Opinion | What the US-Iran tensions mean for India
The recent spike in tensions between the United States (US) and Iran has a familiar ring to it. But that does not reduce the risks for the two parties as well as the other countries in the region and beyond it. Hydrocarbon flows through the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian or Arabian Gulf have been a permanent cause of worry when the US-Iran relations have moved into the high-tension zone. The US accusation that Iran had caused or inspired attacks on oil tankers, its announcement of additional naval deployment, and the shooting down of a US pilotless aircraft by Iran make the situation far more tense than it has ever been in the recent past.
The recent round of jousting between the US and Iran is the latest in the chain of events that began with Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA), an agreement that Iran had reached with the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, United States and Germany) on July 14, 2015. The agreement was the high point of US-Iran efforts to repair their historically flawed relationship. Under the JCPOA, Iran had committed to limit its nuclear programme and related activities. The US, in turn, eased sanctions. Moderates in both capitals prevailed over the hardliners. But this changed with the election of President Donald Trump. His decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and the reinstate sanctions on Iran in May 2018 marked the end of that process.
For the US and its allies in the region - particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel - containment of Iran is the key to regional stability. For Iran’s leadership, the current situation is only a replay of the pressures they have faced since 1979 with regional and non-regional players acting together to roll back the gains of the Iranian revolution.
To the US and its allies, the consolidation of the Hizbullah in Lebanon, the emergence of the first major Shia State in the Arab world in almost a millennium (Iraq), Syria’s resistance (with Russian help) to ward off the pressure for a regime change, and Saudi Arabia’s longest-ever military engagement in Yemen exemplify Iran’s expanding influence in the Arab world. Each of these Iranian geopolitical gains has been achieved in the face of determined opposition and also as a consequence of policy failures or misjudgments by the US and its allies.
In Trump’s worldview, the JCPOA was a flawed effort and Iran’s capacity to harness technology for its nuclear weapons programme will give to the Tehran-led Shia crescent an unstoppable momentum and power.
For Iran, the issues are equally generic: the intrinsic hegemonism of the US in West and South West Asia and Iran’s traditional enemies using this to settle regional scores. In Tehran’s worldview, Washington’s unwillingness to accept the revolution of 1979 is the fundamental cause of the latest and also the earlier crisis concerning Iran. The fact that US unilaterally has walked out of the nuclear agreement has also hardened attitudes in Iran. And the US sanctions do hurt, particularly Washington’s recent decision to impose sanctions on countries that import Iranian crude oil.
The central question for India is how to navigate through these countervailing demands and protect its own interests. Maintaining good relations with Iran and prioritising our energy security is one pole. The other is balancing this with our vital stakes with the Arabian Gulf states and the US. The current situation reflects the dilemmas India faces in the absence of a larger cooperative framework among the countries in the Arabian Sea littoral, which is home to so many of our vital interests.
TCA Raghavan is a retired diplomat and currently director general of the Indian Council of World Affairs.
The views expressed are personal