U-Iran: New Delhi must weigh its options carefully – analysis
India is in a difficult place with tensions in the United States (U.S.) and Iran spiraling in West Asia after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran (IRGC) in Iraq. Iran has promised “harsh retaliation,” while U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened a “disproportionate” response against him, including cultural goals. In the past three days, Iraq’s parliament called for the expulsion of the United States, and Iran announced that it was ending the final limitation on the nuclear agreement on the number of centrifuges. However, it has not come out of the agreement.
India’s initial statement on Soleimani’s “murder” was heavily restricted. He did not mention the United States, but called for de-escalation in a “of paramount importance” region. This response masks serious concerns if tensions rise further in West Asia. The consequences have strong implications for the security of eight million Indians living there, India’s own energy security given its high dependence on the region’s oil and gas, as well as its growing security, and investment associations with the Persian Gulf countries, among other considerations. India is also concerned about its strategic connectivity interests including the port of Chabahar in Iran, which borders India with Afghanistan and Central Asia, which received a rare exemption from US sanctions. Indeed, a few weeks before Soleimani’s death, the foreign minister visited Washington, followed by Tehran and Muscat, to accelerate the long-delayed project. Unfortunately, India is now caught in the crossfire that puts its interests in Iran at risk.
To be sure, the India-Iran relationship has not been without complications. Officials often cite “historical and civilized” links that distract from their limited and current commitment. For starters, his commitment to energy has never worked smoothly. Iran has often reneged on guarantees to Indian companies. Tehran would insinuate competing interests of China or Russia over agreements being negotiated with India. This was the case with the gas field, Farzad B, discovered by ONGC Videsh Ltd, and under discussion for more than a decade. India reduced oil imports in mid-2017 to show discontent over the delay. This was after the nuclear deal that Tehran could have capitalized on the thaw and accelerated projects. However, he chose to play hard.
This pattern continued with the Chabahar port project, where new terms emerged in India from the beginning when Iran introduced a new signature in the signing of the Mio Memorandum in 2015. India is partly responsible for the delays in Iran, as it changed the terms to “very fundamental ways at least three times in the last three years.” With Trump violating the nuclear deal, and sanctions slapped several Iranian entities, including the IRGC, these changes further frustrated India. Each small modification required due diligence to safeguard the U.S. ire project, with no margin for error. To complicate matters, the U.S. exemption for Chabahar did little to make things better on the ground.
A third disconnect between the two is Afghanistan. Iran sees the U.S. presence as part of the problem, and the possibility that it can now go after U.S. assets there cannot be completely ruled out. Moreover, Tehran’s support for the Taliban was against Indian interests. These are just a few bilateral problems between India and Iran. Add to them the moments when India was caught in the midst of a disagreement Iran had with, say, Afghanistan, when it tried to sabotage the Salma dam that India was building (2011-12) or, with Israel, when the IRGC targeted a diplomat’s vehicle New Delhi (2012). India has always chosen to react to these irritants bilaterally without public uproar, fueling the “romanticization” of strong ties with Iran.
In reality, India has met with the United States midway through most things related to Iran over the past decade, largely because of its own strategic calculation. And this was long before it reached zero in imports last year. As ties stand today, India-Iran’s commitment to energy has been significantly reduced, and security interactions are limited. The only remaining arena is connectivity, where there is enough regional consensus from Central Asia to Russia and Oman (Ashgabat Agreement and INSTC) to keep Chabahar alive, but which depends heavily on existing infrastructure and limited spending. A written usherly guarantee on the waiver was going to change that, but Trump had other plans.
While India reflects on its options, here are three things to finally consider. India has always opposed a nuclear Iran. Tehran’s decision not to leave the agreement (IAEA inspections intact) is revealing and leaves room for dialogue with the European Union. Staying engaged with France, a close Partner of the Indo-Pacific, along with Iran would go a little. If reports of Saudi dislike of Trump, and Israel’s cautious response calling On Soleimani to kill Soleimani as an “American event,” keep water, there’s certainly room for India to manipulate in this crisis even with the United States . But with the government involved in fighting national fires, if Indian diplomacy has the bandwidth to do so, it’s a different matter.
Sumitha Narayanan Kutty is a research associate with the South Asia Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang University of Technology, Singapore
The opinions expressed are personal