The unease between the US and Iran has been in the international news for around a month now. Both sides have not shied away from using outright methods of warfare like the use of ballistic missiles, assassinations along with attempts at economic and diplomatic sanctions. There have been voices that have mentioned the possibility of full-blown war in middle-east accentuated by the US-Iran tensions. Given this background, this article attempts to connect the dots of the prevailing wariness with the historical antagonism between the two countries. It also reflects on the possible implications this might have on India.
Trump and Escalation of Tensions with Iran
Though the IAEA inspectors regularly certified that Iran was abiding by the agreement’s terms, in May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA agreement, and by November, all the sanctions against Iran were reinstated. Iran’s economy has been strangled to pressurize it to stop the ballistic missiles program and to force it to abandon its nuclear ambitions1. Incidentally, this move by the US was regretted by the EU, UK, France, China, and Germany. Iran rejected the US’ unilateral decision and vowed to defy the sanctions against it2. Trump continued with his sanctions-strategy and imposed them on Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and other top officials of Iran, including Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC) of Iran3. IGRC was designated as a terrorist organization.
Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah attacked an airbase in Iraq on December 27, 2019, where American and Iraqi forces were stationed. It killed a US civilian contractor and wounded several US and Iraqi service members4. Airstrikes against the Kataib Hezbollah fighters in Iraq and Syria were ordered within two days5. Revenge and retaliation did not stop as the Iranian-backed militia groups chanting ‘death to America’ stormed the US Embassy in Baghdad on December 31, 2019, and burnt and defaced property6.
On January 3, 2020, Iran received a massive jolt of the new decade when on the orders of President Trump, an American drone fired a missile that killed Major General Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, as he prepared to leave the Baghdad airport. Soleimani was considered to be the second most powerful man in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The UN individually sanctioned him (in 2007) and countries like the US, EU, and Switzerland in 2011 on charges of supporting terrorist activities in Syria against the protestors of the Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The situation became further heated up when Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing American military personnel. While no casualties were reported, Trump announced new harsher economic sanctions on Tehran7. As Iran entered a heightened state of alert, preparing for a possible US retaliation, out of “human error”, it accidentally shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner departing Tehran for Kyiv, killing all 176 people aboard. With the Iranian forces demonstrating the “highest level of readiness” at the time, the aircraft was mistaken for a “hostile target” 8.
Implications for India
India has a veteran diplomat S. Jaishankar as its Minister of External Affairs, and hence the position taken by India amid the US-Iran tussle is likely to avoid taking sides, either of the US or Iran, in favor or against, since, it shares excellent relations with both. India would continue to expand its economic and cultural ties with Iran and its Global Strategic Partnership with the US. The US has understood the significance of Iran-India relations, imminent from the waivers provided to India in the recently legislated Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), allowing it to continue importing Iranian oil. Further, Iran’s strategic location provides the route through which India, blockaded by Pakistan, can fulfill its Eurasian ambitions. The Chabahar project provides a route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, while the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) gives India overland access to Russia and Europe9. Jaishankar seems to have handled the US-Iran standoff over the last one year quite professionally, and accorded Prime Minister Narendra Modi the diplomatic agility to make calculated and successful visits to oil-rich kingdoms of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The balanced, mature, and status-quoist approach of India towards Iran was echoed by the Iranian Deputy Minister for Culture and Guidance of Iran Mohsin Jawadi when he remarked that India-Iran relations were independent of the ongoing crisis Iran was facing back home10. As such, it is highly unlikely that India-Iran relations will derail because of US-Iran tensions.
1 Borak, D. and Nicole Gaouette, US officially reimposes all sanctions lifted under 2015 Iran nuclear deal, CNN, November 5, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/11/05/politics/iran-sanctions/index.html
2 Bozorgmehr, S. and Tamara Qiblawi, Iran’s president vows to defy Trump sanctions, CNN, November 5, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/11/05/middleeast/iran-sanctions-rouhani-intl/index.html
3 Holland, S. and Stephen Kalin, 2019, Trump puts sanctions on Iranian supreme leader, other top officials, Reuters, June 24, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-iran-usa/trump-puts-sanctions-on-iranian-supreme-leader-other-top-officials-idUSKCN1TP13D
4 Reuters, 2019, US civilian contractor killed in Iraq base rocket attack: officials, December 28, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-security/u-s-civilian-contractor-killed-in-iraq-base-rocket-attack-officials-idUSKBN1YV1IX
5 Gordon, Michael R., Nancy A. Youssef and Isabel Coles, U.S. Strikes Shiite Militia Targets in Iraq and Syria, Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-strikes-shiamilitia-targets-in-iraq-and-syria-11577642168
6 Al Jazeera, 2019, Protesters storm US embassy compound in Baghdad, December 31, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/12/iraqi-protesters-attempt-storm-embassy-baghdad-191231090526066.html
7 Blake, A. 2020. Transcript of Trump’s Iran speech, annotated, The Washington Post, January 8, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/01/08/transcript-trumps-iran-speech/
9 Joshi, M. US-Iran conflict won’t leave India unscathed, Observer Research Foundation, January 7, 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/research/us-iran-conflict-wont-leave-india-unscathed-59920/
*** The Author is the CEO and Editorial Director of a New Delhi based think tank- Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI). She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and was a Fulbright Scholar at Ohio State University, USA. She can be reached at [email protected] ***