US President Donald Trump’s justification of the drone strike in Baghdad that took out ‘rock star’ General Qasem Soleimani, the second-most powerful person in Iran, has put India in a bind. For, he said Soleimani’s proxy war extended right up to New Delhi and London. Trump appeared to be alluding to an attack against an Israeli diplomat on a Delhi street in 2012 that was seen by India and others as an Iranian hit job.
Since Soleimani was for over two decades the head of the elite Quds Force controlled directly by the Ayatollah instead of the elected government, his fingerprint was seen on all proxy wars staged by Iran that aspires to be a regional heavyweight. His arc of influence was visible in his rock-solid support to Assad in Syria, control over Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and of course Iraq, where over 30 militias were under his thumb. The rise of the Islamic State after the fall of Saddam Hussein was blamed on him, as Iraq’s Shia governments, on his prodding, marginalised and persecuted the Sunni army raised by Saddam. The tensions in the Persian Gulf a few months ago, including the dramatic seizures of two oil tankers in mid-sea and the rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco refinery, had the Quds imprint. In fact, Trump called him the number-one terrorist in the world. The Delhi blast was just a small speck in his wide array of operations. As Iran has vowed vengeance, the oil market is expected to wobble and put pressure on global economies that are already struggling under a slowdown.
As for India, it is against using terror as an instrument of state policy, but that is largely Pakistan-centric. How it nuances its position on Soleimani, whose proxy wars had a much larger sweep, remains to be seen. More so as Delhi wants to improve relations with Tehran as a counterweight to Islamabad. As of now, it has called for restraint from all sides, but that is neither here nor there. The problem with Trump is he reacts to immediate needs like the impeachment hearing and re-election than focus on larger policy goals. India could soon be forced to formulate a categorical line while not compromising on its national interest.