At a time when many in India are making a song and dance about “nationalism” here comes the Iran test that is going to determine whether their government in New Delhi can walk the talk.
The United States’ deadline for at least five countries, including India, to stop importing oil from Iran is ending on May 2. Three other countries — Italy, Greece and Taiwan — stopped their Iran oil imports in November.
For India, which had been granted a waiver from the earlier deadline, the situation borders on trouble as it imports at least 10 per cent crude from Iran which is cheap and preferred by refiners. Iraq and Saudi Arabia, since the US sanctions came into force in 2015, have replaced Iran as the top suppliers to India.
A logical question would be why should India stop importing oil from Iran when it is the US that has a problem with Tehran. The US administration led by president Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Iran demanding that it end its uranium enrichment programme and shut down all nuclear facilities. Mind you, it is not a United Nations sanctions but US sanctions that under international law do not mandate any other country to obey it. The world is concerned, oil markets are jittery, and serious complications could follow Washington’s diktat. Some analysts even term this the next big US misadventure after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
India, China, Turkey, Japan and South Korea are expected to stop Iran oil imports from May 2. Among these China is likely to defy the US, Turkey has protested vociferously, Japan is expected to reluctantly follow the US, so too South Korea. India has not officially reacted to the deadline but External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is attempting to stave off the deadline by appealing to Washington on the grounds that general elections are on.
But the point is sooner or later a deadline will again loom and New Delhi will be hoping that circumstances somehow change and the crisis disappears. The reason is India, since the disintegration of its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union in 1990, has developed close relations with the US.
While that is understandable, the issue is that the relationship is unequal with Washington having the upper hand. India, for instance, has leaned heavily on the US to arm-twist Pakistan on keeping Kashmiri separatist groups at bay and work up international pressure on Islamabad regarding the issue of terrorism. India has also joined the axis with Washington that aims to contain China. Economically, the US is India’s largest trading partner and an important source of foreign investment.
But, India and Iran too have historically been friends. Their aims in the Asian neighbourhood coincide. For example, Iran is closer to India than to Pakistan. In Afghanistan, both countries share an antipathy to the Taliban and work in concert. India is developing the Chabahar port that when complete will help in skirting Pakistan and establish a new trade route via Iran to Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics.
India risks its entire relationship with Iran if it has to satisfy Washington. Not just that, India loses a steady and reliable supply of oil from a country that has stood by it in times of crisis. At present, some 23.5 million tonnes of oil flow annually into India from Iran.
Ironically, the US sanctions against Iran have nothing to do with India or serve its strategic interests. Even within the US administration, opinion is divided over Trump’s punitive move against Tehran. In 2015, he unilaterally abrogated a treaty with Iran that had been negotiated and signed by several countries led by his predecessor Barack Obama and included key allies in the European Union.
Trump acted over objections from other treaty partners and rode roughshod over Iran’s protests. He acted on behalf of Israel which was unhappy with the Obama-brokered peace agreement. Saudi Arabia, another US ally, was also displeased with the treaty as it feared that its neighbour and rival Iran would benefit from the deal.
Either the current dispensation or whichever government is coming to power in India after the elections is going to have to deal with this situation. Unfortunately, the track record since 2005 when India in an unprecedented move voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under US pressure shows that New Delhi needs nerves to defy Washington.
In comparison, China has rarely kow-towed to the US where its national interests are concerned. Being the largest importer of oil from Iran, it has already indicated that it will ignore Washington’s missive. In the past, China has taken on the US successfully.
India, while dreaming of becoming a super power or at least getting on par with China, has a long way to go. Unless a government in Delhi changes the narrative, which seems unlikely, there is little scope for that.
The US has assured India that Saudi Arabia and other allies in the Gulf region will make up for Iran’s oil supplies. That may be possible, but the issue is not just about oil supplies. For, the whip from Washington impinges on India’s sovereignty and its standing as an independent nation.
The slogan of nationalism and whipping up “Bharat Mata” emotions may inspire many within and outside the country. But they seem to be of not much use when faced with a real life crisis that truly tests India’s nationalist credentials.