In recent days, India’s attention has been on some of the changes introduced by the administration of US President Donald Trump. They include restrictions on H1-B visas, as well as the US’ attempt to get the UN to impose a ban on Masood Azhar, the head of Jaish-E-Mohammed. The travel ban imposed on seven Muslim-majority countries, as well as Trump’s approach towards China and Japan are also being watched closely in India. While New Delhi is keeping an eye on whether the ban on the seven countries could be followed by harsh steps against Pakistan, Trump’s approach towards China and Japan will not determine but certainly impact India’s role in the Asia-Pacific.
While the naysayers in India argue that Trump’s less proactive approach in Asia will only give greater space to China, optimists are of the view that there will be no fundamental rethink on key issues. During Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s recent conversation with the US President, the issue of the South China Sea did come up, as did the issue of terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil. Optimists believe that the Trump administration will be tougher on Pakistan, and they cite the recent pressure by the US to impose a ban on Masood Azhar.
Only time will tell as to what approach Trump will take towards China and Pakistan. While New Delhi has its own independent foreign policy, ultimately Washington DC will watch its own national interest. A strong reiteration of this point is Trump’s recent conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, when he categorically stated that the US would respect the One China Policy. In November, the US President spoke to the Taiwanese President and had alluded to the need for the US to rethink the One China Policy. Similarly, while he had alluded to the need for Japan and South Korea to stop depending on the US for their security, at a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump stated: “We are committed to the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control and to further strengthening our very crucial alliance.” The joint statement also made it unequivocally clear that the US commitment to defend Japan through nuclear as well as conventional military capabilities was steadfast.
Trump’s Iran Policy
Apart from the above issues, New Delhi will be closely watching the deterioration of ties between Washington and Tehran. During the election campaign, Trump had spoken about undoing the nuclear agreement which was signed between P5+1 countries and Iran, and some of his key advisors, including Defence Secretary James Mattis, are known to be hardliners on Iran.
Yet no one really thought that Trump would undo the agreement, and there may be a continuity of policies. Ties between both countries have however been tense in recent weeks. The decision by Tehran to test ballistic missiles on January 29 has evoked a strong response from the Trump administration. Responding to the tests, Trump tweeted that “Iran is playing with fire — they don't appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”
Iran for its part was quick to respond to Trump’s remarks. Said the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif on Twitter: “Iran unmoved by threats as we derive security from our people. Will never initiate war, but we can only rely on our own means of defence.”
The Trump administration has recently taken some steps against Iran. Firstly, Iran is amongst the seven countries on which a travel ban has been imposed. Apart from this, the US is also likely to impose sanctions on 25 individuals and organizations for their link to Tehran’s ballistic missile program or for providing support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Qods Force. The latter, apart from overseeing the army’s overseas operations, also lends support to groups including Hezbollah. According to US estimates, IRGC also controls nearly 50 percent of Iran’s business. These sanctions will not only freeze the US assets of the entities targeted, but will also blacklist companies globally which do business with them.
As a result of these measures, anti-US sentiment in Iran has risen. On the 38th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, a large number of marchers carried the Iranian flag and banners which stated: “Thanks Mr. Trump for showing the real face of America.”
US companies like Boeing and Schlumberger will be closely watching this deterioration of ties. It is also likely that other members of the P5 may differ from Trump and may not want to push Iran to the wall. Seeing the transformation in the US President’s approach towards Japan and China, it is likely that he may adopt a more pragmatic approach towards Iran.
Why India Would be Watching Trump’s Iran Policy
India has invested heavily in improving ties with Iran, while simultaneously strengthening ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Israel. During PM Modi’s visit to Iran in May 2016, an agreement was finalized in which India would provide assistance of USD 500 million to the Chabahar Project. Commenting on this agreement, Modi said: “The bilateral agreement to develop the Chabahar port and related infrastructure, and availability of about $500 million from India is an important milestone.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani added: “Chabahar can become a very big symbol of co-operation between Iran and India.”
The Chabahar Project is relevant for two reasons. First, it will provide India with access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, while bypassing Pakistan. Pakistan on its part has refused to make India part of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA). According to the current agreement, Pakistan permits Afghan trucks carrying goods meant for India to only travel up to Wagah (Pakistan’s last check point) and not to Attari (the Indian check point). Second, India would also be sending a message to China, which is developing Gwadar Port in Balochistan.
New Delhi, while adopting a pragmatic approach towards
connectivity projects being initiated by China, should find common ground with
Washington regarding terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil.
New Delhi, while adopting a pragmatic approach towards connectivity projects being initiated by China, should find common ground with Washington regarding terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil.
During Modi’s visit, a trilateral agreement was signed between India, Afghanistan, and Iran on the establishment of a land transit and trade corridor. This agreement is important because the road network can be linked to Zaranj (Afghanistan), the Zaranj-Delaram Road (which was constructed by India), and ultimately to Afghanistan’s Garland Highway — Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, and Mazar-e-Sharif.
India will need to keep a close watch on the sanctions imposed by the US on Iran. As of now, there are no direct threats to projects like Chabahar, since none of the sanctions target the Iranian PMO. It is likely however, that India may follow a wait-and-see approach over the next few months. New Delhi is interested in the Chabahar Project, but it will also need to ensure that ties with the US do not deteriorate.
It would also be pertinent to point out that there has been a misunderstanding between both sides over the release of payments. While India is ready to release USD 150 million to the development of Chabahar Port, New Delhi says that the Iranians have not filled in some of the paperwork required by the Exim Bank.
Increasing tensions between the US and Iran, as well as delays on India’s part could impact India’s geopolitical aims of gaining access to Africa and Central Asia. However, neither China nor Iran have looked at India from a zero-sum approach. China has repeatedly spoken about the need for Iranian participation in the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project and stated that the OBOR is inclusive not exclusive. Beijing has also alluded to Indian participation in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. During a visit to the town of Amritsar in Punjab, the Chinese Ambassador to India spoke about this possibility.
In May 2016, Iran made it clear that the trilateral agreement between India, Afghanistan and Iran in no way precluded Pakistan and China. While India should not look at connectivity projects from a narrow approach, it certainly would like to do so.
What New Delhi Can Do
In conclusion, India truly has its task cut out. It cannot dictate US policy towards Iran, and neither can it prevent China from going ahead with its connectivity projects. What New Delhi can do is be prompt in implementation of projects, and while adopting a pragmatic approach towards connectivity projects being initiated by China, it should find common ground with Washington regarding terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil. China so far has turned a blind eye towards India’s concerns. Beijing has been trying to give the impression that India is opposed to connectivity, while conveniently ignoring the elephant in the room — Pakistan. Sections of the Pakistani establishment have not only been supporting terror groups targeting India, but Islamabad has been seeking to keep India out of the APTTA.