India-Iran makeover dovetails into Iran’s ties with Russia

Modi had built a good rapport with Raisi who was due to visit India later this year.

by M. K. Bhadrakumar

There is enormous appreciation among Iranian intellectuals, diplomats and politicians regarding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stellar support for their country’s membership of the BRICS grouping. Modi played a key role to navigate Iran’s membership purposively at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg last August.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and Iran’s president late Ibrahim Raisi at the BRICS Summit, Johannesburg, August 18, 2023

The Russian President Vladimir Putin couldn’t be present at Johannesburg. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the summit in person, rubbishing the malicious rumours and canards to the contrary orchestrated by the western media. The Anglo-Saxon game plan was  to somehow get Iran’s membership question deferred to an indefinite future.   

The defining moment was a phone call from the Iranian President late Ibrahim Raisi to Modi in the week before the summit meeting. However, the ground for the last-minute flurry of diplomatic activity was prepared in the preceding weeks by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval when he attended the meeting of BRICS national security advisors in Johannesburg in late July, just weeks prior to the summit to review security and economic cooperation.

Doval held separate “working meetings” with his Russian and Iranian counterparts — Nikolai Patrushev and  Ali-Akbar Ahmadian respectively. The NSAs discussed Iran’s BRICS membership issue as a core vector of the Johannesburg summit.

Ahmadian and Doval’s talking points covered the whole spectrum of Iran-India relations  and an ambitious agenda to deepen the ties across the board in fields ranging from transportation, energy and banking to counter-terrorism. 

The two NSAs agreed that the Chabahar Port project, which is the anchor sheet of Modi’s hugely ambitious vision for India’s regional policies, stands to gain from Iran’s BRICS membership, even as the Moscow-led International North-South Transportation Corridor is steadily coming into operation. 

Tehran visualises that in the downstream of Chabahar Port, Indian trade and industry can and should enter the hinterland in a big way via trade, investments and project exports. The Iranian side feels that Chabahar has the potential to elevate India’s partnership with Iran to an altogether higher strategic level.  

Significantly, the makeover in India-Iran ties also dovetails into a paradigm shift under way in the two countries’ respective relations with Russia. Iran and Russia signed a memorandum this week in Tehran to turn Iran into “a regional gas hub.” Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller personally attended the signing ceremony, testifying to the highest importance the Kremlin attaches to the futuristic project. 

The Russian intention is to enter the Iranian market in the northern Caspian region through Soviet era pipelines from the Caucasus and Central Asia and to participate in the development of the Iranian gas industry, the construction of gas pipelines, LNG projects and mining projects. Gazprom is interested in organising swap supplies to third countries and a number of LNG projects in the south of Iran are being considered, according to a report in Kommersant newspaper, for tapping the South Asian market. 

Now, the big picture is not complete without factoring in that Moscow and Tehran are also in the cusp of a historic transformative breakthrough in their relationship with the Russia-Iran comprehensive cooperation treaty that has been under negotiation since 2022 ready for signature no sooner than the new government in Tehran settles down. Setting aside protocol, Putin had a telephone conversation on Wednesday with Iran’s Acting President Mohammad Mokhber — their second such conversation in the past fortnight. (here and here)

At any rate, Doval at his meeting with his Iranian counterpart at Johannesburg assured him that Iran’s accession to BRICSwould expand the grouping’s economic and political capacities. Doval was quoted as saying that New Delhi would use “every means and opportunity at its disposal to facilitate Iran’s accession” to the BRICS grouping. 

The Indian readout of the phone conversation between Modi and Raisi just four days before the Johannesburg summit highlighted that “The two leaders reiterated their commitment to further strengthen bilateral cooperation including to realise the full potential of Chabahar Port as a connectivity hub. The two leaders also discussed cooperation at multilateral forums including expansion of BRICS and looked forward to their meeting on the margins of forthcoming BRICS summit in South Africa.”

How far these positive impulses will be carried forward at Modi’s one-on-one discussions with Putin during his forthcoming two-day visit to Moscow on July 8 remains to be seen. Russia and Iran together own more than 60 percent of global gas reserves, and the expectation in Tehran is that the two countries’ energy deal in the making will facilitate the formation of “an energy balance in the region” — as Iran’s Oil Minister Javad Owji put it. Without doubt, Russia and Iran can be the most reliable suppliers of natural gas for the Indian market over the next several decades and strengthen India’s energy security through this century.

A holistic picture will be incomplete without casting an eye on the upcoming BRICS Summit as well. After all, Russia and Iran are under US sanctions. The crux of the matter is that the BRICS Summit in October in Kazan under Putin’s chairmanship will be focused on the creation of a new payment system for the member countries. Different variants are under consideration — the use of stablecoins (cryptocurrency tokens pegged to assets like gold), a platform to link the central banks’ digital currency systems, and the integration of national systems for financial messaging. 

At a media briefing in Moscow on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said BRICS countries are “actively and evenly pursuing initiatives” in all the 3 above-mentioned areas.  Ryabkov said the political momentum is “crucial here,” and added, “Perhaps there won’t be any decisions (at the Kazan summit) that completely revolutionise everything, and that may not be necessary in such a sensitive area where gradual progress is often best. However, there will be tangible outcomes and I’m pleased that all member states, including those who recently joined on January 1 share our common understanding and vision of the steps needed to move forward.” 

Modi had built a good rapport with Raisi who was due to visit India later this year. The importance of picking up the threads with Raisi’s successor cannot but be stressed. Perhaps, an early visit by Doval to Tehran is timely. 

By the way, Afghan situation is also causing concern to Iran and Russia as there are growing signs of a consolidation of Islamic State-Khorasan in the northern regions of Afghanistan with the active support of the CIA. In response, Moscow intends to remove the Taliban from its list of terrorist organisations and strengthen cooperation in counter-terrorism with the authorities in Kabul.    

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.