Hassan Rouhani: Iran’s New President Will Build Alliances With India and Afghanistan

Here is something I wrote for policymic

An unprecedented number of Iranians at home and abroad participated in the 11th presidential elections in the Islamic Republic. In a striking repudiation of the ultraconservatives who wield power in Iran, voters overwhelmingly elected a mild-mannered cleric who advocates greater personal freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the world. Hassan Rouhani, 64, won a commanding 51% of the vote in the six-way race. This punishing of hardliners at the polls indicated that Iranians were looking to their next president to change the tone, if not the direction, of the nation. Mr. Rouhani used a key as his campaign symbol, and focused on issues important to the youth, including unemployment. His message was one of outreach, responsiveness, and inclusion. While Rouhani is considered a relative moderate and had the backing of Iranian reformists, the hardline supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the ultimate authority on all state matters, including the nuclear program.

“Let’s end extremism”, Mr. Rouhani said during a campaign speech. “We have no other option than moderation”. During his campaign, Rouhani criticized the much-hated morality police who arrest women for not having proper head scarves and coats. He called for the lifting of restrictions on the Internet and hinted at freeing the political prisoners. Rouhani appears to be something of a post-Islamic revolution phenomenon. He is not too distant from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His own track record as head of Iran’s National Security Council and one-time nuclear negotiator means that he knows how to engage with the outside world. His victory also symbolizes the ascendancy of the reform movement that was so violently put down after the last presidential vote four years ago.

India and Iran are actively exploring options for expanding the amount of goods India is sending to Afghanistan via Iran. The two governments have begun drawing up a transit agreement to allow India to ship more goods to Afghanistan through Iranian territory. Reports suggest that the Indian government is keen to invest over $100 million in the expansion of Chabahar port in southeastern Iran. India helped finance the construction of the port and first used it to ship 100,000 metric tons of wheat to Afghanistan in early 2012.

Delhi has long viewed Tehran as an integral part of its Afghan strategy given the Persian Gulf state’s proximity to Afghanistan, which allows India to use it to bypass Pakistan. Besides allowing India to bypass Pakistan, Chabahar is particularly well-suited for India to aid Afghanistan because the Iranian government has built a series of roads connecting Chabahar port to the Iran-Afghanistan border. From there goods can be transported by road to the southwestern Afghan city of Zaranj, thanks to the 215-km-long Delaram-Zaranj highway (Route 606) that India built for Afghanistan at a cost of around $110 million.

While Pakistan and Iran signed an agreement to lay a 1600-km gas pipeline earlier this year, there are many obstacles still plaguing the pipeline. Pakistan’s willingness to flout Washington’s threats of sanctions in pursuing the project – though driven by Islamabad’s desperate energy situation – has heightened Pakistan’s strategic value for Iran, especially compared to India which has proven much less willing to back the U.S. on the issue of sanctions, its leaders’ rhetoric notwithstanding.

Although the U.S. has certainly sanctioned individual Iranian port operating companies, the U.S. sanctions do not cover investments in Iran’s port infrastructure. India likely views financing the expansion of Chabahar as a means of deepening strategic cooperation with Iran without attracting the ire of the U.S. Treasury Department. Rouhani’s victory also comes at the time when the NATO pullout from Afghanistan is in the works, which will require Iran and Pakistan to work together on stabilizing the northern part of that country. Secondly, Iran would have to moderate its ties with India from the perspective of keeping a regional balance, so as not to annoy Pakistan’s powerful military apprehensive of India’s advances into Afghanistan.

Most critically, the Pakistani and Iranian government face a common problem in the Baluch insurgency. Pakistan’s troubled province Balochistan has witnessed a protracted insurgency over the last few years and the Baluch areas within Iran have also been in a low-grade conflict with the central state. Therefore, the two countries have to face some common challenges: stability in Afghanistan and tackling unrest in territories inhabited by the Baluch.

While the new government in Pakistan has not indicated the gas pipeline from Iran as a priority, sooner or later it will have to turn towards this option. However, it all depends on how Rouhani engages with the West and succeeds in redirecting Iran’s nuclear ambitions to ease sanctions on the country. Rouhani has a tricky path ahead, which will test his negotiation and diplomatic skills in the short term.

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