Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
Even though US President Donald Trump referred to New Delhi as one of the sites of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani’s alleged terrorist activities, India was clearly not on the priority list of nations that the US called after assassinating him last Friday.
Over the next two days US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chinese State Councillor Yang Jichei, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the British Foreign Secretary, the French and German Foreign Ministers and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. So, finally, on Sunday, India’s External Affairs Minister decided not to stand on ceremony and called Pompeo and his Iranian counterpart Javed Zarif.
India has significant interests in the Persian Gulf region, but it appears to have dealt itself out of the game by tamely skewing its Middle East policy in favour of the informal US-Saudi, Arabia-Israel coalition. Iran, which was one of the three pillars of India’s regional policy in West Asia, was given short shrift as New Delhi cravenly went along with Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran. New Delhi’s motives may have been practical.
First, given the draconian nature of US sanctions, India would have had to be very courageous in challenging the US, and the blunt fact is that India is no longer brave when it comes to Uncle Sam. There was a time when Indira Gandhi could stand up to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and lead a war to split Pakistan and achieve what has been India’s greatest military victory since Independence.
Second, Prime Minister Modi, who had made successful forays to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, probably calculated that getting investments from these oil-rich kingdoms was equivalent to the bird in hand, over a bird in the bush, like Iran. So, he loosened India’s traditional and successful policy of maintaining a balanced relationship with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
India had been one of the few countries that did not profit from the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and has been widely respected in the Middle-East. Gulf countries are an important source of oil for the country, but as of last year, India terminated
its imports from Iran because of the US sanctions.
In the narrow and immediate perspective, India’s relationship with the Saudi peninsula is much more important than Iran. Seven million Indian nationals work in the region, sending back an estimated $40 billion to the country. The UAE is India’s third largest trade partner and also a major investor. Modi has targeted the Saudi and UAE sovereign wealth funds for promoting infrastructure construction in India. They see India’s growing economy as a major destination for investment, but though tens of billions of dollars have been talked of, as of now, Gulf investments in India are moderate.
Iran does not have that kind of spare wealth and nor is it a destination for the Indian diaspora. Its value does lie in its vast oil and gas resources as well as its geopolitical location and market potential. It provides the route through which India, blockaded by Pakistan, can fulfill its Eurasian ambitions. The Chabahar project provides a route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, while the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) gives us overland access to Russia and Europe. In many ways, it can be our own Belt and Road Initiative.
There is political congruence, too, between New Delhi and Teheran in our hardline position against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Iran and India joined hands in helping Ahmed Shah Massoud and the Northern Alliance against the Pakistan-backed Taliban.
Today, as the US readies for a pullout there, the Islamist group and its mentor Pakistan appear poised to once again become the dominant force in Afghanistan. That would explain just why Pompeo felt the need to call Bajwa, and not any Indian leader. You have to grant it to the Americans — when the push comes to shove, there is little time for niceties, only a relentless focus on self-interest — which in this case lies in getting a fig leaf to cloak their departure from Afghanistan.
Trump’s action against Soleimani is yet another instance of trashing international law, the first being the wrecking of the UN-approved Iran nuclear deal that triggered the current situation. The US claims that Soleimani, who was their ally against ISIS, was a terrorist. Actually, as a member of the IRGC, he was part of the official military of a sovereign country. His counterparts in the US, Israel or anywhere else would have planned and executed similar kinds of operations that he did. So, merely designating him terrorist means little.
The US has escalated things hugely and this has implications for the wider region. Though experts discount the danger of war and say that neither the US nor Iran wants one, there is always the danger of miscalculation. As in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US can certainly devastate Iran. But though the Iranians will lose, the US and its allies will not be unscathed. We know how ambiguous the US ‘victory’ in Iraq and Afghanistan has been.
In all this, we in India will be collateral casualties. The disruption of oil supplies and possibly large-scale destruction in the region will have a direct impact on our economy.
We rode out the Islamism unleashed by the US-Saudi jihad in Afghanistan, as well as the ISIS fallout in Syria-Iraq. But given our domestic climate today, a new wave of Islamism could well have a different outcome.
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