Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami
In his tweet on March 2, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the recent killings of Muslims by Hindu mobs in New Delhi. The carnage is being compared to the anti-Sikh campaign of 1984 in the Indian capital, the 1993 Muslim massacre in Mumbai, and the anti-Muslim pogrom of Gujarat in 2002. Zarif said that Iran condemns the wave of organized violence against Indian Muslims. For centuries, Iran has been a friend of India. We urge Indian authorities to ensure the wellbeing of all Indians and not let senseless thuggery prevail. The path forward lies in peaceful dialogue and rule of law.” He was reacting to the violence in northeast Delhi, which claimed more than 50 lives and left about 200 injured. The Delhi Police was accused of either turning a blind eye or aiding the well-armed mobs that targeted Muslim neighborhoods, homes, and businesses.
Zarif’s denunciation was a rare move by a member of the Iranian executive branch. It can be considered a tactical response by Tehran, which is displeased with New Delhi's growing closeness with Washington’s line against Iran. Iran has criticized India for a lack of resilience in the face of US pressure as India halted Iranian oil purchases after the imposition of US sanctions in May of last year. Moreover, Iran has voiced concern over the sluggish progress on the Chabahar Port, which India holds strategic value in partial management of. By allocating a terminal to India in Central Asia’s proximity, Iran thought that it would earn favors from New Delhi in its conflict with the Trump administration, underestimating US influence over India.
Though the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has shared concerns about the anti-Muslim violence in India, interestingly, the Gulf Arab states have been silent. Tehran has sent a message to India that the Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi should not take Iran's support for India in the OIC and other Islamic forums for granted. Moreover, Iran aims to differentiate itself from Pakistan’s old Arab allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE with whom India has recently nurtured deep and wide-ranging relations. As expected, Iran's rebuke was well received in Pakistan. Pakistan’s foreign minister, and other officials, praised Zarif’s objurgation of India, which will bludgeon the Saudi and UAE rulers to issue statements.
After statements from Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Indonesia, Iran does not want to appear pusillanimous in supporting India’s 200-million-strong Muslim community, which faces marginalization due to the rise of Hindu nationalism. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has also decried India. In his tweet on March 5, he stated that the hearts of Muslims all over the world are grieving over the massacre of Muslims in India. The Indian government should confront extremist Hindus and their parties and stop the massacre of Muslims to prevent India’s isolation from the Islamic world.
This is bound to further rattle India and put pressure on its foreign policy. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, which claims to be a leader for Muslims, will encounter more humiliation. The UAE, an inconsequential country of mercantile sheikhs (leaders), is irrelevant. Apart from Pakistan, which has requested international intervention over India's treatment of its Muslim minority under the BJP rule, major Muslim countries, notably Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey, have also condemned India. Bangladesh, which will face ramifications from India’s expanding Hindu nationalism, has also criticized India’s new Citizenship law, the root cause of the recent violence. In short, the countries permitting freedom of speech have taken a stand against Hindu nationalism but authoritarian regimes have remained tight-lipped. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is becoming more culturally insular and economically protective. Pragmatic Indians fear the administration’s persecution of minorities will eventually yield a heavy diplomatic cost.
Historically, especially since the establishment of the clerical regime in Tehran, Iranian condemnation of Indian policies has come either from the supreme leader or other subordinate clerics. Iran's executive branch, led by the President and chief diplomat, has always handled Indian sensitivities when it comes to issuing statements on the Kashmir dispute and related issues. So, Iranian officials have dissimilar patterns of addressing India's domestic plights. Therefore, Zarif’s statement outraged the Indian government. Nevertheless, the stakes are high for Iran in India’s alliances with Washington and Israel. Another indicator that Iran is perturbed by India over unfulfilled promises can be understood by the headline of an Iranian newspaper Farehtighan, which described Modi as the “Butcher of Delhi.”
Until now, Iran had eschewed taking a critical stand on matters related to India, including the highly sensitive Kashmir issue. After the Modi government, on August 5, 2019, stripped Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir of its special status, Tehran reacted moderately. It expressed concern over the “condition of people” in the Kashmir Valley and urged New Delhi to adopt “a fair policy” towards the region.
Unlike Turkey and Malaysia, which have taken a firm position on Kashmir and India’s treatment of Muslims, a reproachful statement from India's old friend, Iran, is indicative of a shift in Tehran-New Delhi relations. Moreover, in the past, Indonesia, which has always maintained a pro-India stance, had been forced to assuage domestic Muslim opinion on Hindu nationalist attacks against Muslims. However, Jakarta cannot ignore the strong declarations regarding India issued by Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, the two largest Indonesian Muslim organizations.
Zarif hosted Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar in December for the 19th Iran-India Joint Commission Meeting and in January, attended the annual Raisina Dialogue as a key speaker. In an interview, he offered to use Iran’s “good offices” to improve relations between India and Pakistan. At a business event in New Delhi, Zarif proclaimed: “India was on our side through the difficult times and that is why we will never forget you when better times come and I assure you better times will come.”
However, things seem to have already changed. India took umbrage at Zarif's unexpected remark and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Iranian Ambassador Ali Chegeni to register a protest. Furthermore, the Indian government spokesman said: “The Iranian Ambassador to India Mr. Ali Chegeni was summoned and a strong protest was lodged against the unwarranted remarks made by the Iranian Foreign Minister. It was conveyed that his selective and tendentious characterization of recent events in Delhi is not acceptable. We do not expect such comments from a country like Iran.” India and Iran seem to be entering a new phase of bilateral relations, which may result in India losing influence in the Muslim world. If Iran takes a hard line against India, it could have broader implications in South Asia and the Middle East, which is well worth watching.