Chabahar and the US-Iran conundrum

It’s not Washington or Tehran that wants an escalation, only Tel Aviv. New Delhi should not give in to threats and be bold enough to pursue its interests.
Chabahar and the US-Iran conundrum
(Express illustration | Sourav Roy)

Indian discourses on Chabahar are in a tizzy over the perceived US threat of sanctions hanging like a Damocles’ sword on our contract with Iran to run a terminal at the port and the promise to invest in downstream projects to the tune of $350 million. But when it comes to US-Iran, issues get complicated, and the paradox is that the US is far from being in a punishing mood in the Gulf nowadays.

It must be understood that the hostility between the US and Iran has been somewhat surreal all through, with neither side wanting to escalate. The only country that is genuinely interested in escalation is Israel. That was the leitmotif of Israel’s attack on the Iranian embassy in Damascus on April 1. Washington was aghast that it was not in the loop and very angry that Israel precipitated the crisis when a working relationship with Iran was an imperative need.

What ensued becomes a case study in the US-Iranian conundrum. Incredibly enough, what happened between April 1 and April 14 (when Iran retaliated against Israel) was that Washington and Tehran worked together so that Iran’s retaliation would be “limited” and the US would see it coming so that it could defend Israel.

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Washington prevailed upon Tehran not to hit populated areas but restrict itself to one or two Israeli military targets. An informal “hotline” was set up via Oman so that the crisis wouldn’t spin out of control.

All this, of course, put Israel in a quandary and its swagger in the bazaar of punching above its weight and taking on a formidable adversary like Iran stands exposed. Furthermore, when Israel subsequently “retaliated” against Iran on April 19, the US kept it on a tight leash. Israelis ended up hitting one Iranian radar near Isfahan and that was the end of the story.

Israel is in deep trouble today. On the one hand, the US has called the Israeli bluff that it is the bête noire of Iran’s existence. On the other hand, Washington has begun debunking Israel’s rhetoric on its war in Gaza.

Citing senior Biden administration officials, The Politico reported on Tuesday: “Israel’s government has failed to hold parts of Gaza after clearing them… Although Hamas’s communications and military abilities have been degraded, only 30 to 35 percent of its fighters—those who were a part of Hamas before the October 7 attack—have been killed and about 65 percent of its tunnels are still intact … officials have also become increasingly concerned that Hamas has been able to recruit during wartime—thousands over the last several months. That has allowed the group to withstand months of Israeli offensives.”

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Last week, US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said at a NATO event that the US has been “struggling over what the theory of victory is” in Gaza. As he put it, “Sometimes, when we listen closely to Israeli leaders, they talk about mostly the idea of some sort of sweeping victory on the battlefield, total victory. I don’t think we believe that is likely or possible.” Now, that is a blunt articulation indeed for a top diplomat.

What does all this add up to? Suffice to say, the regional environment in which India and Iran have entered into a 10-year agreement on Chabahar signals a brave new world. At the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Tuesday on the Iran question, Republican senators grilled Secretary of State Antony Blinken over Washington’s message of condolence for Ebrahim Raisi’s death.

‘Weakness’, ‘soft’, ‘appeasement’—these were some of the epithets hurled at Blinken. Therefore, the real issue is not about President Biden itching to punish India, but how far he will stick to the current policy of outreach and accommodation with Iran, which is integral to the US’s West Asian strategies.

Meanwhile, Tehran even reached out to Washington after the helicopter crash on Sunday for assistance in locating the debris, as State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told journalists on Monday. Miller said, “We did make clear to them that we would offer assistance, as we would do in response to any request by a foreign government in this sort of situation. Ultimately, largely for logistical reasons, we weren’t able to provide that assistance.”

By the way, the US Senate chaplain Barry Black, during the hearings on Iran on the Senate floor, offered a prayer for Raisi. “Lord, we pray for the Iranian people who mourn the death of their president,” Black said. “We pray in your loving name, Amen.”

Washington may have some misgivings from a geopolitical perspective that Chabahar port is potentially a jewel in the crown of the International North-South Transport Corridor, a 7,200-km multimodal network on the drawing board that would connect India with Russia. But that is in the fullness of time, if at all—and as the saying goes, in the long run, we are all dead anyway.

India is grappling with an existential angst arising from a novel experience of human freedom and responsibility. It has an abysmally poor record in pushing back US bullying. Successive Congress governments were mesmerised by the Washington consensus and entrapped in the depths of the “unipolar predicament” following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Who is to blame if our elites are told to bend and they start crawling? To surrender to Donald Trump’s bullying and terminate oil purchases from Iran was bad enough, but to replace them  with American oil at his asking price was a bit too much. Make no mistake that the Indian consumer paid for it. Again, Israelis led Indians to believe they were the cat’s whiskers to unlock doors in the Byzantine corridors of power in DC. Today, there is better understanding about Israeli bravado and the limits to US pressure tactics—and, one would like to imagine, greater leeway too to pursue national interests, thanks to the Ukraine war and Russia’s defiance of “rules-based order”.

(Views are personal)

M K Bhadrakumar | Former diplomat

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