HT Editorial| US, Iran pull back from the brink
Two creatures clawing, then circling each other warily and walking away, growling, is one way to see the most recent Persian Gulf crisis. The United States (US) and Iran have been aggressively jostling each other the past few years, especially in Iraq. The Iranian siege of the US embassy in Baghdad and the assassination of Al Quds commander, Qassem Soleimani, both crossed redlines. Fortunately, neither an isolationist US president, Donald Trump, nor a Tehran regime, struggling with economic recession, were interested in a full-fledged confrontation. Washington lacked the will to fight, Tehran lacked the means to do so. Still, another violent entanglement cannot be ruled out. Nothing has been resolved, including what exactly constitutes a step-too-far for either country.
India is inextricably linked to the most unstable region in the world for reasons of finance, energy and geography. West Asia remains unstable because there is no sense of a geopolitical status quo. Iran sees itself as the natural hegemon of the region. The US is losing interest in the region but is giving up its dominance with reluctance — and, under the Trump administration, with a degree of incoherence. Complicating things is that Iran’s own heavy-handedness has given rise to a loose coalition, from Israel to Saudi Arabia, determined to contain its influence. No one is strong enough to have their own way, but no one is prepared to accept this reality. So the region is fissured with proxy battles, covert wars and economic conflicts.
The US-Iran relationship, poisoned by nearly four decades of confrontation and miscalculation, is particularly dangerous. Mr Trump is curiously in alignment with Tehran’s overall goal to end the US military presence in the Gulf. But he is also determined to ensure the US is not humiliated as it withdraws. The Washington establishment remains close to traditional allies, Tel Aviv and Riyadh. What was notable about the most recent crisis was the complete lack of understanding between the two governments. India cannot play mediator given neither the US nor Iran have shown real interest in such a role, but there is a place for a messenger. New Delhi is in a position to talk to both countries. At the least, it should investigate whether there is mutual interest in India playing such a role. The idea is not peace making but mistake avoidance. And for India, it is about gambling some diplomatic capital to have some say in the greatest external risk to its future.