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Iran’s Fifth Column in India

India will not escape the polarizing effects of the violent sectarian conflict that is raging in Syria and Iraq

Daniel Brett

Published: Updated:

Host to the world’s largest Shiite community outside Iran, India will not escape the polarizing effects of the violent sectarian conflict that is raging in Syria and Iraq.

India has traditionally held a favorable view of Shiism and Iran. Due to the legacy of Mughal rule, India also sees a greater cultural similarity with Persia than Arabs, even though the Persian-speaking Mughals were Sunni. The republic’s secular ideals have offered Shiites protection, while in neighboring Pakistan, Shiites often suffer violent persecution.

Although Hindu-Muslim communal tensions have dominated contemporary India, Shiite-Sunni sectarianism has been less prevalent in the Hindu-majority republic. In the low-intensity war between the two South Asian powers, India has also seen Pakistan’s Shiite community as an ally against Islamabad.

The sense that Shiism is a more benign force has blinded India to the realities of Iranian-backed terrorism and the influence Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary Islamism has had on the Islamic world.

For Sunni and Shiite radicals alike, Iran’s theocracy is a powerful symbol of radical Islam’s triumph. It poses a direct challenge to India’s interests with Iran seeking to exert ideological influence within Indian society in order to bend Delhi to its goals. As ISIS retreats and Iran and its allies consolidate power, Tehran will attempt to cement and bolster its links with Indian Shiite groups, some of which are showing increasingly fanatical and violent tendencies.

Tehran’s motivations

The one billion-strong country is pivotal for Iranian interests as Tehran emerges from its economic and political isolation. Iran has three main goals in its relations with India.

Firstly, Iran will seek to use its influence within India to discourage Delhi from aligning with a belligerent Trump presidency, which is set to harden Washington’s line against the nuclear deal in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The US-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act, known as the Hyde Act, contains a ‘‘Statement of Policy’’ which includes provisions that ensure India’s support for US policies regarding the Iranian nuclear issue.

According to the Act, India is “to dissuade, isolate, and if necessary, sanction and contain Iran for its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear weapons capability and the capability to enrich uranium or reprocess nuclear fuel and the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction.”

Although Presidents Bush and Obama treated this provision as an advisory rather than a central aspect of policy, President Trump is likely to demand far more loyalty from India in confronting Iran’s military power. Such demands would inevitably put Delhi and Tehran on a collision course.

Secondly, Iran will want to deter India from further strengthening its relationships with Israel and the Arab Gulf states. India is a major customer for Israel’s defense industry, while Israel has assisted India with satellite imagery for defensive purposes against Pakistan, notably in the 1999 Kargil War.

Israel is also bartering for India’s friendship in dealing with Iran’s military aggression, particularly on the JCPOA. Meanwhile, the Gulf states play a crucial role in supplying India with oil as well as hosting a massive population of expatriate workers, who remit vital sums of hard currency. These ties with Iran’s Middle Eastern rivals chafe with Iran’s strategic interests.

Thirdly, Iran sees the Indian market as a lucrative destination for exports as well as a crucial source of investment for infrastructure and industrial projects; the resumption of sanctions would imperil those interests. India has pledged investments in a number of projects, notably the Chabahar port in the Gulf of Oman, but progress is painfully slow.

Delhi is also keen to forge closer relations with Tehran with Iran giving it an alternative source of energy supplies with oil procurement increasingly molding its foreign policy. Both governments also share concerns over Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan. Iran will want to deepen this economic partnership in order to diversify markets and wrest itself from dependence on China.

Radicalization as a bridgehead

In order to exert influence over India, the Iranian regime will turn to unconventional, asymmetric means to dissuade India from forming a close alliance with a Trump-led US, both through the Shiite community and India’s anti-American Left. It will use the same template as it has applied in other countries with significant Shiite populations: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.

And wherever it has secured control of Shiite groups, Islamist violence and deadly sectarianism inevitably follows. It will also want to focus its Revolutionary Guards’ energies away from domestic to foreign priorities in order to maintain its own political stability. The export of revolution through radical Islamist groups is fundamental to the Iranian regime’s ideology.

Support for insurgent or militant groups is driven by Article 154 of the Iranian constitution which states that the government will support “the just struggles of the mustad’afun (oppressed) against the mustakbirun (oppressors) in every corner of the globe.” The notion of “oppression” is defined according to the strategic interests of the Iranian government, which notoriously executes political dissidents for “waging war on Allah.”

The most significant challenge comes from the radicalization of India’s Shiite community. As ISIS established its rule and advanced deeper into Iraq toward Shiite-majority cities, Indian Shiite leaders sought to bolster the Iranian-backed militias, ostensibly to protect shrines against ISIS attacks.

Syed Bilal, spokesman of the Delhi-based Shiite group Anjuman-e-Haideri, told Iraqi News in 2014 that the group was seeking to recruit up to one million Indian volunteers to form human chains around Shiite holy sites in Karbala and Najaf.

In reality, far fewer than the 30,000 Indians who volunteered to join the mission arrived in Iraq. The Indian government prevented its citizens from going in order to avoid being entangled in the Syrian conflict. The few that have joined the pro-Iranian forces have travelled to Iraq to conduct pilgrimage. They are vastly outnumbered by Afghan and Pakistani Shiite volunteers.

Yet, the ideological motivations of those who sought to fight in Iraq for the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah, a US-designated foreign terrorist organization, indicate a creeping radicalization.

Tehran’s is exerting soft power in India to export Khomeinist revolutionary fanaticism. It has used its financial largesse and the role of the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust (IKMT) in Kargil, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, to train clerics.

The inculcation of Shiite radicalism by Iranian missionary organizations has created a new narrative for local disputes. In recent years, followers of Anjuman-e-Haideri have been involved in rioting and clashes with the police, partly provoked by attacks by Hindu thugs but also in relation to a long-running land dispute involving their own “karbala” shrine in Delhi.

The perception of victimization has prompted them to see their communal issues in the context of Khomeinist fanatical and intolerant ideology, which seeks to place the Iranian state’s mullahs at the apex of the Muslim world.

Iran’s influence in India is not confined to merely the export of its fanatical ideology. In 2012, an Iranian network working in India attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in Delhi by booby trapping his car with explosives. An Indian Shiite journalist working for Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Ahmad Kazmi, was charged in connection with the attacks, although he has yet to be prosecuted.

If India does not keep the forces of Shiite radicalism in check, it will find itself weakened from within with the potential for sectarian unrest and destabilizing militancy.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.