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The US-Iran Conundrum and India’s Imperatives

We need to understand that the US as the super power and ‘BIG Brother’, follows the policy of intervention and isolation all over the world wherever their ideology is not followed. After World War II (WW II), the US-sponsored North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) resisted communist expansion in central and the Eastern Europe. Any military intervention in Iran or warlike situation in Yemen adversely affects our energy security, regional security, trade and our relations with the US and European Union that supports the US over its belligerent Iran policies besides the sanctions being imposed by the US on both Iran and India. 

by Col NN Bhatia (Retd) (from August 2019 issue)

My father served in the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in the Medical Department since 1942. I remember he taking us to Abadan on the day of marriage of Shah of Iran with Shahbanu (queen consort) Soraya and the entire Abadan and the refinery were majestically decorated with flowers, balloons, coloured lights and huge portraits of the Shah and the Princess in over a week long festivities.  Soon as a small boy while walking to AIOC refinery’s school in 1950-51 with my younger sister, I witnessed terrifying rioting, arson, sabotaging fires in Abadan and the refinery.

One day we were told by our father very sadly that all the workers in the AIOC have lost their jobs due to nationalization of the AIOC refinery and the entire oil industry on the behest of one Dr Mohammad Mosaddeq, a nationalist leader elected as the Prime Minister of Iran. Of course, as around 8-year-old child I comprehended little except that after few days we boarded a passenger ship back home enroute to the erstwhile Bombay Port.

The US-Iran Conundrum 

Ever since, the Americans played massive role in the domestic politics of the Iran and the Middle East, Dr Mosaddeq was in a covertly CIA supported coup removed and the authority of the Shah reinstated with the support of the clergy that after 3 decades ironically overthrew Shah through the Islamic revolution. The Shah became the staunch supporter of the US and became the active member of the US   led Baghdad Pact, known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) akin in charter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to contain the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, the exiled revolutionary cleric Ayatollah Khomeini who was extremely critical of the Shah’s western and the American influence, and modernization plans for Iranian society, on the Western lines that were against the Islamic tenants and the intensity of his Islamic revolution forced tyrannical, arrogant, autocratic, extravagant lavish play boy Shah who like Turkey wanted Iran modernizing faster on his Western-style leanings and reforms that alienated and angered  conservative Shiite Islamic clergy and Islamic revolution brought in power Shiite religious leader  Khomeini forcing the Shah to flee to Egypt on 16 Jan 1979 thus ending the Pahlavi reign and seizing power on 1 Feb 1979.

The first act the revolutionary government did was annulling the Baghdad Pact that set the course of the worsening relations between both the nations. On 4 Nov 1979 the Iranian students took 63 American Embassy officials as hostages while the US snapped diplomatic relations and imposed heavy sanctions on Iran while the hostages were released after 444 days of intense negotiations. In 8 year, Iran-Iraq War during 1980s, the US and its western allies, much to the annoyance of Iran, supported Iraq in the war effort. Relations were further worsened as the US shot downed Iran Air Flight 655 in the Gulf from its cruiser, killing all 290 people on board. During mid-1988, Iraq invaded Kuwait but Iran remained neutral during the Gulf crisis. During Bill Clinton’s Presidency, heavy sanctions were imposed on Iran for supporting terrorism. Mohammed Khatami on election as the President of Iran proposed talks with US and, the then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, met with, the then Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi but nothing was availed.

During 2001, the US accused Iran for bombing the US military base in the  Saudi Arabia while the CIA reported clandestine massive nuclear weapon programme with the aid of the Russia and China and President Bush dubbed Iran, Iraq and North Korea as ‘axis of evil’ surprising sparing Pakistan supposedly for its role in Afghanistan. Under the western led US pressure, Iran agreed to tougher UN inspections of its nuclear facilities and suspended its uranium enrichment plans though no evidence of producing a nuclear bomb was found. Iran suffered one of the worst earthquakes in Dec 2003 killing 50000 people in Bam city and the US sent humanitarian aid.

Bush back paddled from his usual hardline stance and said the US would back the European Union (EU) negotiating track, offering economic incentives in exchange for Iran abandoning its nuclear aspirations. Bush also announced the lifting of a decade-long block on Iranian membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and economic aid if Iran abandoned its nuclear plans.

While ‘The New York Time’ reported that the US was contemplating nuclear strike against Iranian underground nuclear sites, which were denied by the US administration, the Iranian president reiterated retaliation and threatened to withdraw from Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and thus further sanctions were imposed on Iran. During entire 2007, while President Bush kept alleging Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) involvement in terror activities in Iraq under the garb, the Iranian President kept denying such allegations.

In the entire 2009, while Iran desired the normalization of relations with the US and the West, the US accused Iran of harassing US Naval ships in Strait of Hormuz. President Obama after his election as the US President offered talks with Iran without any pre-conditions. Meanwhile, Iran accused the US spying on its nuclear sites clandestinely.

Iran’s Nuclear Deal & Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

The Iran nuclear deal framework was signed between Iran and 5 permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) along with Germany and the European Union in 2015 to formulate Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme. On 8 May 2018 President Trump announced withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA as the US suspected clandestine development of nuclear weapons and missiles by Iran, thus, dealing a severe blow to JCPOA and put major restrictions on the Iranian nuclear plans with threats of serious consequences. Trump appeared war mongering and wanting to change the Iranian regime as he feared that the Iranian-backed Shiite militias were planning attacks against the US troops in Iraq in the back drop of his alleged Iranian clandestine nuclear weapon development programmes. The US administration to pressurize Iran had deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group along with a bomber task force in the Persian Gulf. There are reports that the US has air lifted 1500 more troops in Iraq to squeeze Iran further. The US has created dangerous standoff between his country and Iran over Iran’s suspected missiles and nuclear weapon programmes and support to terrorism in Iran and Gulf region and ordered withdrawal of the US citizens on duty in Iraq fearing impending Iranian attacks in that country.

Trump to further pressurize Iran only allowed Japan, China, South Korea, India and Turkey to continue importing about 1 million barrels of Iranian oil per day while Iran threatened to close narrow Strait of Hormuz and Red Sea to block the oil supplies from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Large numbers of the rival US, Iranian, Israelis, Saudis and UAE troops operate in the Gulf region having predominantly oil wells, refineries, pipelines, storage facilities and oil ports all very vulnerable to massive fire catastrophe in case of war and bombing attacks giving every excuse to the US and its ally Israel to jump and escalate the fray.  The US must understand that Iran has a robust armed forces and flaring war would be counterproductive and that talks, consultations and negotiations perhaps are the only alternatives to diffuse the situation.

Meanwhile, sanctions on the Iranian oil exports to China, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey and South Korea ended in May 2019. If the US refuses to renew the SREs, for these 8 countries, India will either have to stop buying oil from Iran or resort to a Rupee payment mechanism as was done in the past. Newly elected Modi government with mandate will have to attend to this issue urgently with shrewd diplomacy as oil is the most important component of bilateral trade and Iran contributes significantly to India’s energy security and any sanctions by the US or war like situation would adversary affect our security, economy and energy needs. Also, while we have friendly relations both with the US and Iran, the balancing act diplomatically and economically with hostilities between the US and Iran disconnect our strategic trilateral agreement with Iran and Afghanistan to develop Chabahar port to counter ill effects of the adjacent Gwadar port being developed by China in Pakistan.

Indo-US Relations 

India is the largest democracy in the world and the recent general election and formation of Modi government is proof our democratic values. The US on the other hand is world’s oldest democracy. Indo- US relations are based on regular contacts at political and governmental levels on bilateral, regional and global issues. Both India and the US are global strategic partners based on Modi’s policy of ‘Sab ka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ added with ‘Sabka Vishwas’. The India- US Strategic partnership covers large spectrum like civil nuclear cooperation, defence relationship, intensification in defence trade, joint military exercises, personnel exchanges, collaboration and cooperation in home land and maritime security, counter-piracy, and exchanges between each of the three services and intelligence sharing.

Investment by Indian companies like Reliance, Essar and GAIL in the US natural gas market is ushering in a new era of India-US energy partnership. India and the US have signed agreements on S&T (Science & Technology) and there is bilateral Joint Working Group on Civil Space Cooperation providing platform for discussion on joint activities in space, including exchange of knowledge, scientists and launching of nano, micro and macro satellites.

The 3.9-million-plus strong Indian American community is important ethnic having very prominent presence in the US. They account nearly 1% of the US population that includes a large number of IT, medical, and technical professionals, business entrepreneurs and educationalists with increasing influence on the US society and administration. With large numbers of Indians desiring to fight next presidential election in 2020 and the two Indian Americans occupying high level posts of Governor and several representatives of the people, the Indian Diaspora has assimilated well into their adopted country and is acting as a catalyst to forge closer and stronger ties between India and the US.  From time to time the President(s) of the US and the Indian PM(s) have been visiting each other’s country improving mutually beneficial economic, scientific, cultural, defence, space and strategic relationship.

We need to understand that the US as the super power and BIG Brother follow the policy of intervention and isolation all over the world wherever their ideology is not followed. After the World War II (WW II), the US sponsored North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) resisted communist’s expansion in the central and the Eastern Europe. As discussed earlier, they helped Shah of Iran in ousting Dr Mosaddeq.  They have their fingers in every pie. They fought in North Korea, opposed Chinese invasion of Tibet, and interfered in unsuccessful coup against Indonesian President Sukarno and overthrowing Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. The Americans fought or were involved in China, Lebanon, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Chile, Yom Kippur War, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan and getting embroiled in Iran as of now.

Iran-India Relations 

Till partition of the country and separation of Pakistan, India shared common international border with Iran along Baluchistan. Both countries share historical and cultural linkages that contributed to regional security and stability. Indo- Iranian relations have been robust and both PM Modi and President Rouhani have visited each other’s country to strengthen bilateral relations drawn upon shared culture, Sufism, and geographical proximity. Our core relationship is based on our crude energy needs and regional security issues due to hostile Pakistan and Afghanistan that led to Indian initiative to develop Chabahar Port to provide alternate and safe strategic road connectivity to Afghanistan, and Central Asian Republics (CARs) to counter Chinese initiative the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) running through disputed Indian territory held by Pakistan illegally.

Though there are few irritants over perception of India and Iran over certain geo-strategic and security implications like their views differ on the role of the US in Afghanistan. India considers the US presence in Afghanistan essential for the regional security while Iran wants immediate US withdrawal as it feels that the US military presence in Afghanistan has only contributed to the deterioration of the security and stability in that country. India and Iran have divergent views on the role of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran feels Taliban is both a problem and solution in Afghanistan imbroglio while India feels presence of the Taliban would spike terrorism. Also, while Iran seeks role in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US forces, its views that presence of Pakistan in Afghanistan would contain terrorism is not supported by India as Pakistan, India feels has never shown any positive role in Afghanistan. It is upon the leadership of the both countries to address these comprehensions appropriately.

A word about the US President Trump & the Iranian President Rouhani 

Any successful leader in any organization has certain personality traits both positive and negative along with his ability to resolve complex issues. Trump lacks magnetic personalities of Kennedy, Bush, Clinton or Obama. He on one side is highly ambitious, colourful, seldom nervous while on the other erratic, unpredictable, mischievous and low in diligence and dutifulness. As the news trickle in, President Trump has terminated much to the annoyance of India the preferential trade status for India while China due to its strong tit for tat policies has hiked US tariffs amid escalating Huawei fiasco against the US. If that be so, it is very difficult for any nation to do favourable bargain with him or the US.

On the other hand, Rouhani, the hater of the former Shah of Iran has a degree in judicial law and is well read cleric in Islamic studies. He is interested in learning modern sciences, and obtained a doctorate at Glasgow Caledonian (Scotland). He had, before his second term as the president, served in numerous governmental positions and is called ‘diplomat sheikh’ for his negotiating skills in nuclear deal in exchange for sanctions relief. He likes to work on equal footing and cannot withstand US bullying. But he has major disagreements with the country’s Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei who is the highest ranking religious and political leader in the country and is the Head of the State of Iran.

Indian Imperatives 

India is considered as emerging super power with world’s fastest growing economy with geo-strategic location in the Indian Ocean region and transoceanic commerce and trade with far east, South Asia, Middle East, Africa, Europe and both North and South Americas. More than 35 million Indians live across the globe and world’s largest democracy craves to be the permanent member of the UNSC. India is an active member of the ASEAN, SAARC, Commonwealth, BRICS, Indian Ocean Rim Countries Association (IORCA), Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) and G-20.

India has long and strong relationship both with Iran and the US in many fields of activities. Any standoff or conflicting interests between these two countries adversely affect regional and our national security, economic and developmental needs. There is strong Modi Government in power with fresh mandate and both President Trump of the US and President Hassan Rouhani have good personal rapport with the PM Modi that can help in de-escalating the present standoff between both the countries.

For India it is imperative to have peaceful Persian Gulf and the entire Middle East. Any military intervention in Iran or warlike situation in Yemen adversely affects our energy security, regional security, trade and our relations with the US and European Union that supports the US over its belligerent Iran policies besides the sanctions being imposed by the US on both Iran and India. These sanctions and warlike situation in the region is not conducive to our development of Chabahar Port as Indian and international companies hired by India to develop the Chabahar Port are reluctant to work on this ambitious Indian project.

Meanwhile, the UK has raised the threat to British shipping in the Persian Gulf to the highest critical advising British ships to avoid Persian Gulf as the region embroils for new tanker war. The US is imposing newer sanctions on Chinese that would complicate trade and talks between the two countries and further strain their relations. Iran also has declared having sufficient enriched uranium behind the limits proscribed JCPOA. The mercurial President Trump while declaring good relations with PM Modi, keeps imposing newer sanctions on India. All these events have set off a flurry of diplomatic activities with the US, Iran, China, India and the European countries, while President Trump warned Iran to ‘be careful.’

India diplomatically must persuade upon the US that while it was deeply concerned with missile and nuclear weapons development plans of the Iran, it has different yard stick for the rogue nations like Pakistan and North Korea developing these technologies under the garb of the Chinese umbrella. We need to emphasize on the US that while the US was wanting to withdraw from Afghanistan and not to fight others dirty war, leaving highly volatile region vulnerable to the Islamist militants, isolating India with big investment in turmoil country infested with Al Qaida and Taliban while it was getting embroiled in more chaotic situation in the Gulf region destabilizing regional security.

India needs to highlight to the international community its operationalization of the strategically important Chabahar Port in Iran providing safer and alternate connectivity with landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics (CARs) to counter the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) running through disputed Indian territory ensuring much-needed balance in international affairs and power asymmetry. The new Modi government understands that the belligerence and isolation of Iran would disturb peace and tranquility in the region. With the current Pakistan sponsored terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and unrest in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya, India should endeavour for negotiations over the US-Iran standoff, notwithstanding fully understanding India’s bounty in soft goodwill and deficiencies in hard power balancing against the backdrop of its oil needs from Iran and strengthening of its bilateral strategic partnership with the US.

It is imperative for the newly elected Modi government to address newer power equations needed amid Iranian oil embargo, power shortages, financial crisis coupled with changing serious threat perception issues emerging in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Col NN Bhatia was commissioned into the 13 Kumaon in 1963. He commanded 2 Kumaon (Berar), which is one of the oldest Indian Army Battalions. After retiring from the Army, he served in the Intelligence Bureau, specializing in the industrial security and conducted security audits of a large number of vital installations. He is a freelance Industrial Security Consultant and a prolific writer on military and industrial security matters. He is deeply involved in the release of 54 Indian POWs languishing in Pakistani jails since the 1971 War. This article first appeared on Security Risks, reproduced here with due permission of the author. He can be contacted at Email: narindrabhatia@hotmail.com