The public demand from Nikki Haley, US permanent representative to the United Nations, that Delhi should cut its energy and other ties to Tehran puts Iran back at the top of India’s list of difficult foreign policy challenges. To be sure, India is not the only one being targeted by President Donald Trump. He is pressing all of America’s major partners to rethink their engagement with Iran, after walking out of the 2015 International nuclear agreement with Iran, so painstakingly crafted by his predecessor, Barack Obama. This is not the first time that Iran has emerged as a problem between India and the United States. The question of India’s relationship with Iran became one of the major political stumbling blocks in Delhi’s negotiations with Washington on civil nuclear cooperation during 2005-08. Optimists would hope the present crisis, too, would pass sooner than later and that unpredictable America might change its mind again. Recall that late last year, the US was pressing India to cut all ties with North Korea. Now President Donald Trump is buddies with Chairman Kim Jong-un.
Realists, however, would say the Iran question is likely to become a lot messier. Trump has embarked on an all-out confrontation with Iran. The new targeting of Iran’s oil sector is being widely seen as an effort to overthrow the Islamic Republic established after a revolution four decades ago. Trump is being egged on by Israel that has long seen the Islamic Republic as its main threat in the region. Trump’s new approach to Iran has also been strongly welcomed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who see Iran as undermining the legitimacy of the Sunni Arab regimes in the Middle East, interfering in their internal affairs and fomenting discontent among their Shia minorities.
For India, the problem is not just about ironing out the new Iran wrinkle in relations with the US. It is also about dealing with the deepening region-wide conflict between India’s closest partners in the Middle East — UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel — and Iran. India’s relations with Iran, of course, have a strategic logic of their own. For Delhi, the rhetoric on engaging all actors, with each on its own merit, is easy. But when its friends find themselves at war with each other, India has no choice but to carefully assess the costs and benefits of various options at hand. As Delhi embarks on that exercise, oil supply disruption is the least of its problems. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are more than eager to chip in. What is more important is the impact of an extended regional conflict — in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen — on South Asian security. Even as it takes immediate steps to protect its interests, Delhi needs to step up its engagement with all sides and offer its good offices to help reduce tension between Shia Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbours.