Iran : A First Hand Account
Sub Title : A strategic review of Iran, a nation that sits on the crossroads of the Islamic world
Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 5 Nov/Dec 2019
Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM* (Retd)
Page No. : 28
Category : Geostrategy
: December 9, 2019
The article, based on the author’s visit to its capital city, is a strategic review of Iran, a nation that sits on the crossroads of the Islamic world and therefore has great significance. It provides a succinct overview of Iran from the impact of US sanctions, Iran’s perception of Kashmir to its strategic compulsions and orientation
My passport carries an Israeli visa stamp which made me doubt that the Iranians would find me welcome. However, not only did I receive an Iranian visa at first attempt, but I also had the smoothest and most polite entry through immigration. That should set the tone for the revelation of a fascinating nation which appears changing without compromising one bit on its strategic interests. I was conscious that I was only visiting the capital city Tehran, not the best way of assessing a nation. It was Mashad, Shiraz, Isfahan and Qom which should have been on the itinerary but that is obviously reserved for a future visit because Iran cannot be absorbed through a one off visit and that too only to the capital.
I was on a delegation visit with some official interaction too but was acutely aware that the best way to get a measure of the real thing was to interact with people of all hues which I did. Besides that,
I had a great opportunity to be interviewed by an Iranian Farsi news channel (Tasnim News), on Indo-Iran relations with much focus on Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) which seems to be the flavour of the times. It was not internationalization of J&K but an opportunity to explain the Indian narratives correctly and firmly.
Brief Strategic Backdrop
It’s important to get the backdrop right. India and Iran have a civilizational relationship as it was often stated during the discussions in Tehran. Somehow that has failed to evolve into anything greater than a peripheral and transactional relationship. During the rule of the Shah of Iran (the Pahelvi dynasty), Iran was firmly embedded in the US camp and part of its multiple strategic alliances. Its stance towards India was one of cooperative reticence, transactional and lacking passion although the only negativity appeared to be an apparent pro-Pakistan attitude. It was understandable because although the Shia Sunni sectarian and ideological divide wasn’t so distinct then, Iran had to cultivate its interests in the Islamic world where it could otherwise be isolated. Being majority Shia in its demography it was not at a great comfort level with the Sunni nations which had an Arab bias. The common US linkage that Iran and Pakistan enjoyed no doubt helped in synchronization of interests. It had a good relationship with Israel too. The Soviet Union was geographically far too close for comfort and its ambition to have facilities in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean kept Iran on tenterhooks and in the lap of the US. 1979-80 changed everything; the hostage crisis put US-Iran relations into a can of permanent enmity. Forty years later the US has yet to emerge from that and the subsequent disastrous attempt to rescue the hostages by the Delta Force cannot be removed from US psyche. Run under strict authority of the clergy Iran’s reputation plummeted from the liberal, forward looking state that it was to an authoritarian Islamic regime. It also triggered another problem; a perception across the Persian Gulf that Shia activism let loose by the Iranian revolution would attempt to steal a march within Islam’s sectarian divide and upstage the hold which Saudi Arabia enjoyed over Islam especially by virtue of the existence of the two major Islamic shrines of pilgrimage within Saudi Arabia; at Mecca and Medina.
In the early Nineties, Iran attempted recovery from the disastrous Iran-Iraq war of the Eighties. It sought missile technology from North Korea and acquired some SSMs through an off the shelf purchase. It became a virtual pariah in 2003 on the back of a US strategy to further weaken it once it was discovered that it had an ambitious nuclear weapons project under development. Missile capability coupled with nuclear weapon technology was sufficient to raise hackles. Sanctions were imposed on it weakening its economy and its assets in US and other banks were frozen. It is only on 15 Jul 2015 that Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) accepting controls and limits on its nuclear weapon ambitions in return for lifting of sanctions. It was to be short lived. Two years later President Trump abrogated the US stance, re-imposed sanctions even more strictly and pulled out of the JCPOA, effectively dismantling it. Other big powers attempted salvaging the damage but no agreement exists today and sanctions have been imposed even more stringently affecting Iran’s economy and India’s energy acquisition plans besides its strategic interests in Chahbahar port.
For India its energy security is always a major issue and 11 percent of its energy imports which came from Iran are now down to virtually zero. Besides that, the crucial port of Chahbahar is something that India was developing for a couple of strategic advantages. First was the fact that the port is outside the Persian Gulf waters and in the Indian Ocean; the effects of closure of Bandar Abbas the major Iranian port, in the event of tension in the Persian Gulf would then be felt to a lesser extent. Second and more strategically Chahbahar helps in circumventing Pakistan and reaching Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) thus neutralizing Pakistan’s denial of direct Indian access to these areas of Indian interest. Chahbahar is essential for Indian interests to access the North-South Corridor which gives Indian trade with Russia and Europe a better advantage of avoiding very long and circuitous sea routes.
One arrives in a country such as Iran deeply influenced by the media one tends to read, view or hear; all kinds of misnomers abound. One imagines a police state and people with unhappy hollow looks, a complete shortage of essentials and some kind of deep religious obsession. I do feel happy to report that none of that seems to exist in Iran today although its economy is obviously shaky which makes currency exchange rates extremely awkward and fickle. You cannot use any of the known credit cards as Iran is outside the international banking system. Currency exchanged locally has to be spent in Iran because you can’t change it back. The US dollar is still very popular, and you can pay using it.
Oil which has always been the mainstay of Iran’s economy has slid in terms of production, by 1.2 million barrels per day in comparison to Oct 2018. The health care sector has suffered too. The domains apparently making steady strides are telecom and scientific research. Telecom is ensuring deep penetration of mobile internet. Drone and missile technology are under deep research and probably Iran’s cyber capability is insufficiently known about. Iran is likely to make major strides in these fields in future and will make the West more paranoid about its capability.
There is very little anti US sentiment among the people. One would have expected some ‘in the face’ hoardings extolling virtues of the Revolution but I spotted perhaps just one. Even anti-Israel sentiment seems negligible and definitely not of the hyper variety. Religious norms are definitely in place but not obsessive. Almost 70 percent of the government workforce consists of women who do not seem to be under very great constraint to follow dress codes except covering of part of the head with a head scarf. Multi gender parties were being conducted quite openly including late night ones at hotels. People seemed quite surprised about my query on existence of namaaz monitors who I learnt exist primarily in government offices and insist on Friday mid-day prayers; there seemed no other compulsion about prayers.
Interestingly listening to strategic briefs one hardly came across any sentimental or emotive discourse. These included just plain facts as per perception with which one can agree or disagree. There was no anti-Saudi, anti US or anti-Israel rhetoric which one could have expected. There is obvious effort afoot to ensure that Iran does not go into isolation due to economic sanctions. In this regard the efforts to improve relations with the UAE are most evident. Many flights of the Dubai carrier Emirates Airlines were seen landing and taking off at the international airport. UAE has recently released 750 million USD worth of frozen Iranian funds and is known to be withdrawing its army and air force personnel from the coalition forces fighting in Yemen under Saudi sponsorship. Yemen is one of the countries where Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the high profile 1,25,000 strong force led till recently by Maj Gen QasimSuleimani, is reported to be involved in sponsoring Yemeni Shia proxies against Saudi Arabia.
In fact, a mention of Iran’s strategy of countering US-Israel-Saudi collaborative military advantage in West Asia is important. Iran seems fully aware that its security lies in the development of comparative deterrence. It’s based upon multiple factors. First is capability and that is clearly in the field of proxy asymmetric war. While the IRGC may have had some direct involvement in Syria but mostly it’s the sponsorship of many Shia organizations which gives it out of area capability. Second, there is the huge investment in missile technology and deployment of SSMs. The Israeli estimate conveyed to me in a brief in Tel Aviv two few years ago was 130,000 Iranian origin missiles in the Levant; it seemed a fair exaggeration although Israeli estimates are usually not incorrect. Iran has developed a good relationship with Qatar especially after the latter’s isolation within the GCC community.
Obviously chinks in the Arab Sunni world are perceived by Iran as working to its strategic advantage. UAE and Qatar drawing towards it and now even Saudi Arabia attempting some dilution in tension especially after the drone attack by Houthi proxies on the Aramco refinery, should be seen as positive developments although far too early to make any impact in the strategic environment of West Asia. Iran is largely critical of Turkey’s recent actions in Syria which it feels may instigate the Kurds across the regional divide to combine their forces and seek a separate greater Kurdistan spread across Kurdish areas in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. However, in the same breath a perception exists that US decision to pull out of Syria stands advantageous for Russia, Turkey and Iran. The relationship with Russia has helped give Iran a solid footing in the Levant where the Russian interest is focused on the support to Syria’s Bashir Assad for the sake of the Russian facility at Latakia port, the only port in the Mediterranean where the Russians have a footing. The Khmeimim Air Base in its vicinity is also with the Russians. With Hezbollah as an effective proxy Iran has an extension from Hormuz right up to the Mediterranean, not an insignificant influence by any yardstick. However, it will need to handle Iraq much more deftly because there are sub sectarian loyalties which do not entirely play to Iranian advantage.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s efforts towards rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran emerged around the time of my visit. Queries on this drew only smiles which confirmed the lack of seriousness with which this is taken in Iran; perhaps the same exists in Saudi Arabia where the recent military embarrassments haven’t placed former Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif in any positive light; he is the head of the so called Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in Saudi Arabia.
India – Iran Relations
There is much talk of the civilizational relationship between Iran and India but equally there is frustration expressed about the inability to take it to a higher level of understanding. There is muted concern about the Indo-Saudi relationship but equally there is also understanding of India’s compulsions with regard to Indo-US-Saudi relations and India’s proximity to Israel. That these are mutually exclusive is well understood without any attempt to push for exclusion of these to progress India-Iran relations. Compulsions of India’s strategic necessity preventing a transformational relationship, is always a debatable issue. The Pakistan factor is an important one in this relationship. India will probably feel far more comfortable with Iran not attempting to balance its relationship with Pakistan relative to India. A kind of hyphenation appears to exist but Iran shares a border with Pakistan and wishes to maintain an Islamic affinity with it. The example of India’s evolving relationship with UAE and Saudi without any hyphenation with Pakistan is what Iran and India must eventually seek. Iran’s sharing a long border with Pakistan and Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan possibly imposes a strategic caution which Iran needs to overcome. Balochistan is a touchy issue with Iran which has a sizeable Iranian Baloch population in its Sistan province adjoining Pakistan’s Baloch territory.
There is a vocal demand for India to include Iran in its deliberations over the Indian Ocean particularly the North West IOR where a long Iran coastline exists. Iran’s affinity with India’s 25 million Shia population is important. It remains assured of their safety in India and the positive contribution they make while also remaining a cultural link entity between Iran and India.
It appears Iran is expecting to wait out the Trump Administration and hope for a more reasonable US President to deal with in the future. If that happens perhaps India’s focus on Chahbahar and energy purchase will become much easier lending weight to a more enduring relationship. The challenge will be if President Trump returns. Iran’s true Shia character will then probably come even more to the fore; Shia philosophy focuses much on sacrifice and the ability to drive and inspire the community on the basis of this.
Iran’s Perception on Kashmir (J&K)
One of the most interesting events for me personally was the experience of being queried for an hour plus in a recording for Tasnim TV, a very popular channel with news and strategic affairs content. That Indian perception management effort on J&K has not penetrated anywhere there was quite obvious. The questionnaire clearly reflected that the questions might well have been drafted in Islamabad. It was also obvious that India had spent too much time and effort justifying the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A without actually realizing that internationally knowledge about the J&K issue itself is almost nonexistent. Thus, Pakistan’s hype that India’s unilateral actions are against the UN Resolution and the disputed status of J&K appeared to gather more traction. That the UN Resolution is dead and remains only in existence for the sake of books, and that Pakistan’s unilateral actions over 70 years to change to status quo by force have forced India’s hand is not spoken about. The existence of the 1972 Shimla Agreement and the clause with respect to bilateralism appears to carry little weight because of the ignorance regarding its existence. India’s magnanimity in 1972 of not taking conflict termination to a logical conclusion and pressing resolution of J&K on its terms, after the victory over Pakistan in the 1971 Indo-Pak War and surrender of 93,000 Pakistani PsW finds no mention in the milestones of India Pakistan relations. What Pakistan has been able to do is to steal a march on the moral platform painting India the villain and the abrogator of human rights which is what catches the international media’s eye.
I spoke at length about the history of India-Pakistan relations; about how the post Cold War period could have provided opportunities for both countries to sit together under the provisions of bilateralism in the Shimla Agreement, and perhaps resolve J&K. However, I added that Pakistan viewed this as an emerging opportunity and very adroitly launched a proxy hybrid war in J&K hoping to wrest it by internal revolt of the people aided by violence instigated by radical Islamic terror groups.
I then went on to link Pakistan’s Afghanistan experience and the use of the spirit of transnational Islam to link J&K to the larger existential issues of the Islamic Ummah. I had to re-emphasize frequently that India had as many if not more Muslims in India as in Pakistan. The focus remained unerringly on explaining the past to build the current narrative; for example, the employment of transnational jihadis in J&K in 1991-96 to alter the status quo.
What the Indian perception machinery has not been able to explain adequately to the world is about the restrictions on communication in Kashmir; the denial of mobile internet connectivity which thus prevents the use of social media. The modern world looks upon connectivity as a virtual human right, with employment generation through e-commerce and information. I clearly bought out how social media is a tool for instigation and generation of violence, subversion by adversaries and even coordination of sabotage. The connection between security and liberty has also not been established in target minds; that liberties are provided progressively commensurate with security which takes the priority. Our experience of 2010 and 2016 when social media remained virtually open in the hands of instigators should also be spoken about in international security circles.
There is no doubt that Iran reflects its deep and rich civilization like few other countries. The key to its moving forward and developing its own position in the sphere of international affairs commensurate to its overall capability and resources is to work towards improvement of its relationship with Saudi Arabia (appears to be on the cards), Israel and the US. To be stuck in the groove of sectarian competition for geostrategic space may not always be in its interests. The current phase of isolation may last a little longer but thereafter Iran, once a regular member of, and comfortable with the international community will have much to offer to the world and to India. We need to keep the window open, continue positive engagement and await greater opportunities that may see India straddle the Islamic sectarian divide and develop a strong and abiding relationship to mutual advantage.