The unilateral withdrawal from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the imposition of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) have no directly bearings on India. However, with these two steps, perhaps it is perceived that once again the tumultuous political global landscape would haunt not only the stakeholders rather the allied countries including India as well.
The JCPOA and CAATSA are being put in practice in respect of Iran and Russia. These countries are figuring prominently in the radar of Indian foreign policy. Given its connectivity, energy and geopolitical salience, Iran has been embedded in the Indian strategic psyche. Former Soviet Union (FSU) has remained a strategic partner of India since the latter’s independence. Even today, about 60% weapon requirements are being supplied by Russia. Unilateral withdrawal from JCPOA and passage of CAATSA would put Iran and Russia on tenterhooks with the US. In this background, India’s Eurasian policy is likely to face horns of a dilemma as for how to deal with it? How would India come out of this quagmire? Could India pursue assertive diplomacy to come out of this flummoxed position to protect its strategic and economic interests particularly in the Eurasian region?
FSU has remained a major player of India’s Eurasian region, particularly during the Cold War. With the inclusion of security clauses, the “Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation” (1971), the bilateral relations have witnessed the crescendo of cordiality. On the other hand, the US-Pak-China strategic partnership had further concertized the Indo-Russia strategic partnership. Whereas on the other hand, the Cold War geopolitics of the Eurasian region like China-US quasi-strategic partnership (1975s-1980s), had moved Russia towards India.
The breakdown of FSU was a major set back for India’s Eurasian policy. Consequently, the policy has undergone metamorphic changes, waning of the crescendo of cordiality that had experienced during the Cold War. Currently, again both countries have started moving in the same direction of concretizing bilateral relations despite some geopolitical and geostrategic irritants. These irritants include strategic proximity of Russia with China and Pakistan.
Russia’s dubious stance on Afghan Taliban and passive response over Pakistan’s alleged role in transnational terrorism further added irritation in the bilateral relations. However, both the countries have learned to live with these irritants in the Eurasian cauldron.
The Indo-US relations have been improved significantly in the post-Cold War. The existence of about 50 dialogue mechanisms from diplomatic to ministerial levels shows that how both countries needed each other and engaged each other to heighten their multifaceted relations. After the breakdown of the FSU in 1991, except a few unpropitious incidents, more or less the Indo-US relations have been remained warm and cordial. However, under the America First Policy, Trump regime has taken some very harsh economic and strategic steps in terms of protectionism and nationalism. Under these two legal and diplomatic steps like the unilateral withdrawal and passage of the CAATSA have become major critical irritants in India’s Eurasian policy.
Given the beginning of the New Great Game in Central Asia and resurgence of Russia, India’s Eurasian Policy has once again been rejuvenated and invigorated which manifested through the policy frameworks starting from ‘Extended Neighbourhood’ to Connect Central Asia Policy (2012). Under the Connect Central Asia Policy, India had identified about 12 major areas of cooperation in general and political, security, economic and energy in particular. Central Asia is landlocked for India.
Upon this backdrop, Iran’s role in providing connectivity between India and Eurasia through Chabahar port and International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) have become crucial for the former. Consistent supply of energy is oxygen for an emerging economy like India. Hence, Iran as a major energy supplier has a catalyst for the Indian economy. Russia and India had remained strong strategic partners. Despite India has reorientation of its foreign policy towards the Western world, still Russia has maintained and retained its place in the India defence procurement including research and technology sector.
JCPOA and CAATSA
In order to put America First, President Trump had drastically reoriented the US foreign policy, which was designed by his predecessors like Bill Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Recently, the same foreign policy has been undergone metamorphosis, by making nationalism and protectionism as the major planks of the same under the rubric of America First Policy. The major focus of the same is to protect and promote the economy and security interests of the US. For making the economy strong, providing jobs to the people, protectionism has already been put into practice. Trump perceives Iran, Russia, and North Korea as major threats for country’s strategic interests. Therefore, JCPOA and CAATSA have been put in place to check threats from these countries.
The JCPOA was signed in 2015, under which Iran was agreed to eradicate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, reduce the stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and the two-thirds number of its gas centrifuges in the next 13 years. During the next 15 years, it would enrich uranium only up to 3.67%; and agreed not to build any new heavy-water facilities. Most important provision of the JCPOA is that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would have regular access to all the Iranian nuclear facilities to monitor the same. The agreement provides that in return for verifiability commitments on part of Iran, it would receive relief from the US, European Union, and United Nations Security Council nuclear-related economic sanctions.
For Trump, the JCPOA was a decaying and rotten structure by which, Iran cannot be prevented from making the bomb. Ultimately, Trump has decided to unilaterally withdraw from the same to fulfill his presidential campaign pledge. However, on the other hand, UK, France and Germany, the other signatories to the agreement issued a joint statement and expressed their “regret and concern,” and assured their “continuing commitment” to the deal. But, now the question is, how Iran could be prevented from making/testing bombs without any control/inspection given the cancellation of JCPOA? Could Trump get the endorsement of the same on part of the other signatories? Would Trump remain a trustworthy partner in the international agreements/treatises/doctrines etc.?
The passage of CAATSA is another step to promote US’s security and economic interests. The CAATSA was signed in August 2017 and come into effect in January 2018. Under this act, the Trump administration was authorized to restore sanctions against Iran for its nuclear programme including the sale/transfer of military equipment to the latter. Under Section 231 (CAATSA), Russia would face penalties/sanctions if any third-country firm or individual would get engaged in a “significant transaction” with its defense or intelligence sectors.
Implications of JCPOA and CAATSA
With the introduction of structural economic reforms, India is on the higher trajectory of economic growth. It is said that energy is a lifeline of an emerging economy. India is dependent on Iran for its energy demand, whereas the latter is also an important factor in India’s Eurasian foreign policy given energy and connectivity (INSTC, Chabahar) factors.
President Trump has unilaterally withdrawn from JCPOA on 8 May 2018. After the withdrawal, he signed an executive order, by which he restored economic sanctions on Iran. However, these sanctions will be implemented in the phased manner to give adequate time to the MNCs to complete or withdraw their business from Iran. Under these economic sanctions, the other countries/MNCs are banned to have any economic engagements in terms of import, export, investment etc. India is major importer of Iranian oil. It is being anticipated that withdrawal of the US from JCPOA will not only create problems for peace and prosperity of Iran and the Middle East, rather the other regions/countries are also likely to be considerably impacted. The imposed economic sanctions can create problems for India’s oil import and connectivity projects like Chabahar port and INSTC.
India and Russia have remained strong strategic partners since the Indian independence. Russia has been remained a tested and tried partner of India. Defence cooperation has remained as one of the key areas of the bilateral cooperation. About 60% of the Indian Military’s hardware demands are used to met by Russia. Currently several major Indo-Russian joint military programmes are going on which included BrahMos cruise missile; 5th generation fighter jet programme; Sukhoi Su-30MKI programme and frigates etc. The list of purchased/leased various military equipment is included submarines to aircraft carrier like INS Vikramaditya.
Currently, India had signed an agreement worth over $4.5 billion with Russia on October 15, 2016, to purchase the S-400 Triumph Air Defence System for its Air Force. This deal has not been going well with the US government institutions, politicians etc. In this regard, it is worth to quote one congressman Republican Mac Thornberry (the Chairman of the House Armed Services), who briefed the journalists in Delhi, “There is a lot of concern in the US in both the administration and the Congress regarding the S-400 (missile) system. And, there is concern that any country, and it is not just India that is looking at clearing it, but any country that acquires that system will complicate our ability to work out interoperability.”
The CAATSA is meant for stopping the countries to get engaged with Russia for any defence deal. Although till now, no clear signal has been given in the context of India’s defence deals with Russia, there is a probability that the US authorities in the coming time would pursue an assertive diplomacy to put pressure on India to rethink its defence deals with Russia. Consequently, it is going to effect strategic assistance, supply/purchase of raw materials, spare parts, components from Russia. As per some media reports, the US is in a fix what to do about India as the latter had signed a deal of the S-400. There is an anticipation of indelible impacts over India like Make in India and Indo-Russia joint defence cooperation.
The Eurasian regions hold a significant position in the Indian foreign policy, given its pivotal place in the latter’s connectivity, energy, geopolitical and geostrategic interests. Probably, the economic sanctions out of JCPOA and CAATSA would have considerable impacts over the Indian economic and strategic interests in context of the Eurasian region in general and Iran and Russia in particular. Either India could take the JCPOA and CAATSA easy way or it could get engaged with Iran and Russia for its national interests, seems to put the former’s Eurasian policy between the devil and deep blue sea?
Whereas on the other hand, India is emerging as one of the major economies, therefore, it can pursue assertive diplomacy to counter the same. If not, then soft diplomacy is more than sufficient as India has a substantial share (one and half bn people) in the world market of the seven bn people. Moreover, by walking tightrope and controlling its market by India for those countries which are not following the international laws, may help the latter to deal with such erratic behaviors of the countries. Strategically, Eurasia is a very significant region for India. At the same time, the US is also needed a balanced approach, so that the strategic partnership with India should not be weakened.
*Dr. Bawa Singh is teaching at the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India.