In the last few days, the Israeli Embassy in India has been attacked, very likely by agents of Iran’s government. This is not an unprecedented occurrence. The relationship between India (and Indians) and Iran since the rise of the Islamic Republic has been a complicated one.
For example, at the outset of the pandemic, I showed a report from Al-Arabiya about how Iran was suppressing its coronavirus numbers a young Indian college lecturer, who shall remain anonymous, and he simply, vehemently denied the report. When I showed him similar reports that had been posted by the BBC, he vehemently denied those, too. “Oh, don’t believe them, the Western media is against Iran,” he explained. I let it pass. But why would an Indian lecturer — sitting thousands of miles away from Iran —trash adverse media reports on Iran?
The lecturer had once conducted field work in Iran and is full of love and warmth towards the country. But there is another linkage: he also happens to be a Shi’ite from Lucknow — a city with a deep Shi’ite heritage. Hence, his emotional linkage to Iran — which claims spiritual leadership of the Shi’ite world — is deep and demonstrative of the emotional bonding that India’s almost 40 million-strong Shi’ite community has with the Persian country.
Impact of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution on India
Iran’s linkages with India go back many centuries. After India’s independence in 1947 and up until the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, ties were lukewarm between the two countries due to India’s closeness to the USSR and the Shah of Iran’s close ties with the US. However, the Islamic Revolution had deep implications for India — even though it was not so apparent at the time. Even today, most Indians remain unaware of them.
India has the world’s second largest Shi’ite population after Iran and millions of Indian pilgrims have thronged to holy Shi’i sites spread across Iraq and Iran over the centuries. However, after the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian city of Qom became an important religious center for Shi’ite studies, attracting thousands of Indian students. When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, there were 6,000 Indians stationed in Iran — most were students and pilgrims and almost all were Shi’ite.
This is when the ‘Iranization’ of the Shi’ite community began — particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. The majority of the region’s Shi’ite community is concentrated in the Kargil area of Ladakh (population: 274,000), which became a separate province in 2019. Smaller Shi’ite communities also exist in the Sunni-majority Kashmir region.
To achieve this, Iran dispatched representatives to Shi’ite groups in the region to shift their loyalty from Iraqi Shi’ite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to the Iranian Supreme Leader. Whereas Shi’ites until then had mostly traveled to study in Iraqi seminaries in Najaf, now increasingly they traveled to study in the Iranian city of Qom — mostly on scholarships funded by Iran.
Prof. K.N. Pandita — a scholar on Iran who had spent many years in Tehran and who founded the Center for Central Asian Studies in Kashmir University — explained to me how Iran sent secret missions and several preachers to different parts of India which had high concentrations of Shi’ites; the Kargil region was especially targeted. In Kargil, the Imam Khomeini Trust, named for the first Supreme Leader of Iran’s clerical regime Ruhollah Khomeini, was established through grants, material gifts, Islamic literature, and scholarships, which were channelled through the Iranian Cultural Center in Delhi.
This outreach quickly established the religious supremacy of Iran by enabling the incorporation of many Iranian practices amongst the local population. For instance, Kargilis began bloodletting during Ashura — the Shi’ite religious event commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad. Liquor was banned. The Iranian dress code was adopted and the hijab (veil) became mandatory for women. The concept of Wilayat-al-Faqih — the ruling ideology of the clerical regime in Iran, the belief that a qualified jurist should have custodianship over the people — was also adopted and people were encouraged to become more politically active. Khomenei’s image was plastered everywhere on billboards and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Iran’s Lebanese Shi’ite militant proxy group Hezbollah, began to gain a following amongst the population.
The Militarization of Kashmir
The second major implication of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was the militarization of the conflict in Indian Kashmir. While this topic has been widely discussed in the strategic community, the public remains largely unaware of this important fact. While it was true that there was some amount of disaffection with India in Kashmir, there had been no armed movement against the Indian state until 1979. This is despite the fact that Pakistan had tried to start a war three times in a bid to wrest control of the region away from India. Although most Kashmiris are Sunni, the Islamic Revolution served as a major inspiration for violent jihad against India and an armed insurgency broke out.
Outreach to Indians
Just as Iran has reached across the sectarian divide in the Muslim world to foster ties with militant Sunni groups like Al-Qaeda and HAMAS, Iran has gone beyond fostering ties with the Shi’ite population in India to boost its image among the general population in a variety of ways and for a variety of disparate reasons. By and large, Indians have a positive image of Iran which can be attributed the following factors:
Factor One: A Common Enemy
Soon after the revolution, Iran sought closer ties with India as a counter-weight to Sunni-majority Pakistan where anti-Shi’i sentiment was becoming prevalent. Iran and India cooperated to support the mostly-Tajik Northern Alliance in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s against the Taliban, a jihadist group that served — and serves — as proxy of Pakistani intelligence. Iran also helped scuttle and block anti-India resolutions regarding the Kashmir issue at successive Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conferences.
In a similar vein, Iran found a sympathetic hearing in India because of the spread, and perception of the spread, of “Wahhabism” — a term often misused to mean Salafism — amongst India’s Sunnis, which has been fostered by and capitalized upon by Pakistani-backed jihadist groups to launch attacks on Shi’ite groups, both within Pakistan and across the border in India. In this context, the Shi’ite community and — by extension Iran — came to be perceived as “progressive”.
With the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran’s ostensible involvement in the war against it, this view was reinforced among Indians, who viewed Iran as a progressive force that was fighting evil. As such, Iran gained popularity with Muslims and non-Muslims alike in India.
Finding a Friend in the Anti-US Indian Left
This “progressive” perception of Iran in India, and Iran’s anti-US stance, meant the clerical regime found favor with India’s Leftists and liberals, a relatively small part of the country who, as in most other countries, exert disproportionate influence over the Indian academic and media scene. The Indian media, generally, reports positively about Iran. For instance, The Hindu — which is a widely read and highly-regarded Indian broadsheet — covers Iran in a positive manner, as a rule. It has even advocated for Indian intervention to ease US sanctions on Iran.
Iran has also reached out to Indian journalists of Shi’ite origin — like Saeed Naqvi — who have usually portrayed Iran in a positive light. Diplomats who have served in the Middle East tend to write about Iran in more favorable terms and Left-leaning organizations like the Centre for Policy Analysis host regular seminars on Iran and have also hosted members of the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, an overseas division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Iran has also facilitated a delegation of Indian activists to Gaza.
The Iran House in Delhi — the cultural center of the Iranian Embassy — has reached out to Indian academia and civil society by regularly hosting art exhibitions, seminars, roundtables on bilateral relations, history, and even on inter-faith relations. This has helped give Indians a positive image of Iran. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Iran, created in 1987, established cultural bureaus separate from Iranian Embassies in certain countries like Lebanon and India to foster cultural exchange. These centers became channels for the “cultural politics” of revolutionary Iran.
Both Iran and India have used members of the Indian Shi’ite community to further ties and deepen relations. For instance, Shi’ite diplomat Badruddin Tyabji and Shi’ite cleric Agha Rui Abaqati were roped in to the goodwill Indian delegation that traveled to Tehran to establish relations with the new regime there soon after the Shah left his country in 1979.
Relations have hardly been without blemish, however.
The Downside of Being Too Close to Iran
The bombing at Israel’s Embassy in the last few days, claimed by “India Hizbollah”, is a reminder of the first time Iran’s proxy wars spilled into India, on February 13, 2012, when an Israeli diplomat was injured in a “sticky bomb” attack on the streets of New Delhi. Tal Yehoshua Koren was injured and underwent surgery to remove shrapnel. Her driver and two bystanders were also injured in the attack. Indian investigators and officials blamed Hoshang Afshar Irani — an IRGC operative — for the attack. Irani fled India soon after the attack and police arrested senior Indian journalist Syed Mohammad Ahmad Kazmi as an accomplice of Irani’s. However, Kazmi was later released on bail. An Indian investigation team visited Iran twice, but the visits have yielded no results.
It was something of a puzzle for India that Tehran chose to carry out this attack on her territory. While India shares excellent relations with Israel, a state the Iranian government is pledged to eradicate, New Delhi considers its ties with Iran to be of equal strategic importance. Economically, the Indian market is the second biggest market for Iranian crude oil. So what gives?
Security analyst and retired Major General Shashi Asthana suggests that the answer lies in India’s pro-American policies, specifically India’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program and acquiescing in the US sanctions on Iran. Just before the 2012 attack, India had halted all oil trade with Iran because of the Western sanctions. As important as strategic relations are between the two, Iran felt the need to punish India for its stance and try to shift it.
More recently, in 2019, India had again stopped all official oil imports from Iran — and the result was a political assault from Tehran, with the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei publicly attacking India over Kashmir, the state’s Achilles heel, and after then-US President Donald Trump’s visit to India both Khamenei and Iranian foreign minister Javed Zarif tweeted about the Delhi riots as a “massacre of Muslims”, even though many of the dead were Hindus.
This interference in India’s domestic affairs has not gone unnoticed and it has dismayed many Indians. The Indian government has never commented publicly on Iran’s domestic arrangements — whether it is the poor treatment of minority populations like the Baluchis, Kurds, and Arabs, or the savagery with which the Iranian regime has quelled various popular rebellions.
The question becomes: Is this just needling? Or can Iranian interference go deeper, perhaps even influencing Indian politics?
In 2018, Twitter India released a large archive of around one million tweets from 770 accounts that it believed to have originated in Iran. It contained over 4,100 Hindi tweets. Twitter said the exercise was aimed at “improving public understanding of alleged foreign influence campaigns”. While many of the tweets reflected Iranian foreign policy, some of them were clearly aimed at sowing political division inside India. The revelation upset many Indians.
Darrel Linvill — a Clemson University professor who has been tracking Iranian activity for many years — told Quartz in an interview that influence campaign objectives often seek to sow political division rather than push a particular political agenda. “If you can get a country fighting amongst itself, then they’re not going to be paying attention to you. … I wouldn’t be surprised if Iran is interested in doing that in India — taking advantage of particular divides that exist,” he said.
For Iran, it would not be cost-effective — and likely would be ineffective, period — to fund armed proxies in India, as it does in Lebanon or Iraq, says Prof. Pandita, so instead it carries out influence campaigns. As the Soviets found during the Cold War, the very openness of India’s political system makes it quite fertile ground for active measures, which had more cumulative effect on state policy in India than almost anywhere else.
Growing Shi’ite Radicalism
While India looks to the Shi’ite community as a bulwark against Sunni jihadism, it is now confronted with the fact of growing Shi’ite radicalism. For example, two years ago Iranian preachers grabbed the attention of Indian authorities after they delivered fiery speeches at mosques and congregations in Kashmir. Shi’ites have become increasingly active in the Kashmir secessionist movement — particularly in Kargil.
Iran’s bid for hegemony in the Muslim world, against states like Saudi Arabia, is the proximate cause of this attempt to infiltrate and co-opt the Kashmir cause. Iran’s Press TV has regularly reported from and on Kashmir in an unflattering manner to the Indian government. More recently, groups staged a protest in Shi’ite areas of Kashmir and in Kargil —now part of a separate administrative territory, Ladakh — against the US’s assassination of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC’s terrorist wing, the Quds Force. In fact, some of the most virulent anti-US and anti-Israel sentiments are expressed in places like Kashmir and Lucknow, a Shi’ite stronghold in northern India.
Social media pages of small Shi’ite organizations like Kashmir Shia News, Shia Network, and Everyday is Ashoora have sprung up across these regions. These pages post photos of Ayatollah Khamenei and eulogies of Shi’ite religious figures like Imam Hassan. Some posts are explicitly anti-Indian, like those which expressed condolences and solidarity with Kashmiri terrorist Riyaz Naikoo, who was killed in early May by India.
Ajay Chungroo, an activist in the pro-India organization ‘Panun Kashmir’. which tracks Kashmir, explained to me how Iran weaponizes the Shi’ite population as leverage against the Indian government. As India’s interests have become increasingly aligned with those of the US, Israel, and the Arab Gulf states, it could well be that Iran will escalate its use of this pressure point — the Indian Shi’ite community — to try to exert influence on India.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.