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A Dangerous Game of Brinkmanship

A Dangerous Game of Brinkmanship
The sanctions on Iran by US President Donald Trump targeted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left), among others
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Above: The sanctions on Iran by US President Donald Trump targeted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left), among others

As tensions escalate in the Gulf, Iran has threatened to start enriching uranium to a higher level if the EU does not press the US to ease its sanctions. This will affect India in more ways than one

By Maj Gen Ashok Mehta in Dubai

Iran and the US came dangerously close to an armed exchange on June 20 when US President Donald Trump ordered and then cancelled missile strikes against Iran for shooting down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz. Trump was wise in not stirring the hornets’ nest. Two contradictory issues have emerged: First, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran and the Iranian leadership want the European Union (EU) and its allies to press the US into easing the crippling sanctions which have mauled its economy; second, the hawks in Trump’s team—NSA John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—want to teach Iran a lesson through punitive missile strikes even as Trump wants talks with Iran.

As a compromise, it was cyber attacks that were used against missile and radar sites which the US claimed had disabled these systems, while Iran contended that the attacks were unsuccessful. This was followed by sanctions against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. This was tantamount to closing the door on talks. Trump has said all options are on the table (short of boots on the ground) if Tehran breaks any red lines contained in the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. This is ironic because while Trump has declared the nuclear deal congenitally flawed and beyond redemption, he is insisting Iran abides by it. And yet, Trump wants an unconditional dialogue with Iran, whereas Tehran wants sanctions to be lifted first.

Meanwhile, the war of words has degenerated into an exchange of invectives: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called US sanctions idiotic, while Trump threatened to obliterate Iran. Earlier, Trump had said he had ordered military strikes on targets in Iran, but called them off due to the prospect of collateral human casualties. It is clear that neither side is prepared to back off as Tehran has threatened to ditch more nuclear curbs of the nuclear deal in the dangerous game of brinkmanship. It also said that Washington should express sincerity for dialogue by easing sanctions. While US allies in Europe and Asia consider the US decision to quit from the nuclear deal a mistake, France, UK and Germany have warned Iran against reneging on its nuclear commitments. Iran is threatening to surpass a limit on its enriched stockpile and start enriching uranium to a higher level on July 7 if the Europeans do not give relief from sanctions. The Europeans are trying to work out a barter system that will allow backdoor trade with Iran. Russia has supported Iran. China as a signatory of the nuclear deal and Iran’s largest buyer of oil (in the middle of its own trade war with America) is likely to continue buying oil from Iran despite US sanctions. India does not possess the requisite clout to emulate China.

The situation in the Gulf is volatile with shipping and aviation adversely affected by the spectre of a wider asymmetric conflict. Trump, though, has said that the US will not be pressured by the Iranian threat to close the Hormuz Strait because it is now the world’s largest energy producer and has weaned itself from the historic dependence on the Gulf. This remark accompanied by the statement that the US should not be depended upon for keeping the oil passage open has caused panic among US allies who draw their energy supplies from the region.

It is instructive to rewind to the Obama period to compare Trump backing off missile strikes and overruling his hawkish security advisers due to concerns for civilian casualties in the strike area. This has promoted criticism that his hesitation has eroded American credibility and deterrence. In 2013, then US President Barack Obama abruptly pulled out of strikes against Syria even after it had crossed the US red line of using chemical weapons against its own people on the plea that he needed Congressional approval. Similarly in 1998, then President Bill Clinton blinked from carrying out missile strikes against Iraq for not cooperating with US weapon inspectors. In Trump’s backing down, the reason given is that Iran did not breach any red line, including the one defined by Pompeo: Death of even one US soldier by Iran or any of its proxies.

What are the strategic ramifications of the flare-up and panic in the Gulf for India? The immediate and long-term consequences would be volatility of oil supply and prices, its investments in Farzad B gas fields, the future of Chabahar Port and overall relations with Iran. To this, add the plight of eight million Indians working in the Gulf. India is the world’s third largest (84 percent) oil importer and a large portion (10 percent) of it comes from Iran (23.5 million tonnes in 2018-19) at concessional rates. India got a six-month exemption from the US to draw down oil to zero imports from Iran at high financial and strategic costs. Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan spoke to US energy secretary Rick Perry, telling him of the hike in oil prices after the downing of the US drone. India is yet to find a suitable alternative for Iranian oil at a reasonable price and assurance terms. Pompeo, on his recent visit to India, probably offered crude oil from the US to make up for cutting oil supply from Iran. India’s state-run and private refineries have said that no government can force them to buy oil from the US on terms that are uneconomical.

In the first round of Iranian oil sanctions in 2010-15, India obtained exemption from the US, which while margin­ally reducing overall supplies, was never cut off. Transactional Trump is unlikely to be generous when it comes to any exemption on Iran and Russia. The growing tension in the Gulf that I witnessed recently has led to India considering additional security measures for the safe passage of large carriers passing through the Gulf. One will recall that during the periods of high tensions, including threats from piracy, merchant ships and oil tankers were escorted by warships.

The Chinese are already escorting their cargo ships. During the second Gulf War, the US had requested India to provide escort ships for passage through the Malacca Strait. This was done, not merely during the duration of the Gulf War, but even some time beyond it. Enhanced aviation costs, both in terms of additional fuel and time, will result from the tensions in the Gulf. All flights to and from India to Europe and the US already bypass Pakistani airspace which has been closed since the Balakot air­strikes. Now, there will be the added burden of overflying the Gulf region. This will result in a hike in the cost of air tickets, besides increasing flight timings.

The Indian Navy has deployed destroyer INS Chennai and offshore patrol vessel INS Sunayna under Operation Sankalp to provide security to Indian flagged vessels transiting through the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The director-general of shipping has issued advisories to all Indian ships to take adequate and appropriate security measures while sailing through the Gulf region. The Information Fusion Centre–Indian Ocean Region, which is functional from Gurugram since last December, monitors movement of all ships in the Gulf region.

India has to keep its options open and exercise its strategic autonomy in national interests to ensure it is not browbeaten by Trump and his neo-colonial team of advisers engaged in keeping America Great Again, unmindful of interests of its strategic partners. At a joint press conference in Delhi, Pompeo claimed: “We have a shared understanding of the threat posed by Iran. We all know the need to keep that waterway open, we also know that Iran is the largest state sponsor of terror and we know that Indian people have suffered from terror.” However, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said: “India has a certain perspective on Iran,” indirectly rejecting the American perspective. Indian officials who preferred to remain anonymous said that Pompeo’s remarks on Iran did not reflect India’s historic and civilisational relationship with that country.

All said and done, the confrontation in the Gulf between the US and Iran has seriously incentivised Tehran to acquire a nuclear bomb.

—The writer has fought in all the wars after 1947 and was Commander of the IPKF (South) in Sri Lanka

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