Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins his second term at a time when US President Donald Trump is mounting severe and comprehensive pressure on Iran. In this context, Modi’s nightmare would be the outbreak of armed hostilities between the two countries. It would threaten India’s energy security—60% of India’s oil imports pass through the narrow passageway of the Strait of Hormuz. It would also adversely impact the welfare of nine million Indians living in the Arabian Peninsula countries and truly dislocate India’s economy.
While Trump’s Iran policy is contributing to an enormous escalation of tensions in West Asia, the chance of a serious armed conflict is remote. Nevertheless, US actions in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood are currently, as they have in the past, impacting its interests. They are particularly complicating Indian approaches towards Afghanistan and Pakistan apart from Iran.
It is ironic that both the US’ close ties with Iran prior to 1979 and enduring hostility thereafter have cast shadows on Indo-Iranian ties. The Shah’s Iran was a US ally and, along with Pakistan and Turkey, a member of the US anchored Central Treaty Organisation, created to contain the Soviet Union; it was also largely negative towards non-aligned India because of US and Pakistani orientations.
Ayatollah Khomeini and his clerical successors remain essentially inimical to the Great Satan. US conservatives of the Trump variety want to cripple Iran, especially its economy and foreign relations, to accomplish regime change. Their chosen instruments are sanctions to prevent the export of Iran’s hydrocarbons and inhibit its international financial transactions. Thus, foreign companies which enter into commercial ties with Iran in the hydrocarbons sector, among others, do so at the risk of breaking contacts with US related entities. No company, including Indian, wishes to face such a possibility.
India seeks connectivity through Iran to Afghanistan and beyond. It is developing the Chabahar Port for this purpose. The US too wants that land-locked Afghanistan does not remain dependent on Pakistan for access to the seas. Hence, it has kept the Chabahar Port development outside the ambit of sanctions. However, Trump is mercurial and if he decides to sanction the Chabahar project as well, there is little that India will be able to do.
The days of US’ all-out support for Pakistan are gone. Trump has now a nuanced approach. He is keeping Pakistan under economic pressure through the International Monetary Fund and the Financial Action Task Force mechanisms so that it pushes the US agenda in Afghanistan. The principal objectives are to get the Taliban to give up relations with global Islamist terror, abandon violence and agree to negotiations with the Afghan government for a peace deal. The Taliban is not obliging on the latter two points.
The Taliban and Pakistan consider themselves victorious in the Afghan conflict. Encouraged by Pakistan, the Taliban are determined to reach peace only on their terms. India has good reason to suspect the Taliban and would have liked the group to be eliminated. As that is not possible, it has to come up with a new strategy to deal with it. It is groping for one, delaying the inevitable—establishing an open channel of communication.
The recent designation of the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar has to be seen as a product of US-China dynamics. It was, of course, a signal to Pakistan too—meant to show that the terrorist game against India has gone for far too long and has become dangerous because of India’s doctrine of pre-emption. That is good news for India. But the difficulty is: will it last and what will be the future bills that the US will present? For now, it demanded that India stops importing Iranian oil. India obliged. This may hurt nationalistic sentiment but is no great strategic loss.
In the complex web of international relations, all countries have to navigate their way through third-country pressures on their bilateral ties. India is no exception.
Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer
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