Ties with Iran are our sovereign prerogative

The narrative is that Washington has posed an existential choice – ‘Cut import of Iranian oil, or else…’ The intemperate remarks by the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley while on a recent visit to Delhi led to this narrative. (PTI File Photo)

A one-dimensional view of the controversy over the future of India-Iran energy cooperation creates misconceptions. The narrative is that Washington has posed an existential choice – ‘Cut import of Iranian oil, or else…’ The intemperate remarks by the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley while on a recent visit to Delhi led to this narrative.  

However, diplomacy can be deceptive in appearance. Tehran disclosed last week that President Trump himself made not less than eight attempts to establish contact with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Presumably, Trump is eager to commence a conversation to resolve the differences between the two countries. Rouhani didn’t oblige. Iran’s stance is that the US cannot be trusted as an interlocutor. Clearly, these are early days. Trump’s intention is to engage Iran in negotiations, and India has no reason to be in panic mode. This is one thing.

A US attack on Iran is unthinkable not only because a confrontation has huge implications for regional and international security but also due to Iran’s capability to retaliate and inflict prohibitive damage to American lives and assets. Thus, a diplomatic pirouette is underway, and Trump fancies himself to be a consummate deal-maker. The present discord, shorn of diplomatese, narrows down to Iran’s regional policies – principally, for their impact on Israel’s security. This needs some explanation.

The heart of the matter is that Israel faces a historic defeat in the seven-year-old Syrian conflict and is apprehensive that payback time is coming for its covert intervention in the war through extremist al-Qaeda and Islamic State proxies. The worst-case scenario is that the Syrian regime, with support from Tehran, will seek the liberation of the strategic Golan Heights, which is under illegal Israeli occupation since the Yom Kippur war in 1967. Such a scenario may lead to the emergence of a Resistance front on Syrian soil (similar to the Hezbollah in Lebanon), which would doubtless pose an intolerable challenge to Israel’s security. In the present era of hybrid wars, Israel’s unassailable military superiority has become largely irrelevant. Israel faces no external aggression. But the spectre that is haunting Tel Aviv is that anywhere upto a quarter million-strong popular militia (largely trained by Iran), battle-hardened veterans of the Iraqi and Syrian theatres, may assist Damascus as the Resistance front.

Of course, Israel cannot tackle this conundrum on own steam. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Syria and Israel’s security topped the agenda of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki last week. In a nutshell, Trump is seeking help from Russia, which is uniquely placed today as the only country with communication lines open to all protagonists in the Syrian conflict – from Tehran and Damascus to Tel Aviv and Riyadh – to negotiate a matrix, which might ease the build-up of pressure on Israel’s security. Putin is willing to help, as any collaboration between Moscow and Washington on regional security may also have positive fallouts on Russian-American relations in general.

Will Putin succeed? The odds are evenly balanced. One crucial factor will be Tehran’s cooperation, which brings us back to the present US-Iranian standoff. Succinctly put, in the obscure pantomime that is currently playing out, with Putin acting as the facilitator, Trump hopes to negotiate with Tehran directly at some point in the near future for a deal on Syria that meets Israel’s security needs. The big question is, why Tehran should negotiate with Trump at all. Tehran, too, has its ‘red line’ – the US should unequivocally fulfill the commitments it had assumed under the 2015 nuclear deal in terms of Iran’s full integration with the world market and bid farewell to the hostile policies. Period. Will Trump be willing to drink from the chalice of poison? His book ‘The Art of the Deal’ (1987) suggests he might. That, again, has been the experience of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Suffice to say, the Indian end of the story is a rather contrived one, too. It is no secret that with anything concerning Trump, there is invariably a business angle to it – a template of ‘America First’. Plainly put, the US hopes to step up its own oil exports to India by availing of any cutback in our oil imports from Iran. But the catch here is that shale oil is priced substantially higher than Iran’s ‘sweet’ crude (Iran sells oil to India on discounted price free of freight and insurance charges, which makes it highly competitive). Isn’t India’s angst over this entire issue actually rather ludicrous?

India’s strategic autonomy and independent foreign policy, which is a mantra for the Modi government, demands that our approach to this entire Iran question should be riveted solely on national interests. There are no big issues of nuclear non-proliferation involved here, since the IAEA and the overwhelming world opinion commends Iran’s sincere implementation of the 2015 deal. Nor is there an India-Iran bilateral issue here by any reckoning. As for the geopolitical agenda, India wasn’t party to the concerted US strategy to push for regime change in Syria in 2011, and feels no obligation today to clean up the debris that has been accumulated on the Israeli doorstep. In fact, India should thoroughly disapprove of the way the US (and Israel) deployed terrorist groups as proxies in the Syrian conflict.

In the final analysis, there should be clarity about the priority India attaches to its relations with Iran in strategic terms. Nothing should be done to cause damage to the mutual trust and understanding in India’s relations with Iran. Equally, energy security – not ‘America First’ – should be our priority. Our interest lies in taking advantage of Iran’s commitment to sell oil at competitive price on a long-term footing. The Indian economy is reeling under the pressure of high oil price, which may fuel inflation. Simply put, it is a slippery slope if we get entrapped in the vagaries of US regional policies, especially in the Trump era.

(The writer is a former ambassador)

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