US-Iran tension: No longer a fence-sitter, India tilting towards Washington is based on hard-nosed realism

  • The biggest issue for New Delhi in the fight between the US and Iran is that it has been pushed to take a side, and make a strategic choice on the blind

  • Under Narendra Modi and his foreign minister S Jaishankar, India’s foreign policy has evolved from ‘non-alignment’ to ‘multi-alignment’

  • India's reaction to Iranian general Soleimani's killing, where it noted an increase in tension but didn't criticise the US, clearly shows that New Delhi has already chosen a side

West Asia is a cesspool of clashing global interests, not to speak of the fact that it is the prime source of the world’s energy. The 10 oil-rich countries in West Asia have about 3.4 percent of the world’s land surface but possess 48 percent of world’s known oil reserves and 38 percent of natural gas reserves, according to BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Quite naturally, when an incident of note takes place in West Asia that upsets the delicate balance of interests, the disturbance has a domino effect on global geopolitics and economics. India is no exception to the rule, only in New Delhi’s case the stakes are greater because of its entrenched and sustained interests. When US president Donald Trump decided to take out Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani, India’s blood pressure shot up.

 US-Iran tension: No longer a fence-sitter, India tilting towards Washington is based on hard-nosed realism

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. PTI

It wasn’t just the fact that the Gulf is vital to India’s energy security. That is an obvious factor since New Delhi imports 80 percent of its oil and gas needs. It isn’t the fact alone that Iran is central to India’s connectivity plans to Afghanistan and Eurasia; it isn’t the fact alone that the region hosts nearly 8-9 million of Indian expatriates who contribute to India’s economy; the biggest issue for New Delhi in the fight between the US and Iran is that it has been pushed to take a side, and make a strategic choice on the blind.

Making a choice is antithetical to India’s foreign policy paradigm that has traditionally centred around engaging with everyone and allying with none. This is not just realpolitik, but the consistent stance of a civilisational nation-state that has stayed true to its legacy from Chanakya through the medieval past, colonial-era down to post-Independence — as Hudson Institute fellow and author Aparna Pande has elaborated.

In her second book, From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy, Pande identifies the fulcrum of India’s foreign policy that not only has a strong moral dimension, but also continuity. In her words: “Every Indian prime minister from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi has left his imprint on India’s foreign policy... While they tried to carve their own paths what is interesting is there has been a remarkable degree of continuity in the policies followed over the decades.”

This continuity is identifiable in the way India under Nehru pushed for ‘non-alignment’ — a term that has gone out of favour but its tenets can be found in India’s current policy of ‘strategic autonomy’. Under Modi and his foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar, India’s strategic autonomy has evolved from ‘non-alignment’ to ‘multi-alignment’ so that India, given the state of its economy and its developmental curve, manages to punch above its weight.

In a speech in September 2019 delivered in Washington at the Council on Foreign Relations, Jaishankar had elaborated on this concept. Trump’s strike on Soleimani and Iran’s "revenge" of attacking US bases on Iraq was still far away, but while mentioning the "volatility" of Gulf region, the foreign minister had said, “There are issues about, you know, the future of Africa and the volatility of the Gulf, as well, and not least to the return of history in the positions and policies that Russia has taken, particularly in West Asia.

“So this sort of world scenario, to me the strategic framework would be more multipolarity; unfortunately, less multilateralism; leading, suddenly from the perspective of a country like India, to a sort of a — I would say a multi-alignment, which is you keep your relationships well-oiled with all the major power centres, and the country which does that best actually has political positioning in the world which may be superior to its actual structural strengths,” he added.

This remarkable statement, of India “keeping its relationships well-oiled with all the major power centres” to have a greater say in global commons than its geopolitical and geoeconomic strength would allow, catches the fulcrum and the direction of India’s foreign policy.

Iran supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, leads a prayer over the coffins of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a US drone strike. AP

Iran supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, leads a prayer over the coffins of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a US drone strike. AP

America’s drone attack on a vehicle on Iraqi soil ferrying Soleimani, Iran’s commander of the al-Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the escalatory spiral it has and still may trigger, threatens India’s foreign policy paradigm, upsets its calibration and forces it to take a position.
There have been many commentaries on the need for India to take a stand instead of waiting in the sidelines and hoping that both sides would see reason and walk back from the brink and allow it to continue with its delicate balancing act with regard to its bilateral relations with the US and Iran. Commentators have stressed on the fact that ‘India can ill-afford to be a fence-sitter’ and must act on ‘multiple fronts’.

India has already started acting on "multiple fronts", as Jaishankar’s telephonic conversations with Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Oman’s foreign minister Yusuf Alawi and UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan have demonstrated, but its measured and careful response post the assassination of Soleimani, whose “steady hand has helped guide Iranian foreign policy for decades” and whose “shrewd pragmatism has transformed (Quds Force) into a major influencer in intelligence, financial, and political spheres beyond Iran’s borders” shows New Delhi has already taken a side and has done so at the risk of throwing more wrinkles in its ties with Iran guided by hard-nosed strategic calculus.

To understand India’s evolving position, we need to look at the chronology of events and India’s response. The first statement that India released when the news about Soleimani’s death was confirmed, was this:

Killing of a senior Iranian leader by the US

January 03, 2020

We have noted that a senior Iranian leader has been killed by the US. The increase in tension has alarmed the world. Peace, stability and security in this region is of utmost importance to India. It is vital that the situation does not escalate further. India has consistently advocated restraint and continues to do so.

The title of the short release and the subtext tells us more than is apparent. India refers to Soleimani’s death as a “killing”, instead of “assassination” that would have imposed greater significance on the act. India is obviously aware of Soleimani’s importance in the region and his position in the Islamic nation’s power hierarchy (said to be next only to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), so the playing down of the term is a deliberate act, designed to deescalate tension.

And de-escalation of tension is the primary motif that rings through the brief statement, highlighting India’s concerns on renewed volatility in a sensitive region and the costs that may be imposed on India in terms of the security of its people stationed there, the threat to its energy security, derailing of its connectivity plans and the adverse effect on its economy.

As Brookings Institution fellow Tanvi Madan has noted, India “...noted an ‘increase in tension,’ but without identifying an instigator. And it advocated restraint, but, unlike China, did not especially mention the United States in this context.”

This deliberate reading down of the significance of the incident, India’s tepid response and unwillingness to name the US, was not lost on Iran. On January 5, the Iranian embassy in India released a statement on Soleimani’s death. The statement, among other things, quotes Iran expressing gratitude “to all individuals, groups, elites, media outlets, organisations and foreign missions in India who have expressed their solidarity with the government and people of Iran and have condemned this terrorist act in different ways and means including sending condolence messages, publications of reports and articles, as well as organisation of functions and rallies in various parts of India”.

Notably, the statement makes no mention of the Indian government. This is a clear sign of the fact that Iran has noted India’s response, and its statement bears testimony to the growing distance between the two capitals without putting ties at threat.

Accordingly, Jaishankar’s statement post telephonic conversation with Zarif made no mention of the condolences offered.

And the Iranian readout of the same telephonic call was stark, matter-of-fact and generic.

If India’s response made no mention or criticism of the US' role, it is evident that the Modi government has weighed its options and has opted to tilt in favour of the US in walking the tightrope. During Trump’s phone call with Modi, the readout of which was subsequently made public, there was no mention of Iran.

File image of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. AP.

File image of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. AP.

It stands to reason that India is — in Madan’s words — “circumspect about criticising Washington” despite knowing that America’s drone attack has thrown the region into volatility and the underlying realities of its ties with Iran. This circumspection stems from two impulses — its growing distance with Iran and the calculus that compels India to have the US in a greater strategic embrace arising out of its needs to balance China. Add to this dynamic the fact that India has steadily become less dependent on Iran for its energy needs (its imports of Iranian crude is now zero due to secondary US sanctions while its energy imports from the US have gone up 72 percent in the five months to September 2019), and the Trump administration has been more understanding of India’s domestic political decisions than Iran.

While the Islamic nation, for instance, had criticised New Delhi over the abrogation of Article 370, the Trump White House not only came to India’s aid on this issue but has also been quite circumspect about criticising India on the citizenship imbroglio. Notably, US Secretary of State Pompeo described the agitations in India over this issue (that came under sharp attack from progressive Democrats and US media) as “robust domestic debate”.

One should also not lose sight of the fact that much of India’s troubles over Chabahar port, that was expected to solve India’s connectivity issues, bypassing Pakistan, boost its Eurasian connectivity and stabilise its efforts in Afghanistan has under-delivered and remains hampered due to Iran fundamentally changing the terms of the agreement multiple times — about three times in three years.

In contrast, the Modi government recently got the Trump administration to allow India a rare exemption on Chabahar. These realities are shaping India’s strategic choices and forcing it to act to contain the potential geopolitical spillover. However, Iran still retains civilisational and cultural ties with India. Given the strategic realities and the difficulties imposed by the Soleimani development, the trajectory of its will be interesting to note.

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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2020 19:56:21 IST