India de facto annexed Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir earlier this month and heightened military tussles at the border with Pakistan have been a constant feature since then. India has sought to impose as much of a blackout in Kashmir as possible, albeit this hasn’t succeeded in stopping videos and testimonies of the repression reaching global audiences. Awareness of the depth of the repression in Kashmir has been rising incrementally, making it increasingly difficult for anyone to ignore.
The possibly highly strategic dimension of the Kashmir conflict, however, and significance of the escalatory crescendo for Iran in particular is something that deserves special attention.
What’s unfolding in Kashmir and what it means for Iran
Following the martyrdom of iconic freedom fighter Burhan Wani in 2016, the Kashmiri Azaadi struggle entered a new phase altogether, with the amplified vigour driving the youth that lead it spurred on by the Hindu supremacist policies of India. The battlefield that is Indian-occupied Kashmir is, despite not many noticing, is experiencing a broadening of its horizons into a conflict that will soon encompass the clash of more ideologies and states than just the Azaadi fighters and India.
An Indian contributor to Israel’s Haaretz wrote in a 21 July piece of an ‘Iran-Saudi proxy war’ coming to Kashmir, citing significant examples in Kashmir of considerable popular grassroots-level support for Iran. Iranian and Lebanese Resistance literature circulates in Kashmir more than before and increased visits by Iranian clerics to Kashmir have inevitably been met with pro-Azaadi sloganeering. Large rallies expressing support for the transnational Muslim, predominantly Shia alliance de facto led by Iran are seen with greater frequency than before.
In short, Kashmir’s post-Burhan Wani Azaadi surge has come into close contact with Iran’s pan-Islamist Resistance ideology. India’s annexation has only fueled both.
Iran versus the Gulf Arabs in the subcontinent
Direct condemnations of India’s Kashmir policy as anti-Muslim by senior Iranian establishment figures such as Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Golpaygani and Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani have surfaced in recent days.
The statements contrast strongly with Iran’s Gulf Arab rivals who have either supported India’s move or made it clear they do not care for Kashmir, regardless of the close economic ties they share with Pakistan. Iran’s proactive stance on Kashmir, with statements from its highest authorities making clear that they support Pakistan’s stance over Kashmir, would mark an unprecedented PR victory over its Gulf rivals in the minds of the subcontinent’s large Muslim population.
Needless to say, this would pre-empt Gulf-financed propaganda campaigns against Iran targeting South Asian audiences, which would inevitably incorporate a dangerous sectarian dimension, as a new avenue after the de facto victories of Iran-aligned factions in the Arab world in terms of their on-the-ground politico-military power.
As normalization of ties between the Gulf Arabs and Israel proceeds apace, with connectivity projects such as the Israel-GCC railway openly talked about, the GCC face an impending global PR disaster. With normalization with Israel coming just as religious extremists in Israel plot to destroy the al Aqsa Mosque to raise their ‘Temple Mount’, much of Iranian rhetoric regarding Muslim collaborators with the Zionists will end up being validated. It will not be unreasonable to expect a hectic GCC-subsidized global propaganda surge against Iran at ‘new’ audiences in the subcontinent aiming to lessen the damage to GCC’s image that ties with Israel will bring.
Checkmating such an offensive through establishing its ‘Islamic power’ credentials across its eastern flank would be a great boon for Iran. It would also lend a great deal of credibility to the highly-organized Pakistani Shia community – arguably Iran’s largest overseas supporter base – in its respective domestic context and thus solidify a bridge between Iran and its large Sunni-majority neighbour.
Needless to say, it would also help strengthen the cause of global Sunni-Shia unity, something that is difficult to suggest as anything other than very useful for a Shia Islamist state that cannot afford to be seen as a benefactor of only Shias.
The importance of pan-Islamist rhetoric and policies to Iran’s power and interests and the Kashmiri strategic opportunity
The 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequent turning upside down of Iran’s ties with foreign hegemonic powers was a point of no return in many ways, and something had to give.
With the Shah’s departure, Israel’s defense industry lost a $500 million a year customer and a partner for a proposed $ 1 billion dollar project for a surface-to-surface nuclear-capable missile. Israel also lost one of its few oil suppliers (an underrated yet vital concern shaping Israel’s overall geostrategic posture as of the 1980s). Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards’ purging of Shah-era, closely MOSSAD-affiliated military elites meant that vital nodes of influence for Israel in Iran were lost, and the fleeing of large numbers of pro-Israeli Jews in Iran from the country compounded the dilemma for Israel yet more.
Even the convoluted Iran Contra Affair of the 80s could not restore any meaningful alliance between the two and fulfill Israel’s long-sought after coalition of non-Arab allies goal, as the ‘Periphery doctrine’ of David Ben-Gurion necessitated.
Iran was thus fated to be a serious target of an expansionist country consistently capable of compelling via its lobbyists the US to militarism against its foes, and required strategic allies against it.
Iran had ambitiously set out in supporting the Lebanese Shia resistance to Israel’s bloody post-1982 occupation there and enabling it to become the only reason Israel would eventually be forced out and then defeated in open battle again in July 2006.
Using much the same mode of outreach, Iran also became a benefactor and ally of Sunni Hamas which arose in the First Intifada in Palestine owing to Yasser Arafat’s non-leadership (and eventual betrayal of Palestinian rights during the Oslo ‘peace’ hoax).
This mode of outreach and the cement tying Iran’s allies to it despite intense periods of military and economic pressure from their mutual enemies is pan-Islamism. Religious fervor is an incredibly powerful motivator, and has enabled a heavily sanctioned state like Iran to receive ample support overseas from supporters that place the worldview that Khomeini espoused vis a vis Muslim resistance to ‘arrogant powers’ above the more materially comfortable existence that might have been bestowed upon them by Iran’s powerful foes had they cut ties with it.
Such transnational networks of committed supporters and adherents also certainly come in handy for Iran in smuggling its weapons and material support to vital allies far away from it.
A tried and proven recipe for geostrategic ascendance
It thus becomes clear why this is of such importance. Iran has always relied on pan-Islamic rhetoric and its role in providing active assistance against anti-Muslim regimes to besieged Muslims for sustaining meaningful involvement in foreign affairs,
One can see how Iran’s timely interventions in post-Israeli invasion Lebanon and Israel-occupied Gaza helped it develop a military-strategic foothold which has till date proven vital in containing Israeli expansionism.
Gaza, in fact, has shown in recent encounters with Israel that the military capacities of Iran-and-Hezbollah supplied groups like Hamas have grown stronger. With Iran’s strategic depth in Syria and Lebanon having endured considerable direct and indirect aggressions over the years and Iraq’s armies of Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) ensuring Iran has eyes and ears all over that country, Iran is well-poised to pursue a strengthening of its position along similar lines among the subcontinent’s Muslims.
From brittle to weak: the bleak future for Indo-Iranian relations and deep potential of Iran-Pakistan ties
India, where communal anti-Muslim elements are not a fringe but the mainstream socio-political status quo, is by a great degree of default circumstance an unfeasible economic partner for Iran in the subcontinent where its unpopularity has skyrocketed among Muslims.
For Iran, the ideological costs for not opposing India’s policies through rhetoric and, when possible, proactive measures would not be worth bearing. This understanding seems to be underpinning the steady stream of recent statements coming from its quarters against India’s occupation and oppression of Muslims in Kashmir.
India itself has not been averse to using Iranian territory against Pakistan, as evidenced by the Kulbhushan Yadav spy affair. Furthermore, establishing closer ties with Pakistan would be more conducive for Iran to secure their shared Balochistan region – where India sponsors separatists as part of a broader geopolitical bigger-picture which the US and Israel are very much on board with.
In addition, an ‘overtly’ friendly large Sunni state – which is what Pakistan would undoubtedly be with Iranian support on the Kashmir issue – would unto itself mark an unprecedented achievement and feather in the cap for Iran.
The timing and the potential end-game like significance of the current phase of the Kashmir conflict and Iran’s timely assertion of itself as a stakeholder in it would do arguably do more to cement the legacy of the experienced Islamic Republic than anything else it has done in the last decade or two.
Due to the very nature of Iran’s rhetoric, which emphasizes liberating Muslim resistance, rising Iranian influence in Kashmir is inherently worrisome for its increasingly aggressive occupier India. Similar to the brittle economic foundations of past Indo-Iranian relations, India’s apparent tolerance in the past for Iranian influence in Kashmir was always inherently prone to collapse. India’s current amplification of repression in Kashmir serves to accelerate that process of collapse.
The breaking point of Indo-Pak relations is clearly imminent, but the impending spoiling of Indo-Iranian relations for a host of multifaceted factors thus seems to be an very logical course of events as well.