The Indian government has reached out to Iran for securing the release and repatriation of 18 Indian sailors who were among the 23-member crew on board the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero. India will have to do much more than that to defuse the rising tensions in West Asia where Iran has been responding to events after the further tightening of sanctions by the United States. The immediate cause of the latest conflagration was the impounding of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar, in which British troops were involved, around two weeks ago. The action was premised on the oil constituting illegal supply to Syria. Considering the close ties India has with Iran, in a fine balancing act of its relations with Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates, where millions of its citizens live, the country should be playing a more active peacemaking role to cool down the escalating heat in the Strait of Hormuz.
The shooting of drones and the ordering of airstrikes, which were then called off at the last minute by US President Donald Trump, were not measures that really helped to keep the peace. The United States had been putting the heat on Iran after unilaterally withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal signed during the Barack Obama presidency, and further tightening sanctions from May this year.
As its history suggests, Iran may not take things lying down. It should, however, be aware of the fact that the UK and other European countries have been trying to get the US to back the old nuclear deal, while being keen to avoid a confrontation with Iran. It is in this context that the seizure of a UK-flagged oil tanker has to be viewed as a grave provocation, but then Britain had dallied in the Iran oil tanker issue to invite this counteraction at a time when Britain is vulnerable with a lame duck Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street.
Good relations between India and Iran are extremely important and the geopolitical significance of the Chabahar Port cannot be lost sight of. The Asian waters are tense enough with an international effort named Operation Sentinel trying to police the key shipping routes through the Strait of Hormuz, which sees a third of the world’s shipped oil being moved. India is currently buying oil from other Arab suppliers as well as the United States to make up for the ban on Iranian imports. It’s still an important time for diplomacy, rather than brinkmanship, which President Trump is known to favour. Iran should also respond to reasonable peace efforts. The Iran nuclear question is not going to be solved in a hurry, but peace must be pursued regardless.