Iran's excellent geographical location in West Asia and its undeniable political importance in the region, had pushed Beijing and New Delhi into a competition with each other to establish closer relations with Tehran.
At present, however, both Asian states have realized that they are required to cooperate to further expand relations with the Islamic Republic.
A strategic region
Iran is a strategic region and these two Asian powers have competed with each other in the past few years to gain greater advantage. Nevertheless, in light of the rapid pace of global developments, the two states have now inevitably realized that Tehran is a junction of collaborations.
What made these two tough rivals to come to this understanding was the fact that they both need Tehran: China to complete its 'One Belt, One Road' project and India to implement the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC).
Commenting on this, earlier, Asia Times wrote: "Currently, further penetration in Iran's market has become a priority for China and India as they both seek to expand their role in regions in which their strategic interests lie."
Iran is located in a very important geographical location, linking Central Asia to Caucasus and the Middle East. In addition, its abundant energy resources can supply a major part of the energy needs of China and India. These factors have always played a determining role in Tehran's relations with Beijing and New Delhi. In other words, the two states' ties with Iran have always been in the form of a strategic transaction.
This comes as, given that relations between China and India have always been subject to diverse challenges, the new method — a combination of cooperation and competition — they are using to manage their differences with each other and be able to collaborate with the Middle Eastern state is indicative of the changing nature of their ties.
China and India now know that, despite their traditional competition in international arenas, they are required to acquiesce to a long-term coexistence with each other in Iran as this will be indicative and an example of their strategic relations in non-neighboring regions.
On the same issue, dailypioneer.com said, "India's economic cooperation with Iran is in line with New Delhi's geopolitical objectives to improve its regional relations, ensure its energy security and gain access to European markets."
Being a joint project undertaken by India, Russia and Iran to develop transportation infrastructure from Russia to Iran and thence to the Indian Ocean, it said, the INSTC is the key strategic part of India's economic puzzle. Once the project is completed, easy access to Central Asia's landlocked energy resources will be provided at greater pace. Currently, the resources are accessible only through the Suez Canal. The INSTC will also link India to Europe through Russia.
To accelerate the implementation of the project, India's investment in Iran has been focused on modernizing and developing the southeastern Iranian port of Chabahar, which is Iran's closest and most crucial access point to the Indian Ocean and a terminal for the INSTC.
The potential capacity of Chabahar Port, when financially and technologically supported by India, will challenge the capabilities of Pakistan's Gwadar Port, which is backed by China. Located at a distance of less than 170 kilometers from each other, the two ports are indicative of the growing pragmatic geographic competition between New Delhi and Beijing in the region.
On the other hand, since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and P5+1, China has constantly been seeking to increase its role in Iran's financial system and turn into one of the most important players in the Middle Eastern state in the field of economy and trade. This is because Iran is located in a strategic geographical region which is of crucial importance to China's long-term transportation plan.
Thus, the increase in direct oil inflow from Central Asia and the Middle East will help China cut its dependence on Strait of Malacca. Currently, a major part of China's oil imports are via this strait.
In addition, the new railroad link between Tehran and Baganuur in Mongolia is another sign increasing the likeliness that Beijing may turn a blind eye to US efforts aimed at isolating Iran, particularly at a time when China's national interests are threatened.
To counter US President Donald Trump's threat, Iran is seeking to increase its foreign contracts and attract more overseas investments. Such efforts provide China and India with the opportunity to improve interaction with each other.
Beijing and New Delhi are well aware of the consequences of US sanctions against Iran and Trump's threats against countries which would continue to cooperate with Tehran. However, continuation of investments in the Middle Eastern state's projects would act as an index in the two countries' future strategic competition for expanding relations with Iran.
Stressing the same point, Sanjeev Miglani, an analyst, wrote, in an article published by Reuters, that given Iran's fundamental status and position in the regional strategies of China and India, it is necessary for Beijing and New Delhi to maintain relations and interactions with each other despite their different approaches. While India has focused its investments in the INSTC, which is related to the country's long-term plans in the field of security and economy, China has adopted an extensive strategy to achieve a similar objective.
This situation's benefits for Iran is that the country is not forced to choose between China and India. In fact, in a competitive relationship, there would be ample opportunities for limited cooperation between China and India in Iran.
Unlike power-based competitions, which are focused on expanding political and military capabilities, economic relations with a regional power poses no obstacles to others.
The reinstatement of unilateral US sanctions and the imposition of news ones will provide Iran an opportunity to encourage joint investments by China and India in the development projects of its economic sectors. To remove the ambiguity surrounding India's investment in Iranian projects, Iran has put forward an idea seeking to secure China's cooperation in development of Chabahar Port and connect the Iranian port with its Pakistani counterpart Gwadar. These developments push powerful countries, such as India and China, toward close cooperation even if they both express reluctance about it.
Latest developments in relations between China and India, which have led to a shift in the nature of their ties from traditional rivalry to harmonious coexistence, does not imply that their relationship in Iran will be free from a competitive spirit. They, however, confirm that competitiveness will remain an important motive for the two sides' future cooperation in Iran.