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17 February 2012, Gateway House

What Iran’s election means for India

On March 2, 2012, the Islamic Republic of Iran will hold its ninth parliamentary election. The outcome and state decisions that follow will have significant effects on India, which has strong political relations with Iran and relies on it for a considerable portion of its energy imports.

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The threat of a military attack against Iran has grown ever more imminent. At the same time, the country is fast approaching a ninth parliamentary (Majles) election March 2, 2012.  As the first national poll after the largely disputed presidential elections of June 2009, this vote is of unprecedented value for the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While prepared to forcefully clear off any possible uprising, the leadership is visibly concerned about low turnout rates.

The unpredictability surrounding this election and the composition of the ninth Majles add to a complex situation. The general political climate leading to election, the outcome and state decisions that follow will have direct and indirect implications for India.

The presidential election of 2009 resulted in the reelection of President Ahmadinejad. It also generated the Green Movement in response to the allegedly fraudulent elections. This set an entirely new stage in the politics of Iran. The government responded with organized violence against these uprisings leading to the marginalization of Green Movement and reformist figures.

With the exception of a small number of highly moderate candidates, reformists are essentially absent in the parliamentary election. Objecting to the house arrest of the leaders of the Green Movement and the detention of their supporters, reformists have refrained from running. Further, they aim to boycott the election, thereby creating anxiety about the possibility of low voter turnout among the ruling elite. Ultimately, this year the competition is merely among conservative candidates[i]. Interestingly, due to escalating disputes among the Supreme Leader, President Ahmadinejad and the eighth Majles, competition among conservative factions is now unusually fierce.

Nevertheless, in the complex structure of the Republic’s governance where there are a number of power centers, national security and foreign policy decisions often supersede the power of the Majles. Thus, it is important to closely follow power dynamics in all key institutions of the leadership and not only the Majles. Currently, the single most influential power struggle development is arguably the deepening clashes of the Supreme Leader and President Ahmadinejad. With various conservative factions choosing sides in this unparalleled clash, this disparity will continue to manifest itself at the Majles and beyond.

India currently has three interlinked areas of concern with regards to today’s Iran:  First is deepening anxiety in the West and Israel pertaining to Iran’s nuclear program, second is the geopolitical influence of Iran in West Asia, and third are Iran’s energy exports to India.

Israel and the US are running out of patience with Iran’s nuclear program. In particular, the possibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran is fast materializing. Given India’s strategic ties with the US and Israel, the future of its relations with Iran will highly depend on the events unfolding surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, this week India has unintentionally become even further involved with Iran-Israel clashes. Israel blames Iran for the recent bombings in New Delhi and Tbilisi that injured an Israeli diplomat. While Iran denies these accusations, India is refraining from putting the blame on Iran until investigations are complete.

Secondly, Iran’s role in West Asia is currently of high relevance for India. In Afghanistan, Iran and India aim to outmaneuver Pakistani influence. India seeks to limit Pakistan’s strategic presence in the post-US Afghanistan while Iran aims to deter the Sunni and Wahhabi hegemony. Essentially, India needs Iran’s cooperation in deterring Pakistan and countering the Taliban in Afghanistan. Another complexity concerning Iran-India relations is Syria. While the Iranian leadership allegedly contributes to Bashar Assad’s uncompromising violence against the uprisings, India has voted in favor of the UN resolution aimed at stopping violence in Syria. Similarly, Iran is a key player in Iraq. Independently of the ninth Majles election results, Iran is likely to continue exerting influence in Iraq. Should a military strike arise against Iran, its leaders will utilize Iraq to further complicate matters in the region.[ii] If strategically desired, it has the power to create further instability and corruption in Iraq. Given India’s interest in West Asia and its strong ties with the US and Israel, India will suffer from the implications of any such strategy shifts.

Thirdly, energy trades shape bilateral India-Iran affairs. Iran remains India’s second major oil supplier.[iii] Tighter sanction regimes against Iran have created payment issues between the two countries. Stating that reducing oil imports from Iran is not a possibility, India has agreed to make part of the payments to Iran in rupees. However, taxation complications involved in this mechanism have led to the increase of costs for India and the decrease of revenue for Iran. Therefore, this mechanism might not prove sustainable for India due to taxation issues and increasing pressures put on India by Israel to refrain from seeking energy sources in Iran.

All in all, India will have to develop highly calculated and fluid strategies toward today’s Iran. The unpredictability of the domestic affairs and the impact of escalating international pressures on Iran only make it more challenging for India. Also, India currently has two vital concerns: maintaining its strategic alliance with the US and Israel and, not losing grounds in the region to its rival, China. Iran’s political future is key to both of these concerns. Given the subtle situation of Iran, even a highly domestic event such as the ninth Majles election has imperative implications for India. Moreover, the deepening clashes of conservative factions in various power centers will also have implications. Essentially, the less politically aligned the various key institutions of Iran, the more clashes are to be seen in the state’s decision-making process. In short, the configuration of conservative factions at the ninth Majles and beyond will play a role in shaping strategies in response to the world’s growing concerns with respect to Iran.

Azadeh Pourzand is a Senior Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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