[Modi & Rouhani in Tehran)
US President Donald Trump did what is by now the new normal, tweeted a pixilated policy — this time regarding the reimposition of sanctions on Iran. He twittered thus: “The Iran sanctions have officially been cast. These are the most biting sanctions ever imposed, and in November they ratchet up to yet another level. Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States. I am asking for WORLD PEACE, nothing less!” An official statement that followed, saying “We urge all nations to take such steps to make clear that the Iranian regime faces a choice: either change its threatening, destabilising behaviour and reintegrate with the global economy, or continue down a path of economic isolation”, further confused and roiled the situation.
What “WORLD PEACE” has to do with pressuring Tehran to agree to rescind and re-negotiate the nuclear deal is anyone’s guess. Except throwing “world peace” into this mix Trump thinks will elevate his pressure tactic into a moral action. And what has the Hassan Rouhani regime done that is so “threatening” and “destabilizing” other than maintaining the Hezbollah in the field against Israel and in Syria — which last is supported by Moscow? In fact, the liberally inclined Rouhani went out on a limb to strike the N-deal, in the face of virulent opposition from the more belligerently nationalist elements in Iranian society headed by the Pasdaran (the Revolutionary Guard) and including the more conservative sections of the Shia clergy and the “bazaari” (the powerful small trader class) support base. Now he is being asked to eat crow by Trump.
An exasperated Western Europe — its good faith, traditional friendliness, and patience taxed beyond limits by Trump’s talking down NATO and arm-twisting member states into spending 4% of their GDP on defence and security, have given up on the USA. America, they say, can go it alone, particularly because China and Russia, signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, too have joined the West European countries in firmly declaring that they will not tolerate Trump’s policy waywardness. European governments have already instructed their private sector corporations and companies to ignore US sanctions, and are proceeding to provide them legal cover with appropriate legislation.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs, declared in no uncertain terms that “We are doing our best to keep Iran in the deal, to keep Iran benefiting from the economic benefits that the agreement brings to the people of Iran, because we believe this is in the security interests of not only our region but also of the world. If there is one piece of international agreements on nuclear non-proliferation that is delivering, it has to be maintained. We are encouraging small and medium enterprises in particular to increase business with and in Iran as part of something [that] for us is a security priority.” She added that it is a “fundamental aspect of the Iranian right to have an economic advantage in exchange for what they have done so far, which is being compliant with all their nuclear-related commitments”. This EU position directly clashes with Trump’s view of the Iran deal as “a horrible one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made”. ( https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/07/eu-foreign-policy-chief-calls-on-firms-to-defy-trump-over-iran ) This when Tehran agreed to stop enriching uranium to bomb-grade, switch off its centrifuge cascades, and ship out 95% of its fissile material stock!
Sure, Western Europe is trying to keep two policy balls in play. Around the same time that Trump twittered, European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, visited Washington and, to get around recent disagreements, decided with Trump to increase tariff-free trade. Except with the EU firming up on the Mogherini line, it is Trump — mark my words — who will blink first. So, who exactly is going to fall behind Trump? Which countries will back him?
Plainly, the Trump Administration expects that by the time the heavier tranche of sanctions comes on stream by November and dollar transactions for Iranian oil begin attracting sanctions, governments that have shown jelly-like stomach for a fight, will succumb. Xi Jinping’s China and Erdogan’s Turkey — amongst the largest buyers, have indicated they are prepared to carry on buying Iranian oil regardless. Modi’s India, however, has not revealed its cards yet. It has set up banking channels to avoid payment tangles, etc. But with 2×2 Talks coming up, and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and defence secretary James Mattis flying into Delhi September 5, consultations in PMO and MEA are veering to an indecision on Iran.
As revealed in the last several years, Modi is an instinctive accommodationist where America is concerned. But the political costs of being seen as buckling under US pressure and to come out as more loyal to Trump than the EU, are too high — with general elections in sight — for Modi to risk going over fully to the US side. Besides, if the American advice is followed and ties with Tehran thinned out, there are valid fears that India’s strategic stake in Chabahar will be endangered. But that will be the least of India’s troubles. It may be wise to reflect on what Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium, said about the dilemma Trump has compelled its friends to face. US’s Iran stance “shows yet again”, he said, “why we as Europeans must strengthen our foreign policy to be able to shape relations with the greater Middle East independently from the US.” Then there’s the fact that US sanctions violate, as the Russian Foreign Ministry has pointed out, UN resolution 2231 [on the Iran deal] and international law.
India then will be arrayed more fully against Russia and China, both of whom have strongly reaffirmed their links to Iran. Further, exploiting the absence of economic and trade competitors — the US and EU (assuming that after all the bellicose noises it subsides to a pussycat and purrs along with Trump as could happen) — from the Iranian market place, Beijing is quickly deploying its trademark devices — large investments, big infrastructure projects, a deluge of consumer goods to drag an Iran, bereft of alternatives, into its fold. That will be a disaster for India.
The Speaker of the Iranian legislature, Ali Larijani, has suggested using the certain economic isolation of his country, consequent to the sanctions. Tehran, he said, should focus “on the domestic economy, reform its structure and facilitate investment, and …increase Iran’s resilience [all of which] offers a good prospect for the country.” It is precisely the opening that Delhi should have used to prise open the Iranian market and economy still wider for the Indian private and public sector companies to rush in with manifold increases in trade and commerce. China has espied the chance and is racing to capitalize on it.
It is India’s greatest misfortune that there has been no Indian government in the new Century (or, in the old one for that matter) with like expansive national strategic vision to be able to see such opportunities and grasp them, or the iron will to stand its ground and stare down big power bullies, and to do what’s in the country’s national interest.
It is manifestly in India’s interest to be close friends of Iran and Russia, to follow tit-for-tat policies with China, to be less gullible and more wary of the US, and to be guided by its track record, rather than by the smarmy talk emanating from Washington and Trump of the ‘Indo-Pacific’, etc. The reality is India’s and US’ interests converge but only and exclusively as regards China. Iran is not in this cone of convergence. So, sure, by all means cooperate with the US to confuse, contain, and corral China. But this should under no circumstances result in India’s turning into a camp follower or, worse, a lap dog. This last, however, is precisely what seems to be happening with Modi’s government and, sorry to say this, the higher echelons of the Indian military (reflected in such decisions as the Navy’s — slammed by the CAG — to go in for 8 more P-8I MR aircraft equipped with the faulty Harpoon-II anti-ship missiles. See https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/cag-raises-stink-over-2009-p8i-naval-aircraft-deal-says-upa-bought-costly-plane/articleshow/65306934.cms . This when, as is known in naval circles, the hypersonic Russian Kaliber missiles were available for the asking.)
Well, how Delhi proceeds on Iran in the face of American dictation, will be a good measure to judge the country’s independence. No bad metric to keep in mind with the 71st Independence Day round the corner.