The Islamic Republic of Iran is an important but often a contentious player geopolitically.
Firstly, it is a majority Shia sect nation, while the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries belong to the Sunni sect. Iran has been competing with GCC countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE for strategic dominance in the Middle East. The country is also very important in terms of regional strategy, as it not only has major control over the Strait of Hormuz, but is also a very important hub for the global oil trade.
In recent years, of course, Iran has suffered as a consequence of economic sanctions imposed by the US in partnership with other countries. The Trump Administration has followed a particularly aggressive policy approach vis-à-vis Iran, beginning with the withdrawal, in 2018, from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between P5+1 nations and Iran in 2015.
Recent changes in the Middle East
The Middle East has witnessed a strategic shift with the United States brokered UAE-Israel ‘Abraham Accord’ followed by Bahrain normalization, and the China-Iran Deal. The developments strongly reinforce the point that the geopolitical landscape of the region is rapidly changing. The ‘Abraham Accord’ shows that Saudi-led GCC countries are now open to normalizing relations with Israel and focusing on the larger threat of Iran in the region.
Watch: Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony at the White House
The Iran-China strategic pact shows the realignment strategy adopted by Tehran, which is trying to counter the narrative pushed by the United States in the region. The pact is a 25-year partnership in trade, politics, culture and security (the fine print of the agreement was worked out during the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China in 2019). It was not until July 2019 that the Iranian Foreign Minister mentioned the deal. Interestingly, it has faced criticism from various quarters in Iran, including from top politicians, who reason that it would increase Tehran’s dependence upon Beijing.
Watch: China and Iran draft a new $400 billion pact
This pact will bolster the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative BRI project and its gains over the Central Asian region. China has been given access to the strategically important Jask Port through this agreement. Iran will also give priority to China in important business deals. The deal paves the way for billion dollar investments in energy, security, banking, etc. by China
Strategic benefits of the deal
The deal allows China to expand towards Central Asia and further west, without relying solely on sea routes. It opens doors for growing Chinese influence. Trump views Iran to be aiding China’s ‘Look East’ Policy. China attains relative energy security through Iran’s granting it access to the strategically important Jask Port. The agreement has caught allies like India off-guard. India had been pushing for major development initiatives with China, such as the Chabahar Port Project. This move by Tehran is also seen to be a counter to the closeness of the United States with India, and New Delhi’s hesitation to import oil from Iran since 2019.
Iran is important not just in the context of being a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia, but also in South Asian security – especially in the context of developments in Afghanistan. New Delhi can not expect Tehran to overlook its economic and strategic interests. Given the Trump administration’s approach to Tehran, it was not left with too many options other than to veer towards China. At the same time, New Delhi can not afford to alienate Iran by totally by toeing the line of the Trump Administration.
A Shift in Focus back from the US to Iran
In recent weeks, India has begun to pay close attention to Iran with visits by Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar to Tehran, with progress on the Chabahar Port Project and the regional security situation discussed on each occasion. While Rajnath Singh visited Tehran on his return from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Defence Minister’s conference, Jaishankar visited Tehran en-route to the SCO Foreign Minister’s conference. One of the incentives of India’s outreach to Iran is the possibility of a change of guard in the White House. Joe Biden, who served as Barack Obama’s Vice President, has already indicated he will engage with Iran, and follow a policy similar to that of Obama. This would give India more space to engage with Iran.
During both these meetings a number of issues were discussed. There was a special emphasis on the progress of the Chabahar Port Project and the overall security architecture in the region. India had earlier participated in the Afghan Talks in Doha, signalling a shift on its position on the Taliban’s role in Afghanistan.
The recent deal between GCC countries and Israel clearly emphasizes the dynamic nature of contemporary geopolitics.
While all eyes have been on the impact of the Abraham Accord on South Asia’s geopolitics, India needs to engage with Iran, given its importance. A lot will also depend upon Washington’s approach to Tehran. While a number of analysts have spoken about the pitfalls of a Biden presidential victory, India’s options vis-à-vis Tehran would certainly open up after Biden’s clear indications that he will move away from Trump’s Iran policy.
This article is co-authored by Madhav Grover, a student at the Warwick Law School, UK.