India should have spelt out its Iran policy clearly

iran oil

It is only a coincidence that this piece is being written on the day of protests against petrol and diesel prices , but that draws attention to the  domestic impact of foreign policy. It is being argued that India could have handled the US sanctions on Iran in a smarter way.

The three countries form a  geopolitical triangle ,different from an  Euclidian triangle where  the sum of any two sides is greater  than the third side. Keeping this in mind and recalling  the importance of contra-factual reasoning   to which our attention was drawn by Blaise Pascal when he said that Cleopatra’s nose,  had it been shorter the whole face of the  earth would have been different, let us try to understand the dynamics  and geometry of this triangle. We shall ask three basic questions:

1) What has happened so far?

2) What might happen in the near future ?

3) What was the best possible scenario for India based on contrafactual reasoning?


What has happened so far?

Following President Trump’s announcement of sanctions on Iran, India did reduce import of oil from Iran.  However, since Washington was basically interested in India’s signing the COMCASA (Communication, Compatibility and Security Agreement) and deepening the military-to -military links with India and selling more arms to India, it adroitly chose   not to discuss at length at the 2+2 dialogue  India’s plans to purchase the S-400 system from Russia and the import of oil from Iran by India in violation of US sanctions to be fully effective by 4th November 2018.

The Indian Ministry of Petroleum and Gas and CEOs of the major oil companies have repeatedly stated that they can do without oil from Iran. It seems that that the  Ministry ,  unaware of the deeper geopolitical  implications ,  is concerned  only with finding alternate sources for oil.

Ministry of External Affairs has not yet come out with a clear policy statement on  sanctions on Iran. In contrast, Defence Minister  Nirmala Seetharaman announced the  intention  to go ahead with the purchase of S-400 weeks before 2+2.

What might happen in the near future?

India might seek or US will try to prod India to seek waivers from US to continue  import of  oil from Iran. US will gladly give the waiver extracting as tough a bargain as possible reducing India’s import as near to zero as possible. There will be a  stipulation of periodic certification from Secretary of State of India’s making honest efforts to reduce the import  for renewing the waiver, a mechanism that can and will be used to tighten the screw as needed.

What was the best possible scenario for India based on contrafactual reasoning?

Let us conduct a thought experiment:  Since Trump as candidate had said that he would  walk out  of the Iran deal, on the day Trump won the election in November 2016, the Policy Planning Division of MEA  starts to prepare a paper on India’s options. It  will point out that apart from sourcing oil, there are two issues of greater  geopolitical significance: India’s standing as an emerging great power and its plans to  establish geographic connectivity with Afghanistan and the minerals- rich Central Asia by participating in the expansion of the Chabahar port and of the   associated transport infrastructure in the region. MEA goes through the pros and cons and arrives at the following conclusions:

  1. a) MEA alone will speak on behalf of India and other ministries will be suitably advised.
  2. b) India should enter into confidential talks with Iran and offer a bargain: Against deep discounts on price combined with delivery c.i.f on Indian ports, India will continue to import from Iran despite US sanctions.India and Iran agree on a detailed contract leaving to India the freedom to decide how India’s decision will be announced to US and the world.

India watches the scene and at the right time informs US of its decision through diplomatic channels. US is not pleased, but considering the high cards India has a major importer of US arms and the importance of India’s agreeing to deepen the military-to-military linkages, US reluctantly agrees and the two sides work out a language to announce their agreement to the world at a time of their choosing.

The petrol and diesel prices in India come down because of the deep discounts to the delight of the public despite  the rise in price of oil  in the global market. India’s  geopolitical standing improves as it did not meekly surrender to US diktat.

In conclusion, diplomacy is about punching a little above one’s weight and not below. MEA can still  talk to Iran and do it.

Ambassador K. P. Fabian is an Indian Diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000, during which time he was posted to Madagascar, Austria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Canada, Finland, Qatar and Italy. During his time in the diplomatic service, he spent three years in Iran (from 1976 to 1979), witnessing the Iranian Revolution first hand. As Joint Secretary (Gulf), Fabian coordinated the evacuation of over 176,000 Indian nationals from Iraq and Kuwait in 1990–91. His multilateral experience includes representing India at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Civil Aviation Organization, Food and Agricultural Organization, World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. He is also the author of two books, Commonsense on the War on Iraq, which was published in 2003 and Diplomacy: Indian Style.

Originally published by  South Asia Monitor

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