Balancing Iran, US ties to get harder for India

The US cannot otherwise undo that resolution as the other four permanent members are unlikely to concur.

Two senior American officials — US principal deputy assistant secretary for state Alice Wells and assistant secretary for defence Randal G. Shriver — were in New Delhi last week to, besides discussing other issues, convey Washington’s ending of the waivers for India and other countries importing Iranian oil. The timing was bad for India as it immediately spiked the price of oil. America’s timetable was dictated by its larger geopolitical considerations. In Iran, the aim is to build pressure to, as former deputy secretary of state William J. Burns says in his new book The Back Channel, make Iran capitulate or explode. The last incidents of public unrest in Iran were in summer 2017.

The considerations driving the US action are manifold. First, according to the US and its Gulf allies, Tehran has not diminished its “non-nuclear transgressions”. These include Iranian support for Shia-dominated states and surrogates in a crescent running from Hezbollah in Lebanon, on the Mediterranean Sea, to Houthis in Yemen, abutting the Indian Ocean. The Saudis and Emiratis face a military stalemate in Yemen, unable to force the Houthis to sue for peace. Second, the Presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in February at Sochi to discuss the Syrian endgame, indicating an unwelcome ascendance of Russia in West Asian affairs. Lastly, although the US withdrew from the UN Security Council-approved Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA) — the nuclear deal with Iran, if Iran doesn’t stop abiding by it, it becomes eligible in 2020 for acquiring conventional weapons.

An indication of US President Donald Trump’s impatience is his approving the listing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the backbone of the Islamic regime, as a terrorist entity. It also has affiliates like Basij, for internal dissent control, and Quds Force, run by the charismatic Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, for extraterritorial and clandestine operations. The IRGC is thus being provoked to react intemperately to enable the US to move the UNSC to reinstate sanctions for non-compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015). The US cannot otherwise undo that resolution as the other four permanent members are unlikely to concur.

India’s dilemma transcends Iranian oil imports, which the US has said Iran can be replaced by the UAE-Saudi combine. Since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, Iran has been a strategic partner in balancing the Pakistan-Taliban power grab in Afghanistan, a nation that links Central Asia to South and West Asia. The closest India-Iran strategic convergence occurred after the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. Both powers combined to back the Northern Alliance of Tajik fighters led by the redoubtable Ahmad Shah Masood, assassinated not coincidently days before 9/11. Following the US intervention in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s ejection, a new game began which drew India progressively closer to United States, leading to the India-US civil nuclear deal. Concomitantly, Iran was being pilloried for its clandestine nuclear programme, seen breaching its NPT commitments. The US used this to draw India into siding with it and against Iran at the IAEA. Although India continued trying to balance relations with bo
th sides, it only became easier after US itself signed a Joint Programme of Action with Iran in 2013. This, however, was seen by the Israeli-Saudi-Emirati combine as a betrayal. India is now back to the past.

President Trump came into office calling the Iran nuclear deal the “worst deal ever”. He took some time, but eventually withdrew the US from it. William Burns, in The Back Channel, says it shows “how much easier it is to tear down diplomacy than to build it… Reimposition of US sanctions in the face of opposition from partners further damaged a tool of policy already suffering from abuse, driving other countries to lessen reliance on the dollar and the US financial system”.

The US delegation visiting India last week had senior officials from the state and defence departments. The US wants India to see the bigger picture, where India’s real challenge is from China. The US wants to help boost India’s economic and military strength to balance China’s rise. India thus confronts an old conundrum — greater convergence of India-US interests to India’s east but serious differences to the west.

Iran, particularly its Chabahar port, providing easy access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, is central to India’s concerns about the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role as a factor of stability or disruption. Perhaps not coincidently, the Belt and Road Forum meeting convened by China was boycotted by India as the US team arrived in India. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Iran to balance any Iranian outreach to India. Iran and Pakistan agreed on deploying a joint quick reaction force to monitor the Balochistan-Iran border. Earlier, in February, IRGC soldiers were killed in a Pulwama-type attack. Pakistan, with Chinese urging and support, seeks Iranian gas for its China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). There were also hints that Pakistan is worried about the Tehrike Taliban Pakistan (TTP) seeking shelter in Iran. It can be guessed that the Pakistan PM must have berated India for supporting Baloch militancy.

But Indian balancing between the Iranian and US-Saudi-UAE camps has got more difficult for various reasons. First, the erratic decision-making by Mr Trump and his instinct to pillory anyone in disagreement. Second, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unnecessarily personalised receive-at-airport-hug diplomacy with the two young crown princes, both named Mohammed, of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. The UAE has even indirectly backed Mr Modi in the ongoing elections by the extradition and deportation of individuals needed to build corruption cases against the Congress-led previous government. Even the highest UAE award was conferred on Mr Modi in the middle of the election, unheard of before in any modern democracy. Also, IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s prompt return by Pakistan, though attributed by Mr Modi to “threats”, clearly had a Saudi-led role. If threats, even nuclear ones, could work, why did India have to move the International Court of Justice at The Hague to get access to imprisoned Kulbhusan Jadhav?

The next government will have to rebalance relations to restore diplomatic sanity to the electoral-driven wooing of nations, unmindful of costs. The United States, like all other nations, uses carrots and sticks to condition the behaviour of friends and antagonists. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, while negotiating with the US through back channels, objected to that phrase as “Iranians are not donkeys”. The next government may have to do likewise.

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