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India-Iran relationships: Hope in times of Coronavirus

With Iran facing domestic mayhem due to the spread of Covid 19 virus, India would have been its a natural partner to extend a helping hand. (Representative image)

By BRIG N K BHATIA

Iran just saw its annual Novroz festival virtually locked down under the fear of Covid-19virus pandemic and facing economic chaos. The overall mood in the entire Iran was glum and devoid of festivities generally associated with the New Year.

Iran has reported more than 21,600 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus amid 1,685 reported deaths, according to government figures released last Sunday.

Iran has been fighting the Covid-19 virus pandemic in isolation in face of severe US sanctions blocking the country from selling its crude oil and accessing the international financial markets.

India always a leader to provide for humanitarian assistance in such situations has not been conspicuous to extend any assistance.

Faced with the epidemic its leadership has been under pressure to give lame excuses to its hapless population for the epidemic which to a large extent is the result of its enhanced cooperation with China. As is now revealed, the movement of people between the two countries continued during the peak of the breakdown of epidemic in China, endangering the Iranian population and its further spread to the Middle East and a number of countries in the region, including India, having ties with Shia sect of Islam.

Meanwhile, Iran continued with its belligerence and defiance to project its strength through numerous proxies nurtured by it in middle-east.

In the latest episode, usingKata'ib Hezbollah, it carried out attacks on Camp Taji near Baghdad firing 18 107 mm Katyusha rockets resulting in the death of one British and two US soldiers on the intervening night of 11 March. The US did carry out retaliatory strikes but exercised restraint to prevent its escalation in the face of the epidemic confronting both sides.

The aim of Iranian attacks was primarily two fold; Iran's continued ability to challenge US presence in the Middle East and to seek support from its own population for the ruling dispensation which has been facing increasing public pressure against its own policies and economic deprivations due to economic sanctions.

Also in the face of epidemic and worsening economic woes, President Hassan Rouhani sent a direct message to the American people on the occasion of Iranian New Year, Navroz, asking the USA to end the "dark chapter" of economic sanctions to fight the global battle with the Covid-19 virus.

He drew similarities between the US and Iranian situation and said both sides were facing the challenges of the epidemic and called for " halt to pressure, sanctions and callousness" and asked for "opportunity to adopt a new humanitarian approach toward fellow human beings."

But in a contradictory statement on Sunday, in an address to Iranian people Iran's Supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei refused American assistance to fight the new coronavirus citing a conspiracy theory claiming any treatment would be man-made by the United States government to spread the virus more.

The above statement of Iranian spiritual leader echoed the Chinese sentiment expressed a few days earlier accusing the USA of spreading the virus.

The Iranians over the last couple of weeks have found themselves at a quandary due to their inability to handle the multiple crises that they have been confronted with. Their inability to handle the epidemical threat shows the total isolation that it is facing in the region with a complete shutdown of contact with the outside world including Islamic countries.

This has pushed it even closer and dependent totally towards China to the extent of even supporting its conspiracy theories against the USA.

Iran just a couple of weeks back maintained close relations with India in spite of US sanctions, with India having got US waivers and assurance to continue to develop Chabahar port.

But in early March this year, India a close friend of Iran was taken aback by statements of Iranian foreign minister Javid Zarif and Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei who said "the hearts of Muslims all over the world are grieving over the massacre of Muslims in order to prevent India's isolation from the world of Islam".

With Iran facing domestic mayhem due to the spread of Covid 19 virus, India would have been its a natural partner to extend a helping hand. But so far that has not been the case in spite of Indian initiative to launch cooperation between SAARC nations at behest of Prime Minister Modi, including Indian assistance to earmark US $ 10 million leading to India providing for the supply of medical assistance to Nepal and the Maldives.

India has operated a number of flights to evacuate its citizens from Iran who had been stranded there due to closure of all exit routes from Iran. The presence of such a large number of Indians in Iran reflects on close cultural relations between the two countries in spite of a sudden change in Iranian outlook against India.

The ongoing crises could be a way forward to mend the fractured relations between India and Iran and dwell upon Iranian leadership to rethink their hostile outlook against India.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.)