The US-Iran tensions and Implications for India’s Strategic Autonomy

Rushali Saha
February 01, 2020


Image Courtesy: Deccan Herald

The world welcomed the new year with apprehensions about ‘World War III’ as the news of a US airstrike killing Iran’s most powerful military commander, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, flashed across screens around the globe in the first week of January 2020. President Donald Trump’s decision to order the killing was seen by many to be the final spark that would ignite the long-brewing U.S.-Iran tension into full-scale war. Moved by fears that this US move could disrupt European relations with Iran and hamper attempts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal following US withdrawal, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson released a joint statement urging both parties to exercise “utmost restraint and responsibility.” While other international powers such as China, Russia expressed cautious apprehensions about the US decision, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu provided a clear statement of support. Amidst these narratives, India was placed in a difficult spot as it sought to diplomatically maneuver in a manner that does not antagonize either of the two actors involved. In recent years, India has developed a ‘strategic partnership’ with the US, but it has held its commitments to strategic autonomy dearly. However, the Iran crisis has tested India’s strategic autonomy, given India’s reduction in energy imports from Tehran. 

US and Iran have had a long history of tense relations, which was ratcheted in 2018 with President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as Iran nuclear deal. Many members of the international community felt that Iran acquiring nuclear capability would threaten regional security, and the United States took the lead in halting Iran’s nuclear program. The plan was a handiwork of the Obama administration under which Iran agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities and allowed international inspection in return for lifting economically crippling sanctions imposed upon it. While the deal has been criticized by many commentators, Donald Trump remained its harshest critic who vowed to take a tougher approach towards Iran, and his administration did so with its ‘maximum pressure strategy’ under which it not only re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iran but took stringent measures to ensure nations do not move to buy oil from Iran. To that end, the Trump administration did not renew American waivers, which granted eight countries, including India, to allow it to buy Iranian oil.

Meanwhile, India’s oil imports from the US increased manifold, wherein India bought about 1,84,000 barrels per day (BPD) from the US over November 2018 to May 2019, compared to about 40,000 BPD in the same period a year earlier. Iran’s economy survives on its income from oil exports, and India had been Iran’s second-largest customer after China, with the latter taking a more defiant stance and being more vocal in condemning US unilateral sanctions. Meanwhile, Iran made its disappointment with Indian actions evident in a statement by its foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif where he said: “India has taken a stance against sanctions and that is encouraging, but we expected our friends to be more resilient.” 

The Trump administration’s exemption to India on Chabahar port should not be seen as a concession to India since it was dictated by the US’s own strategic interests. The port will develop India’s connectivity to Afghanistan, which in turn will facilitate the country’s economic development, which aligns with the US’s call for India to play a more significant role in the region. The US has also ordered the resumption of military training to Pakistan, which it had suspended in 2018 after accusing it of not doing enough to counter terrorist groups, in the aftermath of its assassination of Soleimani indicating a US-Pakistan rapprochement which is not good news for India. Furthermore, the more complicated US-Iran relations get more challenges for India in its relationship with Iran.

There are strong cultural and civilizational ties between India and Iran, and both have enjoyed healthy relations unhindered by strictly bilateral issues. As India looks west, it cannot ignore Iran, which is its nearest partner to the West of Pakistan and provides the only viable alternate route bypassing Pakistan. Iran is crucial to India as a transit route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and India has made considerable investments in developing the Chabahar port. Iran has largely supported India and even sees its ties with India as unbreakable.

 Speaking almost prophetically, Professor Harsh Pant and Julie Supper wrote in 2013 “New Delhi’s ability to maintain a healthy relation with Tehran….indicates that the balancing act is likely to continue so long as relations with Iran serve Indian interest and a major war between Iran and United States or Israel is avoided.” Undoubtedly, India’s interest in the region remains, whether in terms of India’s growing energy demands or as a partner in connectivity and counterterrorism efforts. However, as US-Iran tensions deepen, it seems that the process is forcing Iran to turn towards China, which already has its eyes set in the region. However, not all hope is lost. Iran has welcomed any peace initiative by India, and Iranian public opinion does not support a close partnership with China for fear of dependence on it. New Delhi must realize that it cannot afford to choose one side over the other, and Iran will not tolerate its tilt towards the US for much longer. Neither can India afford to alienate the United States, with whom it has a nuclear deal, which indirectly grants international legitimacy to India’s own nuclear program as well. In the face of such an unfavorable international environment, a non-aligned and deliberately ambiguous stance may work best to serve India’s interests, for it will at least provide the much-needed breathing space to work out a strategy, which would allow India to take a position and to retain her own strategic autonomy. Although tensions between Iran and the US seem to have reduced, they are far from resolved, and as India frames its response, it must remember Kissinger’s famous remark: America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.

*** The author is a postgraduate student of Political Science, with specialisation in International Relations, Jadavpur University, India. Her research interests include South Asian politics, specifically Indian foreign policy. ***