Burning Bridge With Iran

New Delhi can’t afford to enhance its bonhomie with Washington at the cost of Tehran

By Mridu Kumari

With the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, relations between the US and Iran have once again reached a boiling point, with neither side ready to put its sword into sheathe. In February, a few days after his swearing-in as the 45th President of the US, Donald Trump provoked by Iran’s test-firing of a ballistic missile, slapped new sanctions on Tehran. These sanctions take into account 13 people and 12 companies, including several entities that support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and help the Iranian government procure material for its missile programme. The individual and establishments, based in Iran, China, Lebanon and the UAE have also been banned from doing business with US institutions or US citizens. According to the US’ Treasury Department, the new sanctions are in consonance with America’s obligations under the nuclear agreement that Iran signed with the US, Germany and UN Security Council permanent members like Russia, France, the UK and China.

It should be noted that in January 2016, previous US administration under Barack Obama had also slapped a ban on nearly a dozen Iranian –linked entities for their role in Iran’s controversial missile programme. But Republicans had accused the Obama administration of not robustly following sanctions’ regime. They said despite Iran’s provocative missile programme, the Obama administration dragged its feet so as not to risk the future of the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. Iran, one of seven Muslim countries facing Trump administration’s travel ban, has made it clear that its missiles are not designed to carry nuclear weapons. It has also vowed to continue with missile programme.  “We will never use our weapons against anyone, except in self-defence,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zharif tweeted recently. UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which was passed in July 2015 in support of the nuclear deal, clearly stated that, “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” But Russia, one of supporters of Iran, has argued that missile tests carried out by Tehran are not in violation of the UN resolution. India has not publicly stated anything on Iran’s missiles’ programme, but more or less it is against intensification of turf war between Tehran and Washington. New Delhi maintains cordial relations with Iran where Chabahar Port is being built with funds from India. To be operational by the end of 2018, the port will enhance India’s footprint from Afghanistan to the Central Asian region. It is also a close ally which is helping India on terrorism issue.

In this background, India would do nothing that could upturn its applecart in the Middle-East region.  It should be noted that India had played behind the scene role by bringing Iran and the US on the same table for resolving the tricky and contentious nuclear deal. But given the new administration at the helm of the US affairs, India is completely at sea as how to stop rising tension between Tehran and Washington. At the same time, it wants to maintain its neutrality too and perhaps, this is the reason India has avoided to be a part of any campaign in Syria even as Iran and Russia have invited New Delhi to do the same. India is quite aware of choppy waters of West Asian politics.  If it will go along with Tehran for peace and security in Syria then Saudi Arabia with its hold on the Sunni world will view it badly and if it sides with America and its allies, there is likelihood of sabotaging its image of being a neutral country. Since 2013, Iran and Syria have been requesting India to play its role as a powerful BRICS nation in the West Asian crisis. In the same year, Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s political adviser came to India and thanked it for supporting Baghdad. Iran is playing a go-between role between India and BRICS countries over the Syrian issue. But whether India will openly side with any club or non-UN convention on the West Asian conflict is a million dollar question. Yet, as per sources, it is true that Tehran and New Delhi have cozied up together to strengthen their mutual interests. But whether these two nations would come together to become a part of pro-Bashar chorus to defeat anti-Baghdad brigade like Saudi Arabia and its Western allies–is a million dollar question.

In this view, India is reluctant to partner with the Trump administration against Iran. But given the threat from the US administration that those who would deal with Tehran would face the music, has put in quandary India’s investments in Iran. It should be noted that India and Iran are simultaneously also developing the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) together with Russia, connecting the Gulf of Oman to Central Asia and Eastern Europe. These projects are crucial for India from a strategic perspective too. China has financed the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan, which India views as a strategic threat. The Chabahar port, just 72km west along the coast from Gwadar, offers India a counter. Such connectivity projects also allow India to present an alternative to China’s One Belt One Road initiative to other countries that need trade corridors but are wary of Beijing. Besides, Iran is also important for India’s energy security. Till the end of February this year, Iran replaced Iraq in being second major country after Saudi Arabia to export oil to India. This jump in export to India means New Delhi would not suddenly burn its bridges with Tehran under pressure from the US.