For certain unavoidable reasons, stringing together a foreign policy incorporating as pan-Islamic unity as practically possible has been a testing task for Iran since the US-backed Shah’s downfall.
Yet, the tumultuous journey of forging working relations with Muslim peoples beyond its own frontiers has yielded definite strategic benefits to Iran crucial to its survival and strength in the wake of the perpetual war waged by Israel and its loyal followers against it. Hezbollah’s transformation from a militia into a proper political party, an army with victories against Israel in the battlefield and regional power overall is a fine example of this as is Iran’s increased influence in all affairs Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese.
Iran has had to learn reasons regarding security and the need for paranoia far more rapidly than other nations since the onset of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and thus one would naturally expect the sectarian state to stick to allying with the people of the similar sect. However, to a large extent, pan-Islamism has undeniably remained an underscoring theme to both Iran’s rhetoric and its actual policies. This can be seen best from its constant and uncompromised support to armed Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, religiously Sunni, to fight Israel.
With retrospect, it can also be stated with surety that pan-Islamism has lent Iran a vital measure of popularity among non-Shias throughout the world. However, the importance of this lies in the pitfalls that would have formed along Iran’s path had the countervailing of this been the case in history: had Iran maintained a narrative specifically catering to Shias and ignored Sunni peoples, the void of Iran-Sunni relations would become a medium for the gradual growth of suspicion of the Shia state. Or even worse, an excellent medium for US-vassal Muslim states like Saudi Arabia to poison with sectarian radicalism and use against Iran.
In keeping with this reality and the importance of true pan-Islamism to Iran, the case of Kashmir presents an interesting case from the Iranian perspective. Notwithstanding the considerable improvements in Iran-Pakistan relations as of this year, Iran does not really need to take into account anything Pakistan says or does while approaching comprehensively for the first time the Kashmir issue. Circumstances and broader regional shifts, neither of which find their stimulus in Pakistan’s oft-stagnant foreign policy, and Iran’s own capability to formulate independent foreign policy mean that an uptick in traditional Iranian rhetoric and policy on Kashmir would incorporate seamlessly into the country’s policy due to the ideological consistency with pan-Islamism.
Kashmir as insurance for positive relations with Pakistan
While sadly not known to many Iranians, the reactionary and at times highly charged hatred toward Iranians that sometimes manifests in Arab state affairs (I do not mean to generalize, by any means, Arab states as one monolith entity) does not constitute a factor when it comes to Pakistani views on Iran. The 210 million people-strong Muslim country, with no meaningful relations with any Muslim state outside cordial ties with pro-Western and often Zionist-collaborationist regimes and no real role in affairs in the Muslim world, has a populace filled with youth eager to forge close ideological and religious ties with other Muslim states.
Contrasting in this way starkly with Pakistan’s diplomatic elites, there thus exists a rather large pool of potential Sunni goodwill for Iran to tap into vis-à-vis Kashmir. As aforementioned, Iran cannot afford to allow relations with neighbouring Sunni-majority states to remain cold or inert as the resulting void is all too easily exploited. Iran has invested fairly heavily in socio-cultural ties with Pakistan recently and the setting up of Urdu transmissions of Iranian channels such as Tasnim News provides an ideal platform for creating Islamic solidarity with Kashmir as a pivot.
Iran’s Press TV has been the most consistent foreign media outlet in reporting Indian atrocities in IOK, also crucially making sure to refer to it as occupied and following up on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s speeches pertaining to Kashmir that have begun to surface as of last year. The Iranian gesture toward Pakistan of celebrating the latter’s independence day on 14 August by displaying Pakistani flags included IOK as part of Pakistan sent a special message as well. Coming off years of non-existent relations between the two countries, all of this holds considerable meaning when one takes into account the fact that Kashmir has been covered to negligible extents across any media, mainstream or alternate, compared to Palestine or other cases of occupation and oppression.
Considering the relative non-interaction of media in Kashmir and Pakistan with more well-known foreign sources, there is a pre-existing and highly ‘lucrative’ (in terms of the aforementioned pan-Islamist credentials) niche for Iran when it comes to advocacy for Kashmiri freedom and rights (both, not just one: Iran does, after all, emphasize the resistance path).
None of Iran’s adversaries in the Zionist-collaborating Muslim states camp has paid any attention to Kashmir, as is to be expected. Iranian sponsorship of the Kashmir struggle will only further make clear to Muslims in Kashmir and Pakistan that the false dichotomy of the ‘Iran-Saudi sectarian rivalry’ is false and that it is Iran that can claim Islamic credentials, not the Saudis or other rivals.
Iranian focus on Kashmir and regional foreign policy priorities
Alliances are coalescing in the West and South Asia region, with certain dynamics driven by stimuli rooted in Middle East events, which Iran has played a major role in shaping. The US has forged highly strategic relations with India over the past few years and the Indian government’s excellent relations with Israel, blossoming since the 90s, have seen the significant uptick as well. While the US had in the past demonstrated the ability to influence Indian policy toward Iran when the need is, such as its securing of an unjustified Indian vote against Iran at the IAEA board in 2005, its current posture toward India is that of an eager partner in its policy for the Asia region. Given the US – and Israeli – the knack for zero-sum policies toward enemy states, it isn’t surprising that considerable incentives have been provided to India for it to begin to edge toward a position where it begins ‘taking sides’ in the US’s war against regional rivals Iran, Russia and China.
As I elaborate upon with detail in this article, Iran, once it commits more time and effort to Afghanistan, does not have the level of common ground with India it has been perceived to have had in the past. With a greater involvement in Afghanistan, where Iran has already recognized that the US-led anti-Iran and anti-Pakistan proxy war may be in the making utilizing ISIS (rebranding of the premier Takfiri groups in the Af-Pak region dedicated solely to attacking the Pakistanis), Iranian and Indian interests will soon diverge and it will become less awkward for Iran to assert itself on the Kashmir issue more actively. This is due to the fact that these Takfiri groups have been prominently supported by the Indians via their presence in Afghanistan’s NATO-controlled areas as a weapon against Pakistan.
The Indian Hindutva regime’s one-dimensionally hostile stance on Pakistan, being encouraged by the Americans and perhaps even Israelis soon, will not see Indo-Iran relations or a risky Indian attempt to forge a trade corridor from Chabahar to Afghanistan as a factor strong enough to give up the support to such group. The Indo-Western nexus is underscored by large and powerful military and economic factors, and India is very much a part of the new Western Great Game for the South and West Asia region.
Kashmir, with its current wave of uprising beginning in mid-2016 with the killing of popular freedom fighter Burhan Wani, has seen insurgency and also indiscriminate murder of civilians at the hands of the Indian occupational forces. Pellet guns used by the Indians with the intent to blind victims, firing upon crowds of protestors, demonizing via the Indian media of ‘stone pelters’ as ‘terrorists’ and rising Kashmiri fighter numbers despite no real state sponsorship from the Pakistani sideshow that Kashmir is heating up the way it did in the 90s insurgency.
India, a major defence partner of Israel which itself has expressed support for India’s occupation of Kashmir in the past, also fired upon Muharram mourners this year, earning the attention of many among the transnational Iran-led Resistance Axis. The year 2018 has been particularly bloody, with 267 Kashmiri fighters, 159 of the over 500 000 strong Indian occupational forces and 160 civilians killed thus far. Indian forces do not respect civilian property whilst conducting operations, often blowing up houses as well.
With Iran’s diplomacy with the Afghan Taliban – who have come a long way from their anti-Shia stance of the 1990s, even taking measures to curb Wahabism as reported by Tasnim News’ Urdu channel last year – an open affair, consensus with Pakistan seems more likely. Given that the Taliban’s actions against Iran in the 90s caused distrust between Iran and Pakistan to begin with, this serves to emphasize that relations with Pakistan can continue to rise while India continues to shift toward Iran’s rivals.
Following the tradition of pan-Islamism and beginning to adopt a clear-cut stance of demand for Kashmiri freedom from Indian occupation will not damage Iran’s current foreign policy priorities, but rather complement them as they realign accordingly with the current regional context. It is not just an uncompromising rejection of foreign domination that has sustained Iran’s status as a powerful country despite the sanctions, war and proxy war inflicted on it by the West, Israel and Gulf regimes, but also the undeniable legitimacy of Iran’s pan-Islamist politics. Kashmir with its striking similarities to Palestine, both having experienced harsh oppression at the hands of ideologically similar tyrants, is a natural concern for Iran as much as Palestine itself.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.
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Agha Hussain is currently attached with the Institute of Regional Studies. He is a Geopolitical analyst with a special focus on Middle East affairs.