News that the Indian government is likely to cut down drastically on oil imports from Iran is ironical, as the two countries share a long-standing friendly relationship. The Modi government’s move, under pressure from the United States, will rank among the most questionable foreign policy decision in recent times. If at all, Iran has been a consistent India backer including on Kashmir, until recently, in international forums.

India is placed in an unenviable situation following Trump unilaterally walking out of the nuclear deal with Iran and threatening to impose sanctions on Tehran. The US administration has said it expects its allies like India and fellow signatories in the European Union to follow suit.

That India is being “sweetly” arm-twisted by the United States into taking a hostile position against Iran is fraught with implications. One, it clearly dilutes independence in Indian foreign policy. Second, it exposes the unequal nature of Delhi’s relationship with Washington – that of the grateful, if not, subservient beneficiary and the all-powerful giver.

The US has pressured India on downgrading its relations with Iran for over a decade now ever since the George W Bush administration targeted Tehran for its nuclear programme in 2003. A year later, the then UPA government voted for a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that went against Iran. This was the time when the Manmohan Singh government was negotiating with the US administration on the India nuclear deal, and so relationship with Iran became expendable.

If that anti-Iran vote probably helped bring India’s US deal closer to fruition, it also resulted in Tehran shifting its position on Kashmir with the country’s supreme leader Ayotollah Khamenei and the foreign ministry issuing statements on Kashmir that were critical of the Indian government and its security forces.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration and the Manmohan Singh government signed the nuclear agreement that would enable US private nuclear power companies to set up reactors in India. The news was largely hailed at home as it was seen as a move that removed the tag of India being a nuclear renegade. There was some criticism and concerns too, but those were ignored. As is well-known, there is no free lunch especially in the world of international realpolitik. The US extracted its price with several officials making it explicit that India would have to support Washington in its foreign policy, especially on relations with Iran.

In the US’ ambit

In the last 12 years since the signing of the nuclear deal, India has been pulled further into the US orbit. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made the maximum number of trips to Washington compared to any other country. The troublesome issue is that the two countries are not on equal footing. If one country is the world’s hyper power the other is a struggling developing economy that has illusions of super power grandeur.

India has had to sacrifice self-interest in the process of being dragged along by the US as its ally. The previous Obama administration, friendly and benign on the surface, all but forced India to freeze the gas pipeline project that would have enormously benefited India, Pakistan and Iran. The project, which was touted as the peace pipeline, was at an advanced stage of discussions when India stopped attending meetings and effectively stalled the project.

Under further US pressure that created obstacles on the issue of oil payments, the previous UPA government marginally cut down oil imports from Iran. With the US threatening to block foreign exchange transactions between the two countries, India at least put up a semblance of resistance by shifting to trade in local currencies of the respective countries and re-routing transactions through Turkey. Before the situation got worse for India, ex-US president Barack Obama in 2015 signed the nuclear deal with Tehran and the restrictions were removed for resumption of normal trade between the two countries.

But the penny has dropped under US President Donald Trump. India is again having to confront the dilemma of having to choose, or forced to go with, Washington by downgrading its trade with Iran.

In recent months, the US has embraced India in a bear-like grip with a view to safeguarding Washington’s strategic interests in Asia and the Pacific. Specifically, to counter growing Chinese power. It has also signed various big ticket deals with India including the far-reaching military logistics agreement making it clear that Delhi is Washington’s latest ally .

But, again, all this comes with a price. The US is frowning upon India’s agreement to buy five S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile systems estimated at over ₹39,000 crore from Russia and pressuring to call it off.

Trump impact

Now that Trump has revoked the US agreement with Iran, India is facing the brunt of Trump’s pressure tactics and is now faced with a situation where it is being told to stop oil purchase from Iran, the country’s third largest oil supplier. Stopping oil imports from Iran or even reducing it drastically can land India in a serious mess. Already, oil prices have hit the roof leading to increase in prices and general resentment with chances of the economy further slowing down.

For a country that is yet to recover from demonetisation and problems in GST implementation, stopping or cutting down on Iran oil could be the last straw. Government officials have said they are looking for alternative arrangements but how reliable they will be and whether they can make up for the absence of oil from Iran is a moot point.

If India does indeed stop oil trade with Iran, the geo-political relationship with Tehran can take ages to repair. What makes the scenario even more painful is that India may end up ruining ties with a friendly country that has done it no harm. In international forums, particularly at the Organisation of Islamic States, Iran has batted consistently for India.

What is also on test is the robustness of India’s political and economic standing in the world. China, which Indians love to compare themselves with, has always maintained an independent foreign policy despite close economic ties with Washington.

On the contrary, the Indian government for all its bravado, appears to be buckling under US pressure. If that indeed happens, India stands to suffer enormous loss of prestige and may even risk attracting the sobriquet of being Washington’s lap dog in the region.

The writer was formerly Editor at Aljazeera based in Doha

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