Washington’s decision to end all waivers to the oil sanctions against Tehran, puts the unfolding US-Iran confrontation right at the top of the Indian diplomatic agenda in the middle of a general election. The Trump administration had given short-term waivers to some eight countries, including its allies and friends like Japan, Korea and India as well as China last November. As the US seeks to reduce oil exports of Iran to zero, many of the eight countries except China have either suspended oil purchases from Iran or plan to do so. That puts India, a major importer of Iranian oil, right in the cross-hairs of US sanctions. This is not the first time that the conflict between Washington and Tehran, dating back to the Islamic Revolution that ousted Shah of Iran from power and established a clerical regime in Iran four decades ago, has tested Indian foreign policy. India had managed to navigate the frequent crises around Iran with innovative diplomacy and much luck.
But there have been some moments when India could not simply finesse the issues involved. The last time India had to make an explicit choice was during 2005-08, when President George Bush was mounting great pressure on the Iranian nuclear programme just when he was helping end India’s prolonged international atomic isolation. Despite considerable political resistance within the ruling Congress and the UPA coalition, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose to put India’s own nuclear interests above the presumed obligation to defend Iran’s covert nuclear programme in the name of non-alignment.
The gathering crisis in the Gulf does not give India the lazy options of political posturing or strategic hedging, let alone the hard options of standing with Iran against the US and the Gulf Arabs. For the Trump administration is not seeking a specific negotiable outcome from the confrontation with Iran. Washington apparently wants nothing less than a regime change in Tehran. By eliminating Iran’s oil exports, President Trump hopes he can intensify the internal economic and political crisis within the Islamic Republic and hasten its demise. Trump’s plans to collapse the clerical regime in Tehran have the support of key Arab countries as well as Israel. The Islamic Republic, however, is unlikely to go down without a fight. This, in turn, promises a prolonged crisis in the Gulf that will hit the global oil markets badly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must necessarily make some time during the election campaign to limit the potential damage to India’s energy security and economic stability. His task is two-fold: One is take up Washington on its word to help India replace oil imports from Iran. And the other is to leverage India’s improved relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to negotiate long-term alternatives to energy dependence on Iran.