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The "overdue" strategic partnership between India and Iran

10/17/03 By Sheherazade Jafari, National Iranian American Council

Washington DC, October 16, 2003 - Thursday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, C. Christine Fair, an Associate Policy Analyst at RAND, and Jalil Roshandel, a Visiting Professor at Duke University, discussed the "strategic partnership" between India and Iran that was first unveiled during President Mohammed Khatami's visit to India earlier this year.

During India's 54th Republic Day celebrations in January 2003, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Khatami-as the first Iranian head of government to have ever been invited as a guest of honor to such a ceremony-pledged to cooperate on energy, trade, antiterrorism, and a "strategic collaboration on third countries", which Fair noted could refer to Afghanistan.

A few months later, in the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Iran since 1993, Vajpayee met with Khatami again to sign agreements on a variety of subjects and further discuss the development of the "North-South Corridor", a significant trade route that will link Europe to Asia and will call upon India, Iran, and Russia to play pivotal roles.

It is in light of these recent events, Fair pointed out, that the "reinvigorated partnership" between India and Iran must be examined. She discussed three phases in their relationship that highlight the key milestones and motivations behind this strategic partnership. During the first, which began at India's independence in 1947 and lasted until the end of the Cold War in 1990, the two countries maintained mostly commercial relations as Iran "embarked on an attempt to export its Islamic revolution" and was distracted by the Iran-Iraq war.

India and Iran entered a second phase when they began to share mounting security concerns in their region directly following the Soviet Union's demise and the Taliban's rule over Afghanistan. The events of September 11, 2001 started the third and present phase in which both countries see an intense need to contain the Taliban and better secure the region for their economic and political interests.

Given this timeline and the fact that India already maintains strategic relations with Arab states and other neighboring countries, Fair found it unsurprising that India and Iran have formed this partnership. What is surprising, believed Roshandel, is that it took so long. He reflected on his own experiences in Iran shortly after the Iran-Iraq war when the country "couldn't even export its macaroni because it first had to export the Koran."

Roshandel identified four key benefits for Iran in its policy towards India. First, a strategic partnership can help Iran gain wider access to resources in other parts of Asia. Second, facilitating the access of countries like India or the Persian Gulf States towards landlocked Central Asia can be higly profitable to Iran. Third, Iran will gradually experience larger and larger economic gains as a transit country between Central Asia and India. And fourth, by creating mutual interdependencies, Iran can eventually reduce its dependencies to the West.

"Ultimately," said Roshandel, "India and Iran have established an unprecedented agreement that can be mutually beneficial on three fronts: economic, political, and military." Iran is home to the second largest natural gas reserve and India has one of the largest demands for energy. While plans for pipelines are still unclear, Iran will have a unique role in providing gas to India's population.

Furthermore, by participating in non-oil trade and investing in small projects in India's infrastructure, Iran can work better towards resolving its current economic problems. Politically, Iran's worsening relations with Pakistan can be an advantage to India, while India's friendship can help Iran in dealing with its "burden of international isolation." Militarily, the countries decided that India will have access to Iran's military base in the event of a war with Pakistan, while Iran will have access to advanced Indian military technology.

Fair also acknowledged factors that can act as limitations to this partnership, such as India's interest in a more robust relationship with the U.S. and Israel, who happens to be India's second largest supplier of military cargo. From the U.S. perspective, Fair points to two possible implications. Since both India and Iran are interested in advanced space launch capabilities, their relationship can be especially disconcerting in regards to nonproliferation.

Yet, examined in the long-term, India's relationship with Iran could have some utility in shaping future US-Iran relations. Given the current circumstances in the world, however, both speakers believe the India-Iran partnership has the potential to enhance stability in Central Asia and provide a greater number of economic opportunities, such as increased employment, to both countries.

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