The recent publication of a 19-page report in the Long War Journal — a publication backed by the Washington-based think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies — that is critical of Iran and its alleged nuclear deals with global powers, has rung alarm bells in Tehran. Officials in Washington believe that since 1991, Iran has formed loose ties with terrorist organizations. These new developments could directly or indirectly affect the smooth sailing of India-US relations.
India’s relations with the US have been shrouded in mystery in the backdrop of the latter’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Accord and the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, as well as the uncertainty of American policies due to President Trump being at the helm of affairs. But, the brief sojourn of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to America has relatively turned a new leaf in their relationship.
The Current India-US Synergy
India and the US have witnessed estrangement and engagement in their relations since the Cold War period. On his recent tri-nation tour to South Asia, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson termed US-Indian relations as “two bookends of stability,” and heralded a new phase in India-US ties. If we look back to the Tillerson’s foreign policy speech on October 18, 2017, he was of the view that the US is “India’s reliable partner.”
Keeping in view the shifting sands of geopolitics, America expects India to be a global strategic partner; share the values of democracy, peace and stability; play a role in the region; and be on the same page over China and the North Korean containment policy. In the context of North Korea, on July 7, 2017, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a policy statement which clearly criticized the recent North Korean ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) test and nuclear proliferation. India believes that the launch of ICBM missiles and nuclear proliferation poses a grave security threat to its interests in the region.
Tehran-Washington Roller Coaster Ties
After the downfall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, in 1979, American relations with Iran have remained topsy-turvy. Iran has been in the eye of a storm lasting more than three decades. Currently, America’s three-prong strategy focusing on Iran’s nuclear program includes its alleged links with terrorist groups and support for modern voices within Iran. The recently published report points to a new twist in their relations.
If we look back in 2016, the US administration, through the UN, had imposed sanctions against Iran. These sanctions were partly due to the Iranian refusal to suspend its Uranium Enrichment Program. The Americans see Iran from the lens of Saudi Arabia, namely the Sunni-Shia divide, and the Middle East, including Israel. Similarly, India was asked to reduce its purchase of Iranian crude oil. It should be noted here that India was also pressured by the US, in 2009, to support them at the UN for international sanctions on Iran.
Given the decades of courting and souring relations between Iran and the US, India needs to act independently. Its future belongs in Asia.
In mid-2016, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) was thrashed out between Iran, the permanent members of UN Security Council, and the EU. In the JCPA agreement, Tehran agreed to hold back its nuclear processing plan. Given this thaw in Iran-US relations, India was able to buy crude oil and pay back USD 6 billion in debt to Iran. A meeting was held in May 2016 between Prime Minister Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani which reinvigorated and renewed the spirit of their relations.
However, the year 2017 saw a U-turn in American policy due to Donald Trump’s being elected as President. Thus, a brief interlude in Iran-US relations subsequently saw a downward trend. In such a situation, India had no option but to slow down its Iran-centric investment in various projects.
Chill and Thaw in India-Iran Relations
Despite American sanctions on Iran, the Saudi-Iranian stand-off, and American defense deals with India, India has signed deals and investments with Iran, including the development of the Chabahar port and investment in the Farzad B offshore Iranian natural gas field in the Persian Gulf that is believed to hold up to 12.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Indian investment in the development of the Chabahar port has been considered a well-orchestrated plan. This port is expected to have a great geostrategic importance for India especially for Indian exports to the Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan. For the Chabahar project, India has committed USD 500 million. The development of Chabahar port is considered a counterweight to the Chinese development of Gawadar port in Baluchistan province in Pakistan and its String of Pearls policy in the region.
After the Iran-India summit in 2016, India, Iran, and Afghanistan thrashed out a plan that was dubbed as the Trilateral Transit Agreement, and it was agreed in principle that they would launch a trade corridor linking Chabahar port with Afghanistan. In addition to the development of Chabahar port, India also committed to financially supporting the construction of infrastructure including railways, roads, and fertilizer plants worth USD 15 billion. It was indeed a big investment by India in Iran, but it was not bigger than the Chinese investment in Gwadar port in Pakistan.
The good news is that India has finally been able to send its first-ever shipment of wheat to Afghanistan through the port of Chabahar. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs noted that “the shipment was the first in a series of six shipments that will be delivered to Afghanistan over the next few months,” and the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stated that “the shipment is part of commitment made by the Government of India to supply 1.1 million tonnes of wheat for the people of Afghanistan on grant basis.” These steps seem to be a good omen for the peace, prosperity and stability of the region. But, what else does India need to do?
Given the decades of courting and souring relations between Iran and the US, India needs to act independently. Its future belongs in Asia. It should not act with a siege mentality and it has to trust its economic dynamism. I believe that India, with its current GDP growth rate of 5.7 percent; the world’s second largest population of 1.324 billion; and the second largest army in the world can turn the course of history. Policies like China containment, conflict with Pakistan, and bandwagoning with Washington may not serve India well for its rise as a great power. A pragmatic approach coupled with strong leadership can steer India out of the current myopic diplomatic situation.