India and Iran have had a long relationship stretching back to ancient times. Iranian (or Persian) influence has produced a deep imprint upon Indian art, poetry, architecture and literature. With periodic invasions, military adventures and constant cross-migrations between the two empires, the people of Iran and northern India share many cultural and ethnic characteristics.
In the 21st century, the relations between these two great nations must be framed along the lines of geo-politics and oil, rather than art and culture.
Although India was greatly worried by the 1979 revolution in Iran that toppled the Shah and established an Islamic state, New Delhi and Teheran have generally enjoyed good relations. That tie became stronger with India’s insatiable appetite for energy in tandem with western sanctions that have pressured Iran to find customers for its crucial oil exports.
Indeed, India -which criticized the sanctions by the U.S., United Nations and European Union – recently became Iran’s top oil buyer.
However, there are complications – among other things, India is likely concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, despite New Delhi’s rejection of western sanctions. The last thing India wants is a nuclear-armed Muslim state in its neighborhood (Pakistan in quite enough).
International Business Times spoke to an expert on Mideast and South Asian affairs to discuss the tangled web of Iran-India relations.
Dilshod Achilov is a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University at Johnson City, Tenn.
IB TIMES: Due to western sanctions, Iran is desperate to sell its oil to the two big Asian customers, India and China — and at a significant discount. Generally speaking, how have Iran and India gotten along since the 1979 Islamic Revolution?
ACHILOV: The bilateral relations between India and Iran go back for centuries. However, after the Iranian revolution, the dynamics of cooperation changed to a certain degree. Even thought the 1979 revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan complicated the relations between Tehran and New Delhi, strategic and regional cooperation between two states continued to exist, but in a more wary and cautious fashion.
The newly formed theocratic Iranian regime was not warmly received by India at first. In particular, India’s main concern was a potential strong alliance that could emerge between Iran and Pakistan. However, given the strong anti-American sentiments in the post-1979 Iran, Pakistan’s close relations with the U.S. was a complicating aspect (i.e., a major roadblock) for future Iran-Pakistani cooperation.
On the other hand, the new Iranian regime was concerned about India’s regional aspirations with regards to Central Asia and India’s growing cooperation with the U.S./West.
After the Cold War, nonetheless, the bilateral relations entered a new phase. With its booming economy, India realized that it needed Iran’s rich energy resources. For Iran, India was a huge market and a potential regional partner (as Iran had become isolated or disconnected from the world after the Khomeini revolution). It is fair to say that trade and economic relations embedded in energy politics are key defining features of Iran-India relations.