M. K. BHADRAKUMAR — The sudden visit to New Delhi by the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif for a meeting on May 14 with the outgoing External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in the dying days of the Modi government underscores dramatically how much Tehran has been traumatized by the Indian decision under American pressure to summarily stop all imports of Iranian oil w.e.f May 2.
If one were to encapsulate the anguish and bewilderment in the Iranian mind, an analogy would be the plaintive entreaty by Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s play of that name — ‘Et tu, Brute’ (Even you, Brute) — when on the Ides of March in 44 BC the great Roman statesman spotted among the conspirators in the Senate building the pale visage of his old dear friend Marcus Junius Brutus, who were stabbing him in a preconceived assassination plot.
To be sure, the unexpected betrayal by the old and dear Indian friend has shocked Tehran. According to reports, Swaraj offered her best explanation by taking a de tour and reportedly holding out a non-committal assurance that Delhi will review the situation after a new government is formed “keeping in mind our commercial considerations, energy security and economic interests.”
Now, this is a big shift from the Indian stance that it will only abide by UN sanctions. But then, it is not within Swaraj’s competence to commit anything. The Boss has to decide, and he’s busy campaigning. In the final analysis, if PM Modi keeps his job, it will be a tricky decision.. For, Modi enjoys wonderful friendship with three players of the infamous “B Team” — Benjamin Netanyahu, bin Salman (Saudi Crown Prince), bin Zayed (UAE Crown Prince) — and is wary of the fourth player, Bolton (Trump’s national security adviser). And the B team sponsors the Iran project, which is about ‘regime change’ in Tehran.
The most galling thing about the Indian betrayal is that among the three top importers of Iranian oil — China, India and Iran — it’s only India that summarily packed up under American pressure. For the Modi government which claims to be ‘muscular’, such cowardly behavior is a matter of shame. Simply put, the strategic understanding forged during the historic meeting between Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Ufa, Russia, on the sidelines of the SCO summit in May 2019 turns out to be a damp squib. Tehran is bound to reflect over the quality of the hand of friendship that Modi extended.
To jog memory, India is party to a trilateral MOU with Iran and Afghanistan with plans to commit at least $21 billion to developing the Chabahar–Hajigak corridor, including $85 million for Chabahar port development by India. This includes $150 million line of credit by India to Iran, $8 billion India-Iran MoU for Indian industrial investment in Chabahar Special Economic Zone, $11billion for the Hajigak iron and steel mining project awarded to seven Indian companies in central Afghanistan, and $2 billion commitment to Afghanistan for developing supporting infrastructure including the construction of the Chabahar-Hajigaj railway line.
The Chabahar-Hajigaj railway line holds the potential to expand trade manifold via connectivity to the 7,200-km-long multi-mode North-South Transport Corridor India is working on to connect to Europe and Turkey — and all across Russia by linking with the R297 Amur highway and the Trans-Siberian Highway. Over and above, a planned Herat to Mazar-i-Sharif railway will provide access for the Central Asia states via Chabahar Port to link with the Indian market. The Chabahar Port also provides the only means of India developing direct access to its erstwhile air base in Farkhor in Tajikistan.. Expert opinion is that Chabahar route will result in 60% reduction in shipment costs and 50% reduction in shipment time from India to Central Asia.
The Indian media quoted government sources to the effect that the compliance with the US sanctions against Iran is the price that Washington demanded from India as quid pro quo for its support in the UN Security Council on the designation of Masood Azhar as global terrorist. The veracity of this interpretation can never be established, because the Americans will never claim ownership of any derailment of the India-Iran relationship.
Yet, it is an unfair linkage since Azhar designation has been a far from a solo US enterprise. It was collective effort where Britain and China probably played key roles alongside some very effective behind-the-scene bilateral negotiations between Delhi and Beijing aimed at carrying Pakistan along. The Americans are always quick to claim credit when something good happens — and there is always the Indian chorus that is only too keen to echo such tall claims.
Indeed, the “big picture” is not at all reassuring. For, Washington has now added two further templates to its “linkage diplomacy” vis-a-vis India. First, Washington has ratcheted up the pressure on India to remove “overly restrictive market access barriers” against American products — to quote from a speech in Delhi by visiting US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in New Delhi last week. Ross repeated President Donald Trump’s accusation that India is a “tariff king”, and threatened India with “consequences” if it responded to U.S. tariffs with counter-tariffs. Ross audaciously proposed that India could balance the trade figures by buying more American weaponry.
So, what do we have here? Delhi falls in line with the US diktat on Iran sanctions, which of course will hit the Indian economy very badly, while the US is also at the same time aggressively demanding that India should open up its market for American exports. Why can’t the Modi government prioritize India’s economic concerns?
Second, the Trump administration cracking the whip on India to give up the S-400 missile defense system and conform to the US sanctions against Russia’s arms industry. A report in Hindustan Times says that the US would expect India to instead buy from it the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot Advance Capability (PAC-3) missile defense systems as an alternative to S-400s. But these American systems are far more expensive and may still not be on par with the advanced S-400 system in capability.
Evidently, like in the case with Iran, the US attempt is to complicate India-Russia relations by forcing Modi to resile from a commitment he gave to President Vladimir Putin on the S-400 deal.
Meanwhile, another report has appeared that under American pressure, India joined a US-led naval exercise in the South China Sea with America’s Asian allies Japan and the Philippines. Whereas the US, Japan and the Philippines are longstanding allies bound together under military pacts, India is not part of any alliance system. Yet, India took part in the exercise in the disputed South China Sea within a ‘Quad Lite’ format. The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has a cute expression for it — “banding together”.
The running theme in all this is that India’s strategic ties with Iran, Russia and China are coming under challenge from Washington. But the big question is how come Washington regards the “muscular” Modi government with a 56″ chest to be made of such cowardly stuff? Are the ruling elites so thoroughly compromised with the Americans? There are no easy answers.
(The author is a former diplomat).