High anxiety

As tensions between Washington and Tehran continue to simmer, Sudha Ramachandran wonders for how long India can tread a diplomatic tight-rope to maintain its all-important ties with both nations

The assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in a US drone strike in Baghdad on January 3 has plunged already volatile West Asia into an unprecedented crisis. Within days of the assassination, Iran struck back by firing missiles on military bases in Iraq that housed American forces. With the two sides issuing dire threats against each other, war clouds gathered over the Persian Gulf.

While the danger of an all-out war has receded in the weeks since, tensions remain high and the possibility of Iran and the US engaging in tit-for-tat strikes via proxies and in third countries cannot be ruled out. For countries like India, which have strong ties with both adversaries, diplomatic manoeuvring between them has been a tough task so far and could become more challenging in the coming months.

So far, India has been attempting a balancing act between the US and Iran. It took a neutral stance on Soleimani’s assassination. It sent an official to sign the condolence book at the Iranian embassy in New Delhi and a Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement referred to the slain general as ‘a senior Iranian leader’,’ a marked distancing from the US description of Soleimani as ‘number one terrorist any wherein the world’.

But India avoided describing the killing as an ‘assassination’. It has refrained from blaming either the US or Iran for the recent escalation in tensions and has called for restraint from both sides.

However, how long will India keep up this neutral position?

In the past, it has repeatedly succumbed to US pressure on issues related to Iran. It voted twice against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005-06. Warming relations with the US and a nuclear deal with it prompted New Delhi to line up behind Washington against Iran. To avoid drawing American ire, it slowed down its participation in the Chabahar deep-sea port project in Iran and drastically reduced its import of Iranian crude oil under US pressure.

India took a neutral stance on Soleimani’s assassination

India’s ‘balancing act’ between the US and Iran over the past 15 years or so, which saw New Delhi repeatedly join hands with Washington, suggests that its engagement of the two powers in the coming months will see a similar tilt towards the US.

Should the current tensions escalate into hostilities, India could find itself in a difficult situation. Under the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, which India and the US signed in 2016, the two sides agreed to provide each other with access to designated military facilities for purposes of repair, refuelling and replenishment of supplies. Will India turn down a US request for such access for use in anti-Iran operations?

Taking sides in the looming US-Iran confrontation is not in India’s interest, given its high stakes in the region.The crisis in the Persian Gulf region has serious implications for India. Around 85 million Indian expatriates live and work here. They account for $40 billion of a total $70 billion that Indians abroad send home as remittances. Any conflict in the region would trigger an exodus of expatriates from the Gulf to India. This would not only shrink dollar remittances to India but also, the return of millions of Indians would worsen the unemployment situation in the country.

Besides, India’s oil imports would be impacted adversely. The country imports 84 per cent of its oil requirements, 60 per cent of which comes from the Gulf region. In the event of the conflict escalating, oil infrastructure could be damaged or destroyed. A blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, through which pass a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and a quarter of its oil consumption, would restrict supplies. A spike in oil prices on account of restricted oil supplies and spiralling insurance costs, which is already visible, is likely to increase in the event of war or even an escalation of conflict. It would hit the Indian economy hard.

Of particular concern to India is the fate of the Chabahar port project. Located at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman and just 72 km west of Gwadar Port in Pakistan, which is being operated by the Chinese, Chabahar port has immense strategic value. Participation in the Chabahar port project gives India a foothold in this strategic location. Besides, the port provides India with a gateway to overland trade with Afghanistan and through it to the Central Asian countries.

Hitherto, India has been denied such overland access by Pakistan. That changed with India participating in funding and developing Chabahar port, and with India, Iran and Afghanistan agreeing to conduct their trade through the harbour. This provided a shot in the arm to India’s ambitions to expand its footprint and play a more influential role in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Should the US-Iran conflict escalate, India will have to put on hold such ambitions.

Although the US has exempted Chabahar port from economic sanctions and given India a written assurance to this effect recently, this waiver may not hold in the long run, especially if Washington’s ties with Iran deteriorate further, and in light of US President Donald Trump’s erratic decision-making. Companies remain reluctant to invest in the Chabahar port’s development given the uncertainty over the project’s future. That India, too, is not very optimistic over the port’s future is evident from the fact that budget allocations for the project were slashed drastically last year.

India’s trade and strategic ambitions in Central Asia hinge on security of overland routes running through Iran and Afghanistan and stability in these countries. Neither is likely if the present state of affairs in the Gulf continues. Should Iran and the US target each other’s facilities through missile strikes, Chabahar port and its related transport infrastructure will not be safe.  Afghanistan is already convulsed in violence and should Iran use its proxies in the region, such as the Fatehmiyoun Brigade, to target American military and other facilities in Afghanistan, overland trade through that war-ravaged country will not take off.

It is for this reason that India is focused on ensuring that Iran and the US pullback from confrontation. Apprehensive over escalating tensions following Soleimani’s assassination, India’s statement stressed that ‘peace, stability and security’ in the region are of ‘utmost importance to India’.

During his recent visit to New Delhi, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that India can play a role in de-escalating tensions. This may not be easy, given India’s own vulnerability to US bullying. Still, it could offer to play a constructive role in de-escalating tensions as it is among the few countries in the world that has strong ties with both protagonists. It has little to lose and everything to gain by pushing the two adversaries to show restraint. New Delhi could nudge Trump during his upcoming visit to India to de-escalate tensions with Iran and to tone down his bellicose rhetoric as a first step. But will Trump listen?

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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