US-Iran spar on nuclear deal; India to play balancing act?

As the United States and Israel continue to pressure Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, India might consider its options as one of the few countries who is friendly with both sides of this issue.

All eyes turned on President Trump as he addressed the UN General Assembly earlier this week. It was almost certain that even amidst all the tension in the Korean peninsula, Trump was expected to lay out his administration’s vision on the role played by the UN and on the US-Iran deal which was signed under the aegis of the previous administration.

Matters are sure to escalate in October as the White House is expected to withdraw from this deal. Iranian President Rouhani announced on Wednesday that Iran would respond “decisively and resolutely” if the US reneges on the 2015 agreement.

Indo-Iranian relations

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visits to Iran and the subsequent signing of the strategic Chabahar port deal are huge signs of positive relations between India and Iran. Although India and Iran formally established channels in the 1950s, it was not till the 1979 revolution that ties strengthened. The next twenty-odd years did not see much progress on this front but a defense cooperation agreement signed in 2002 and enhanced relations that followed saw these two countries becoming friendlier.

India and Iran do not share many strategic interests. In fact their foreign policy stances differ more often than not. Under Modi however, New Delhi seems to have realized that Iran is set to emerge as a key energy supplier and as an important regional player. What India has achieved in regard to Iran through diplomacy and complexity management, rather than threats, sanctions and demonetization, is to understand the Islamic republic as a vital bridge between East and East, and as the most stable, safe and inviting stop along the Silk Road.

However, India’s oil imports from Iran have been in steady decline since 2016, and hit their lowest level in 18 months in August 2017, with bad blood between Tehran and New Delhi over Iran’s decision to award its Farzad-B oilfield to Russian company Gazprom.

Impact on India so far

With the spike in rhetoric, New Delhi’s relations with Iran, including plans to invest $500 million in the Chabahar project, the $1.6 billion rail-line from Iran to Afghanistan, as well as about $9 billion in trade of which about half is in oil, could be impacted, especially if the U.S. increases pressure on New Delhi to reduce ties with Tehran, as it did in 2013 while negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

So far, India has denied any such pressures from external sources (including the US) over the deep water project and confirmed “finalized orders” for infrastructure and equipment “without any difficulty”.


Trump, even before being elected, slammed the JCPOA. There is widespread belief of non-compliance on the Iranian side but there is no way to prove this. Since the Obama administration gave away any right to conduct meaningful inspections in Iran, military and “dirty” sites cannot be accessed. Further, ballistic missile programs were completely omitted from the deal altogether. A warhead is useless without a delivery system and by making this omission Iran can keep working on this part of the development, while technically remaining compliant with the deal.

But Iran is in violation of a related agreement, UN Security Council Resolution 2231through ballistic missile testing and export of weapons to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. These are flagrant violations and Samantha Power, Obama’s UN Ambassador, felt obligated to point them out.

India’s New Role

India’s main goal has been to secure access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Given India’s increasingly close ties with the US, and the importance of Iran in the context of connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia, Trump’s foreign policy may well pose a major challenge to India, as officials in New Delhi seek to strike a balance between good relations with Washington and closer ties with Tehran.

Perhaps most worrying for India is the possibility of an Iranian pivot towards Pakistan and China, to further irk the White House. Following Trump’s address to the UN, where he accused Pakistan for providing safe havens to militants, Iran came to the defense of their long-term ally. A foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, noted: “What presently the U.S. is highlighting to condemn other countries is the result of years of wrong and inappropriate policies of Americans in the countries of the region, especially Afghanistan.”

India is also expected to closely monitor any moves Iran might make in the Middle East with respect to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Many high-ranking Iranian ministers have recently met with their Turkish counterparts to explore synergies in counter-terrorism efforts in the Syrian conflict. There is less reason for optimism regarding overtures between Iran and Saudi Arabia but the exchange at the OIC was notable and will perhaps pave the way for dialogue and restoration of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh.

New Delhi has strong ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, yet maintaining this geopolitical balance in the Persian Gulf will continue to prove challenging for India. India has also managed to benefit from the two countries’ rivalry by playing Tehran and Riyadh off each other. Given India’s growing importance to Iran and to the GCC countries, New Delhi could perhaps pressure all Persian Gulf states into urging Pakistan to take action against certain terrorist organizations. Saudi Arabia has been apprehensive about India aligning too closely with Iran, and this has resulted in Riyadh not only adopting a more nuanced stance on terrorism emanating from Pakistan and in extraditing terrorists, but also strengthening security cooperation with India.

The dynamics in this equation go well beyond the three major parties. With regional and competitive players engaging with these parties, India must not forget its overarching goals. It should rise to the occasion and mediate talks/discussions as both, the US and Iran, see it as a friendly actor. It will be in India’s best interest for them to reach another deal to facilitate continual economic and political cooperation. Modi and his team of foreign advisers will do well to use this opportunity to convince the US and other international players that India can take the lead on big issues.

Image courtesy: Indian Express.