Trump's handling of Iran crisis and the India problem

War-torn Middle East once again becomes the flashpoint as old foes America and Iran slide to the brink of armed conflict. India can play a vital role in balancing both sides.

Published: 30th June 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st July 2019 03:51 PM   |  A+A-

US President Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump (File Photo | AP)

On November 4, 1979, Iranian students loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini — who declared America as the Great Satan — stormed the US Embassy in Teheran and took 52 Americans including diplomats, hostage. Jimmy Carter pressed the Navy to the rescue, resulting in the worst moment of his presidency when a US naval helicopter on the mission collided with a transport aircraft and killed eight American soldiers. It effectively scuttled his legacy and the Democratic Party’s hopes for re-election. The first sanctions were imposed on Iran after the debacle.

Last Monday, President Donald Trump imposed sanctions against Iran’s 80-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, top Iranian generals and its Revolutionary Guard. In a statement, Trump announced that these “will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader’s office, and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support”. 

Donald Trump and 
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

The provocation was Iran shooting down a US military drone and allegedly damaging six oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman respectively. On the night of June 20, 2019, Trump called off a missile strike against Iran with 10 minutes to spare. With his knowledge and approval, the US launched cyber attacks against Iranian computer systems that controlled its rocket and missile launchers. Detailed photos and video of Iranian boats removing a mine from one of the tankers were released by the US. Tehran has vigorously denied the charge. On June 17, the Pentagon announced that it will send 1,000 additional US forces and more military resources including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and missile defence systems to the Middle East. Iranian airspace was closed forcing flights out of India to deviate from original routes, driving up airfares. 

Diplomatic tensions are building up in the region. Former Ambassador and ex-member of India’s National Security Advisory Board, Dr Kanwal Sibal says, “If this conflict continues or escalates and oil flow is blocked, there will be vast economic repercussions the world over. US muscle-flexing shows its inability to learn from lessons of the past and after what happened in Iraq.” The week before, the Indian Navy gave escort to all Indian-flagged oil tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz.

The Strait, located between Oman and Iran, is also vital for India, since it links the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. In 2018, the daily oil flow averaged 21 million barrels per day—around 21 percent of the world’s oil consumption. With the US maintaining a heavy military presence in the region, Iran cannot block the Strait without risking war and global diplomatic disapproval. The standoff has political ramifications exceeding the geopolitical crisis. As US elections approach in 2020 and opinion polls showing his plummeting popularity, Trump, whose presidency is being defined by lies, rape allegations, corruption, immigrant concentration camps where babies are dying is bent on a confrontation course and raising America’s favourite bogey—Iran.

Former Ambassador and currently a Senior Fellow and Cluster Leader at the Vivekananda International Foundation in Delhi, Anil Wadhwa says, “A war-like situation may aid Trump’s re-election bid. Such a hardline policy will generate a certain amount of support. But it doesn’t help us or countries in the region. That’s a divergent interest in US domestic policy.” Al-Qaeda has been decimated. The ISIS has been ejected from the Middle East. But Iran and its theocratic regime led by Khamenei has remained in US crosshairs. America’s favourite weapon is economic. 

The first sanctions in 1979 froze $12 billion of Iranian assets. In 1987, fresh sanctions were issued. In 2006, the UN imposed sanctions after Iran refused to comply on stockpiling nuclear material. The US withdrew from the nuclear deal and imposed sanctions in November 2018 to stop Iran’s ballistic missile programme, cripple the Iranian economy and end support to the Hezbollah and Hamas which is fighting Israel. 

Sibal says, “There is the usual Trump doublespeak or confusion. Israel is continuously pushing America to take on Iran. From a global point of view, this is an extremely short-sighted and dangerous policy. Trump has damaged the global economy.”

The political parallels between Trump and former President Ronald Reagan are striking. In 1980, Republican candidate Reagan swept into the White House like Trump did in 2016. However, in 1982 the Democrats won a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections while in November 2018 the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. Trump’s anti-immigrant policies of ‘America First’ are being imperilled just as the ‘Reagan Doctrine’ to help anti-Communist guerillas across the world was put in jeopardy. In 1982 came another hostage situation followed by a debacle, the Iran Contra scandal. Seven Americans were being held hostage in Lebanon by the Iran-backed Hezbollah. The Reagan administration sold arms through Israel to Iran which needed them badly in their war against Saddam Hussein, then a US ally. It was a complicated deal made in a theatre of illusory loyalties; Israel would ship missiles to Iran to be 

replaced by the US, which Israel would pay for. Iran is the quicksand of American foreign and military policy—a region rife with dictators, oil deals, terror, arms merchants and war. 
Any military action against Iran would be a serious mistake on Trump’s part. America is weary of war, after it claimed thousands of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. For centuries the Middle East has been the battleground of balance between Western powers which have sought to dictate its policies. It is now a geopolitical flashpoint, with superpowers America, Russia and China  jockeying among themselves to manoeuvre volatile sectarian conflicts and ancient tribal hatreds to their advantage.

A crippled Islamic order would benefit Israel, which has, if intelligence sources are to be believed, destroyed Iranian centrifuges—Tel Aviv’s horror scenario is of Iran launching a nuclear attack on the Jewish state. Sunni Saudi Arabia, whose royal families have business interests with Trump is the sworn enemy of Shiite Iran. Before arriving in Delhi, US Secretary of state Mike Pompeo was in Riyadh, meeting the Saudi royal family. The state department declared: “They also agreed on the importance of working together with the Gulf Cooperation Council to counter the Iranian threat throughout the region and to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its malign behaviour.”   

The Saudis and Israelis have a working relationship, which has the Hezbollah livid. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are working to topple Russia-backed Bashar al-Assad, though the Saudi clergy is suspicious of Turkey’s effort to be the leader of the Arab world. Iran’s friends are Syria, Lebanon and the nuclear-inclined North Korea, which western intelligence says is helping Teheran learn the N-word. Oil-rich Qatar and the Saudi bloc are at loggerheads since Al Jazeera is based out of Qatar which supports the Arab Spring that was backed by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood which Iran favours. Egypt, which was replaced by Saudi Arabia from its position as the leader of the pan-Arabian order, is playing its cards close to its chest, both crushing the Muslim Brotherhood and backing rebel Libyan leader Khalifa Haftar who is fighting the UN-backed national government.

The build-up looks ominous. The New York Times reported that the US would send over 1,20,000 troops to the Middle East if Iranian forces attack US personnel, or start speeding up its nuclear programme. Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards, warned that Iran is “on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation with the enemy”.  The US is sending an aircraft carrier and bombers to the Persian Gulf.

The New York Times further reported that the US army and intelligence agencies are planning covert operations against Iran in the Persian Gulf such as more cyber attacks, crippling Iranian boats and spreading disinformation to undermine support for the Khamenei regime. But America’s European allies, already contemptuous or downright hostile towards Trump, are worried over the escalation of tensions especially after Pompeo’s 12-point charter for Iran to change. They are cautious about supporting the US allegation that Iran sabotaged the tankers. Sibal says, “Taking on Iran—a more formidable power than other countries—is sheer foolishness. Contrary to what Trump might believe, his re-election may be fairly compromised if he starts a major conflict with Iran. But like I said, he is surrounded by hawks and he is really courting the Israeli lobby on US stand against Iran. Even Trump is balancing a lot of contradictory pressures. If a conflict starts, Saudi Arabian oil can be easily targeted since the empire is vulnerable which will be damaging for India.” 

Though disapproving of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and persecution of women, the European Union believes that dialogue is the best way forward. The head of the EU’s External Action Service, Helga Schmid who travelled to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Iran said in a statement that the risk of miscalculation is high and that EU was “focused on defusing regional tensions and finding ways to promote dialogue”. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was in Washington last week to meet officials. UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world cannot afford another crisis in the Middle East. 

Trump’s belligerence may have come as a boon to Iran’s totalitarian regime. In 1979, the Ayatollahs seized power with the help of young Iranians who were victims of the Shah’s dictatorship. For over a decade now, rising youth anger against the repressive clergy and the religious police has been eroding the power of the rulers. Women and girls are whipped for discarding their veils and jailed in Iran. Demonstrators are shot or imprisoned.

Music and friendship between sexes are considered un-Islamic. Add to this massive corruption, social welfare budget cuts and popular anger over disproportionate budget allocations for religious institutions filled with by foreign clergy—Iran is a fiery furnace of fury. Last year, demonstrations swept Teheran clamouring against President Hassan Rohani’s economic mismanagement escalated to demands for “death to the dictator”, Khamenei. Trump’s attempt to humiliate and economically strangle Iran is to America’s detriment. Multiple surveys conducted in 2017 by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland proved Trump has misjudged Iranians. Fifty-five percent of respondents said that Iran should retaliate against US sanctions by restarting its nuclear programme. Seventy percent felt Iran should not end enrichment under any circumstances. Only 8 percent of respondents agreed that sanctions can stop human rights violations by the Iranian government. The fresh sanctions would push Iran’s youth to the wall.

America should heed the voices of the past. Iraqis who cheered when the US toppled Saddam became its bitter enemies in a war that led to a decade of death and destruction. The story is no different in Syria. The Arab Spring briefly turned Egypt into an antagonist of America until Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became president and unleashed ruthless purges. 

The US-Iran crisis has put India in a difficult position. Wadhwa says, “Firstly, a lot of states—due to the diaspora which lives in the vicinity around the Gulf—will be affected. Secondly, if there is an escalation of conflict, India’s strategy to reach Central Asia via Chabahar port by bypassing Pakistan might be defeated. Overall, it will obviously push up fuel costs and gas prices will be affected.” 

Though India’s ties with Iran are centuries old, going back to Persian and Indian empires, Delhi ordered all purchase of Iranian oil to stop after the deadline for US waiver on sanctions expired. India is Iran’s third largest buyer of oil, about 4,57,000 barrels per day in the first three months of the 2018 fiscal year over 2,79,000 bpd between April and June 2017. Iran is also India’s gateway to Central Asia and Europe, bypassing Pakistan. India is developing the Chabahar project in Iran—a counter to China’s Gwadar port in Pakistan—which the US has promised to stay away from, since it is in America’s interest to scuttle Chinese plans for dominance.

China is competing with India for influence in Iran and the port will help India counter the strategic encirclement by China and check Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan. The US finds that India’s super-nationalist premier Narendra Modi, who is known to play hardball in the national interest, is no pushover. America’s carrot-and-stick policy is being met by Modi’s own carrots and sticks—India managed to obtain full US support to get terrorist Masood Azhar designated a global terrorist.

Washington strongly disapproves of India’s defence deals with Russia, and has threatened sanctions. This may end up hurting the US, too, since India is currently its ninth largest trading partner clocking $87.5 billion worth of goods in two-way trade in 2018—$58.9 billion in exports and $83.2 in imports. In spite of the cordial relationship between Trump and Modi, the US administration withdrew GSP (preferential trade access) benefits to India, adversely affecting $5.6 billion worth Indian exports. To persuade Washington that such trade curbs will adversely affect India’s domestically-led policy toward the US is the new foreign minister S Jaishankar’s first serious challenge.

The Modi government has retaliated by hiking tariffs on 28 American goods. India’s data localisation requirements has forced US companies in India to spend more—a move the US perceives as “significant barriers to digital trade between the US and India.” Big American corporations oppose Reserve Bank rules mandating that all online data must be stored within the country. Delhi feels that the US plans to curtail the number of H-1B visas issued every year will prevent Indian workforce from going to the US. Before arriving in the capital, Pompeo had quoted Modi’s election slogan, ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’ to signify that if the two countries work together, anything is possible. As Modi focuses on escalating his stature as an emerging global leader, America is counting the possibilities in its quest for a New World Order as its exclusive dominion.

The India Problem

THE GOOD

  • Under a “strategic trade authorisation”, India is now eligible for defense-related technologies
  • The Modi government is looking at more military support from the US 
  • The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement signed between the two nations allows the Indian and American forces to use each other’s facilities
  • The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement allows for secure transmission of data and real-time information between the two nations
  • The Trump administration has always spoken in favour of India when it comes to fighting terrorism

THE BAD

  • Thanks to the US, the US-China trade and technology conflict is rising 
  • With Donald Trump's “America first” policy, India has begun facing the heat
  • Concessional oil imports from both Iran and Venezuela have dried up leading to sharp rise in India’s oil import bill 
  • Chabahar port, which lets India bypass Pakistan to create trade corridor to Afghanistan, may be in for a shock if relations with Iran sour 
  • The US is openly critical of India’s purchasing  Russian-made  air defense system and  threatens economic sanctions.
  • India’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme that gave it easier access to the American market is endangered
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