US-Iran row: Why India has few choices except watching from the sidelines

Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting, in Tehran, Iran
Most Indian experts on Iran and the Gulf see India backed up in a corner in arguably the worst tension the region has seen in 30 years following the killing of one of Iran’s top military strategists and leader, Qasem Suleimani.

Experts caution that quick judgments – given that the situation is still evolving, with Iraqi Parliament resolving to expel all US forces from its soil and the US announcing it is ready to sanction Iraq – could be erroneous. But, they say, despite the optics of Foreign Minister S Jaishankar calling US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and publicly expressing concern at the US action, India has few choices but to watch from the sidelines as Suleimani’s killing unleashes a new dynamic in the region.

India’s nuanced reaction on the event (referring to it as a ‘killing’ rather than an assassination) and not naming those who carried it out (unlike China which named the United States) suggests a degree of distance from Tehran. Some Iran experts in India argue that this is what a section of the Iranian leadership might want to hear: Suleimani was becoming quite powerful in his own right and there was chatter that he might be propped up to become president of Iran by a section critical of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s top leader, even though Suleimani was considered extremely loyal to him.

But India’s options to intervene in the region are limited, the logical end of a chain of events put in place by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime that put India firmly in the US corner to secure the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, and was continued by Prime MInister Narendra Modi, most recently by declaring that India wanted ‘Agli Baar Trump Sarkar’.

Former ambassador to Iran, KC Singh told Business Standard the time for recalibration was past. “Because of a perceived visible coziness of the Indian political leadership with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, UAE and US, India’s ability to play peacemaker between Iran and US has diminished” he said.

However, India has assets in Iran and the neighbourhood that it will want to protect. Apart from the 8.5 million Indian citizens living and working in the Gulf, and India’s oil and gas imports from the region that will be compromised if strife worsens, it is physical infrastructure that is under threat: investments in the Iranian port of Chabahar that it is helping develop, that represents a transit route to Afghanistan to central Asia.

While this might explain India’s middle ground position on Suleimani’s killing, experts acknowledge that seemingly the safest place politically is also the most dangerous: because of the unpredictability of President Trump’s actions, the many moving parts of his policy and clear evidence that the US Administration might not have thought its post-Suleimani strategy through.

India has lately allowed its exasperation with Iran to show. Tehran was less than cooperative during India’s Chabahar port venture and more recently expressed concern about ‘excesses’ in Kashmir, even though, in the past, Suleimani had been one of India’s allies, an interlocutor with the Taliban in Afghanistan. But in a bigger geopolitical game, for New Delhi the US is a preferred partner though Iran continues to be a historical and cultural ally.

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