One of the immediate challenges faced by new external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his team would be to chart a safe course for India’s continued stable relations with Iran in the face of increasing pressure from the United States, Israel and some friendly Arab countries to assume a more anti-Tehran posture.
The 180-day waiver by the United States given to India and seven other countries for continued import of Iranian crude oil ended on May 2, 2019 as it was not extended despite urgent pleas by India and the other affected countries. Under American persuasion India had already reduced its imports of Iranian crude oil from about 2.5 million barrels a day to less than one million barrels a day. India’s ambassador to the US Harsh Shringla said last week that all imports of Iranian crude oil to India have now been stopped.
In theory, it is still possible for India and the other countries involved to continue to import Iranian crude oil by creating alternative banking channels to pay Iran, bypassing the US dollar route. But any financial or corporate entity involved in such a transaction would invite severe reprisals from the US as indicated by the charges of sanction-busting against Chinese giant Huawei, which have soured relations between China on the one hand and Canada and the US on the other. Even European countries have not yet found any viable alternative system of payment for Iranian crude oil.
South Block is fully aware that a broad anti-Iran front has not only the US but also Israel and a majority of Gulf countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi King hosted a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council on May 30 in the holy city of Mecca to consolidate an alliance against the increasing regional footprint of Iran. Arab countries have bitter differences with Iran both due to the Sunni-Shia religious divide and their opposition to the growing regional aspirations of Iran. Iran’s proxies have gained influence in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, which has brought together disparate countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia together to confront Iranian supported groups like the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
Back in the early 1990s, India had embarked on a new policy of pragmatism and liberalisation under the visionary leadership of late Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. The then foreign secretary, the late J.N. Dixit, had coined the term "de-ideologisation" of India’s foreign policy. India adopted an "India First" policy guided solely by its national interests and established full diplomatic relations with Israel and opened a representative office in Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China, otherwise known as Taiwan.
So where do India’s medium and long-term interests lie in the ongoing US-led attempts to isolate and bankrupt Iran?
Iran is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and India fully supports international efforts to keep Iran on a path where it would not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capability. If Iran covertly continues to enrich uranium and develop nuclear weapons, it is likely to provoke forceful pre-emptory strikes from Israel, egged on by the Arab world and, perhaps, acquiesced by elements of the Trump administration.
However, the US effort to choke the Iranian economy to instigate regime change in Tehran is another matter. It is a policy destined for failure because of two main reasons. Iran is a proud and ancient civilisation that is capable of enduring massive suffering, as demonstrated in the devastating 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Iranians are also fiercely nationalistic and venerate "martyrdom". Acute economic hardship would most likely usher in an even more anti-West, non-democratic and religion-dominated regime.
Responding to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s offer to engage with Iran without any preconditions, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has said reportedly on June 1 that Iran may be willing to hold talks if the US showed it some "respect". However, Iran also needs to restrain the government-sponsored mobs which frequently roam around in all country’s important cities chanting "Death to the Great Satan" and "Death to Israel".
While the people and the government of India have a strong sense of goodwill and friendship towards Iran, it would be wise for India to adopt a genuine nonaligned policy in the ongoing tussle between Iran and its many adversaries. While we have stakes in Iran due to the import of crude oil, the Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor, these pale into insignificance when compared to India’s larger stakes in crafting even closer relations with its present-day challengers.
The criticality of India-US relations in facing serious geo-strategic challenges from Pakistan and China is well understood. With Israel, we have a sound defence equipment partnership and valuable technical co-operation in the struggle against terrorism and infiltration from across the borders. With the United Arab Emirates, which include Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, India has developed unprecedented close bonds in the first five years of the Narendra Modi government. Sovereign wealth funds from these two cash-rich countries are poised to invest significant amounts in India’s economy. Also, over 20 million Indians and persons of Indian origin work in the Gulf countries and millions of families back in India are dependent on the billions of dollars that are repatriated by them.
In this background, India is likely to locate alternative sources to replace Iranian crude oil and explain our compulsions suitably to our interlocutors in Tehran. There is no advantage in India going out on a limb to somehow continue to source crude oil from Iran at the expense of irritating our well-wishers in Israel and the Arab world. The United States is, of course, quite another matter, where the Trump administration treats friends and foes alike on trade-related issues. But even there, India would be well advised to keep its head down so as not to come in the crosshairs of a tweet emanating from the White House at the crack of dawn!