn’t lack ports of its own, it has invested hugely in ports and other infrastructure [as well as] maritime infrastructural development within India's territory, but as China expands, India is feeling the pressure to do so as well,” she says.
As a result, the Iranian port of Chabahar has become part of India’s own expansion plans. Chabahar would connect Afghanistan to the sea, and avoid Pakistan’s port of Gwadar, that is bankrolled by China’s One Belt – One Road plan. But in Iran, analysts see things differently.
“Some in India may think that the Chabahar project may be used for that purpose,” says Foad Izadi, an analyst with Tehran University.
“But Iran has good relations with both Pakistan and India. In fact [ ... ] one of the proposals that Iran has is linking Gwadar to the port of Chabahar. Iran’s aim is to cooperate with India and not to pressure Pakistan. Since Iran has good relations with both Pakistan and India, Iranian officials are interested in reducing tensions between the two neighboring countries India and Pakistan,” he says.
The other sensitive issue is the result of relations between Israel and New Delhi.
The visit of Hassan Rouhani comes just weeks after a broadly publicized visit by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to India.
Iran and Israel
Ties between Iran and India have been strengthened over the past decade.
“The two countries have a common strategic interest and a common strategic agenda,” says Efraim Inbar, of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
“And the relationship is very good. It is not just sales of weapons and technology. The two countries share a similar outlook on international relations and are fearful of Islamic radicalism.
“There is some kind of divergence of view between Jerusalem and New Delhi on Iran. The Indians doesn't see Iran as a dangerous country as Israel, and the two countries overcame this difference.
But one of the reasons for Hassan Rouhani’s visit may be exactly because in Iran, politicians do worry about it.
"Iran is concerned about a closer relationship between India and Israel,” says Izadi. " And it is one of the aims of Mr. Rouhani’s trip to India, to make sure that the Israelis don’t establish extensive links in India and turn India into a force against Iran.
At the same time, India seems to be trying to balance its relationship with Israel, by inviting Rouhani and strengthening links with Arab states.
“Of course India has tried to balance this by also reaching out to Palestine, which it sees as a more traditional ally than Israel,” says Sud.
“But you cannot have it [both] ways and I think it will be very clear to the hawks in Iran that the current affair is very much between India and Israel and they should be questioning it, and I’m sure they are,” she says.
But for both countries the visit is a political balancing act with Iranian hardliners not happy with Rouhani visiting a country that courts Israel, and Indian nationalists wary of a common past between India and Iran, something that doesn’t really fit in with their ideology of Indian nationalism.