By Tanya Mathur
United States President Donald Trump’s statement about meeting Iran “anytime they wanted” is likely to be a window of hope for India. A negotiation between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Trump could lead to conclusions that would not only reduce tensions between the two nations, but also put others such as India at ease. Diplomatic resolution would put the prospect of peace in the Middle East back on the table, protecting India’s strategic interests in the region. A thaw in this Cold War is crucial for India to continue its growth on the world stage.
Experts state that without any diplomatic movement towards de-escalating the Iranian situation, peace in the Persian Gulf is farfetched. The Iranian-American cold war has resulted in multiple proxy wars being fought in areas such as Yemen and Syria which engulf the entire region. Therefore, shying away from the negotiation table merely reinforces Iran’s formidable presence in these countries and the prospect of Trump’s “world peace” remains an intangible dream. With the imposition of the recent set of sanctions, Trump is only encouraging Iran to try and continue building its nuclear strength, making his supposed goal of a complete regime change less feasible.
Iran’s military capacity would allow the war to engulf West Asia, leading to complete destabilisation and another free flow of refugees in the region and beyond. Former president of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, states that patterns show Iranians to not function rationally under pressure, therefore, threatening sanctions in place of diplomacy have made war a likely reality endangering the region and having a ripple effect towards the east.
The ripple effect of a full-scale West Asian war would concern India due to the large demographic of Indian nationals in the region. Both politically and economically, an event of this scale could be extremely taxing on the country. Indian diaspora in the GCC region scales between seven million and eight million people as of 2017 and this demographic is a pivotal tool of soft as well as hard power that India has built over years. The diaspora functions as a constant reminder of the historical and cultural links shared between the two, which allows India to hold competitive advantage in the region over any other Asiatic powers such as China or Pakistan. Losing all their efforts of building soft power due to a war spread by Iran would be damaging for India in the long run.
The diaspora is also a tool of hard power economically as it sends back about $35.9 billion each year. India would not be able to afford a war of this scale as it would lose out on the remittance by this demographic and have to invest in evacuation missions to protect its people in countries such as Yemen, which would be one of the centres of the conflict. Though India’s evacuation missions during the Gulf war and the recent Yemen crisis succeeded, the war that is on the horizon, however, could make protecting this diaspora an impossible task.
It is safe to conclude that due to the large presence of Indian nationals in the region, if Iran wins through diplomatic conversation, India will also be a secondary winner as it will avoid the risk of damaging these bilateral relations.
Additionally, India is caught in a catch 22 as the Iran-US feud has compelled the nation to slow down its golden project of the region, the Chabahar Port which possess great trade benefits. By investing $500 million to develop the port, India aims to cut down on its transport costs by a third and elevate trade between Iran, Afghanistan and itself. Providing an alternative, shorter route to European markets, the Chabahar port also reduces India’s dependency on Pakistan that has previously closed two trade routes for New Delhi. The Chabahar port’s geographical location in the Gulf of Oman facilitates trade movement from Iran as it eliminates the need for ships to enter the Persian Gulf through the narrow strait. The development of this port is crucial to the growth of India as a tycoon in the global trading market.
Losing the Chabahar Port project due to hostilities between the US and Iran would be damaging for India as this project provides competitive advantage over China. With Trump silencing any country that decides to trade with Iran, there is precedent that India will succumb to backing Washington, therefore, risking losing the ownership of Chabahar’s development. This scenario creates a vacuum that China followed by Pakistan would jump to fill, increasing their influence in the region. Speculations in early March of Iran inviting China and Pakistan to participate in the port’s development were alarming to India as this would let China dominate development of another port in the region, after Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Kyaukpyu (Myanmar), Gwadar (Pakistan) and Chittagong (Bangladesh).
On the topic of energy security, the Indian Oil Ministry stated that this year saw a 10.3 per cent rise in oil consumption from 15.3 million tons a year ago, to 16.9 million tons as of January 2018. Iran remains India’s third largest oil supplier and therefore, its supply of oil remains crucial to the functioning of the Indian economy. With the latest round of sanctions, oil prices are predicted to skyrocket which will directly impact Indian inflation and the value of our currency.
Lastly, a reconciliation between Rouhani and Trump could benefit India’s situation with its neighbour, Pakistan. Friendlier relations with Iran would reduce the United States geographical dependency on Pakistan which may encourage them to commence their strategy of countering the Taliban and Sunni extremists in Pakistan. One could argue that Washington’s diplomatic attitude towards Pakistan partially stems from its dependency on Pakistani ground lines of communication (GLOC’s) and air lines of communication (ALOC’s) to supply the Afghan National Security Forces. With Trump’s current strategy of increasing presence in Afghanistan, these lines of communication through Pakistan become even more crucial. However, better relations with Iran could open a new alternative to the Pakistani route through Iranian airspace and the Chabahar Port. Watchers of Iran-US relations may rightly state that a Trump-Rouhani meeting could lead to low hanging fruit cooperation on this level as there is precedent for Washington to exercise realpolitik in its Afghanistan effort. Consider the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which was established in 2009 as an alternative route into Afghanistan through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia. Diplomatic reconciliation with Iran is mandatory for the US to reduce dependency on a state such as Pakistan that has a reputation of faltering commitments.
To conclude, India will greatly benefit from negotiations between Rouhani and Trump as it has a lot of interests in the region. A thaw in the ongoing cold war between the two nations will make the prospect of peace in the region more feasible, which is in the political and economic interest of India. Through these talks, India will gain the security of its strategic interests in the region; diaspora, energy and the Chabahar Port. Furthermore, the idea of reduced American backing for Pakistan would be a beneficial outcome for India. India should hope for a push for negotiations from the Iranian front and wish for stability in the U.S. presidents’ decisions.
*Tanya Mathur is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai.