Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 10, 2020
The US – Iran kerfuffle and Indian foreign policy

US President Donald Trump’s address to the nation, and the world, on the recent killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a US airstrike in Baghdad, and the retaliatory missile attack by Iran on Iraqi bases hosting US military came in the form of a much needed de-escalation, for now.

The possibility of a full-blown military conflict between Iran and the US caused palpitations beyond West Asia, with the region being the nucleus of energy security for many developing economies, specifically in Asia. India, along with the likes of China, Japan, South Korea and others remains dependent on the region’s oil supplies to power its growth, and despite the Trump administration turning the keys on Iran’s economy, the likes of Beijing have made sure Tehran remains a top supplier to them for both economic and strategic reasons. Beyond oil, for India, the Chabahar port project in Iran’s southeastern coast adds the second strategic dimension for its own interests.

India’s growing closeness to the US, ranging from economy to defense, is bound to reflect on how New Delhi’s traditional relations with those who stand against Washington in the region plays out. While many debates have taken place over the past few days on India’s interests with Iran, with the Minister of External Affairs speaking to both his Iranian and American counterparts along with other powers in West Asia, and the emphasis on energy security and Chabahar, it is perhaps India’s own alignments that have been the major factor of its palpitations.

Last year, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had said that India’s foreign policy, built around the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’, was not necessarily based on the historical posture of ‘non-alignment’. Gokhale highlighted that India, in fact, was ‘aligned’ on an issue based approach, instead of ideological ones. This balancing act of diplomacy is perhaps playing out nowhere better but between India – Iran relations and the India – US relations today, and much of Indian concerns come from its own foreign policy values at play, rather than what transpired between Tehran and Washington.

To maintain the said strategic autonomy, New Delhi also keyed Trump’s White House to make sure they understand that a zero-sum relationship with Iran is not possible. While India did bring oil imports from the country to almost zero to pacify the US, it attempted to balance it out by pushing the Chabahar investments via the periscope of Afghanistan’s interests, and how it would benefit the economy of the embattled country where Trump is looking to exit militarily before the American elections later this year. India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar after visiting the US for the institutional 2+2 dialogue last month, visited Tehran where, as per reports, it was informed that the US had given India ‘written’ assurance for banks to be able to facilitate $85 million worth of equipment purchase for Chabahar despite the severity of sanctions against Iran. This showcases continuity in India – US ties, where structural understanding of India’s relations with Iran was recognized under the Obama administration as well (sanction waivers were given to New Delhi for oil purchases) when severe sanctions were introduced leading into the negotiations of the Iran nuclear deal, signing of which eventually created the JCPOA in 2016. Iran’s acceptance of the agreement was a long-strung diplomatic process, where New Delhi played its part as well by prodding Tehran towards the merits of such a conclusion.

However, the balancing acts, an almost idealistic morality behind the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’ may be in for a turbulent time ahead with the Iran crisis providing a view of a churning global order in the time to come, with institutional and ideological erosion of traditional power structures and rule books that orchestrated much of the past century will raise new questions for Indian foreign policy, at times demanding black and white answers in a game that is by definition grey in nature. West Asia, in fact, is perhaps the best example available of India’s strategic autonomy, with balancing relations between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel successfully without entering their regional dysfunctions. However, increasing relations with the US under the Trump administration that is bullish on players such as Tehran, and willing to leverage and weaponize issue such as trade to achieve strategic goals even with allies requires drastically different approaches to even the most robust foreign policy playbooks. India is not the only one facing these anomalies, European powers that have in recent times pushed back against the US on issues relating to NATO, defense budgets and even Iran, are still knitted together by a long-term institutional purpose with Washington.

However, India, which balances its interests, also has to factor in the interest of the other side. Foreign policy is the extension of domestic policy, and this approach is not exclusive to one side, but is true to both sides engaged in a functional diplomatic bilateral relationship. In a case of US – Iran military conflict is India prepared to honor its commitment to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which potentially gives US access to select Indian bases for its military to refuel and replenish from? These questions may not have easy answers till the day they will eventually be asked in practice. While the US has enough access to military bases in and around West Asia to conduct strikes against Iran if called upon, a potentially isolated presidency such as that of Trump may activate such agreements with countries such as India to both test the strategic partnership and garner global support from allies and partners alike via existing mechanisms of defence cooperation.

The coming decade may be the time when Indian foreign policy finds itself challenged by a global disorder, and ideas such as strategic autonomy, or a purely self-interest based approach to the said international order is challenged in a significant manner. And it is fully possible, while strategic autonomy for India has seen success in West Asia, it may also see its biggest challenges come from the same region as well.

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Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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