Iran: No Cold War with China but Win, Win for all

By Saeed Naqvi

I don’t exactly gasp but am puzzled by the indifference with which the media has treated two fascinating Indo-Iranian stories. Now that Indo-Iranian relations are set to improve after crucial agreements signed in Tehran by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Hassan Rouhani, the anecdotes should be shared.

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During his journey to Iran in 1932, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) made a request: He was keen to visit the tomb of the great Persian Sufi poet, Hafez (1326-1390) at Shiraz.

A reading room attached to the shrine has a cornice on which is settled a remarkable photograph, the size of a pocket book. It shows Tagore at the tomb, with a book of Hafe’s verses open in front of him.

I have been to the shrine with Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. They were both fascinated by the great poets, representing two cultures, separated by six centuries, captured in one photograph. There was a great deal of loud thinking: life size copies of the photographs can adorn Indo-Iranian cultural centres, and perhaps the two embassies. So far, nothing has happened. Perhaps Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata would take interest.

The second story concerns Ayatullah Khomein’’s roots in the Shia enclave of Kuntoor, near Bara Banki, in the heart of what was once Awadh. After the Shah’s fall, there was a search on for new contacts in Tehran. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Minister for External Afffairs, asked me if I knew Khomeini’s clan in Kuntoor. I did. Maulana Agha Rhui Abaqati soon materialized in South Block. He was enlisted as a guide to a delegation consisting of Socialist leader and Vice Chairman Planning Commission Ashoke Mehta and senior diplomat Badruddin Tayyabji. When the trio reached Ayatullah Khomeini in Gumran, outside Tehran, there was something of any anti climax. The reception to the delegation was cold. Abaqati in fact got an earful from Khomeini himself.

It turned out that the young Islamic Revolution was eager not to publicize the Supreme leader’s “foreigm” roots. Opposition to Khomeini among the clergy would exploit it.

Against this background, Iranian ambassador Gholam Reza Ansari’s intervention at a seminar in New Delhi’s Leela hotel in 2014 was quite remarkable. The ambassador cited Imam Khomein’’s roots in Awadh as proof of ancient ties between the two countries. This was a major shift. Between the debacle faced by the Indian delegation in 1979 and 2014, the Iranian revolution had travelled a long distance. It felt secure enough to admit that Imam Khomeini ancestry could now be traced to India.

The point I am making here is a simple one: schools of Iranian studies have mushroomed in the West, placing every aspect of Shia scholarship under a microscope. Here, in and around Lucknow, is incontrovertible evidence of linkages between Indian centres of Shia scholarship and rest of the world. Libraries with rare books lie in utter neglect. Who knows, this astounding lack of interest may end in this new phase of accelerated relations between the two countries. Cultural collaboration is an important part of the agreements.

Iranians have been spreading out a range of maps before diplomats in Tehran. “It’s a win, win for all,” they say.

Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s very purposive visit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinto Abe’s officials are locked in discussion with their Iranian counterparts to prepare a script for Abe’s visit to Tehran in September. The development of Chabahar port will be an item on his agenda.

Pundits preoccupied with China and Pakistan will say: this is part of the US “pivot to Asia” in which, they hope, Iran too will be roped in. But the “win, win for all” chant coming out of Tehran suggest a more nuanced look at China’s anxieties, particularly in the South China Sea.

“In periods of hostility, their passage through the straits of Malacca can be choked,” said an Iranian diplomat. The Gawadar port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf is a key element in the Chinese ambitious One Belt – One Road concept. It frees them of their total dependence on Malacca. Iranian diplomats insist that Japanese interest in Chabahar need not be seen in adversarial terms. The distance between Gawadar and Chabahar, it is point out, is only 150 km. “Win, win for all” goes the chant after the recent agreements.

These agreements have been signed with an Iran everybody is wooing. The difference this time is that Prime Minister Modi has actually signed agreements after considerable preparation. But there still remains a fly in the ointment. The parallel road and rail links via Afghanistan, which are central to the Chabahar agreement, will remain unimplementable unless there is peace in Afghanistan. This should be a worry.

Americans have been threatening to pack their bags in Afghanistan since 2009. But their desire to leave was, in retrospect, seen to have been half hearted. Several factors were not allowing Afghanistan to be at peace with itself.

Outsiders have been reluctant to notice an undercurrent in Pushtoon society: the Durrani, Ghilzai tensions. This needs explanation. When Noor Mohammad Taraki, an Afghan Communist, took over as Prime Minister in 1978, an epoch making change took place.

By seizing power, after killing President Mohammad Daud Khan, the Communist parties, Khalq and Parcham, had upturned the Afghan feudal structure in many ways. For the first time in 200 years, Durranis had yielded power to Ghilzais. Like the late Mullah Omar, most of the Taliban leadership are Ghilzais. The power structure put together in Kabul with US help, whether Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani, happen to be part of the old ruling class: Durranis. If this 38 years old tension is ever to soften, Ghilzais will have to be decisively in power in Kabul. Is there a non Taliban route to this end?

For the American presence, however depleted, the port city of Karachi remains indispensable for logistics. The convoy route is seldom far from Taliban strongholds – Quetta or Kandahar.

Even after a considerable drawdown of troops, the US is unlikely to give up its half a dozen or so major bases. I wonder if pundits have spotted American determination to keep some presence in Afghanistan. They will never be too far from the world’s only Islamic state “too nuclear” to be left to its devices. Even for limited bases, Americans will always require continuous logistical help from Karachi.

Should Chabahar construction actually accelerate, the port, roads and rail linked to it can be used by everybody, Americans included. Americans finding alternative routes to and from Afghanistan is no trifling matter. It will spell loss of power in Islamabad. That is one of the reasons Chabahar will be a game changer.

Tehran is aware of all the contradictions with Islamabad. That is why both Supreme leader Ayatullah Ali Khameini and President Hassan Rouhani never gave up the chant: It is “win, win for all”; agreements are “against” nobody.

To underpin this “win, win”, Iranian officials point to an already existing rail link between Zahedan and Quetta which can be easily spruced up and extended should Pakistan so desire.