The killing Iranian Major General Qasim Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and commander of the Quds Force on 3 January 2020 through an American drone strike had the risk of a major conflict erupting in the Middle East. U.S. drones struck a convoy carrying the defacto second most powerful man in Iraqi hierarchy at Baghdad International airport. Quds Force has been deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Earlier U.S. had withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed sanctions, thus creating conditions for a fresh crisis. USA had also accused Iran of the 14 September 2019 drone attacks on Saudi State-owned Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurias. On 27 December 2019, the K-1 Air Base in Iraq, which hosts Iraqi and U.S. personnel, was attacked, killing an American contractor. The U.S. responded by launching airstrikes across Iraq and Syria, killing 25 Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militiamen. The United States asserted that the strike to kill Soleimani was to disrupt an “imminent attack” from Iran and that it was a “defensive action”. Iran called it an act of “State Terrorism“. Meanwhile, Iraq said the attack undermined its national sovereignty, and on 5 January 2020, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution to expel all foreign troops from its territory. Iranian leaders vowed revenge, and simultaneously took the step of reducing commitments to the 2015 international nuclear deal. Five days after the airstrike, Iran launched a series of ballistic missile attacks on U.S. forces based in Iraq at Al Asad, Al Anbar and Erbil military bases. Luckily there were no casualties. Reports suggest that Iran had intentionally not planned strikes to kill. Leaders, from both countries seemed finally reluctant to further escalate the conflict. Now that Tehran and Washington have openly exchanged fire, the conflict between the two nations will continue in the shadows where it has been fought for 40 years.
President Donald Trump’s backers say the raised stakes have restored “big stick” deterrence that American enemies and allies had begun to doubt after Trump failed to respond militarily to repeated Iranian aggression. His critics say he has ushered in a new era that makes every American a target for kidnapping and assassination across the Middle East, and beyond. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said he would continue his active engagement to de-escalate tensions and avert full-scale war, which the “world cannot afford.” Meanwhile, in the ‘Fog of War’ an Ukrainian Boeing 737-800 was shot by the Iranian air defence units just after take-off from Tehran on 8 January 2020, killing all 176 onboard. This brought international pressure on Iran. American and Iranian-backed forces operate in close proximity at several flashpoints throughout the Middle East in places like Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, where a miscalculation or surprise attack could raise tensions again.
History of U.S. Iran Conflict
The U.S. Iran confrontation dates back to the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, when he had sought to nationalise Iran’s oil industry. 1979 say the Iranian revolution and overthrow of US backed Shah of Iran following months of demonstrations and strikes against his rule by the so called secular and religious opponents. Islamic religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile, and converted the nation into the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US embassy in Tehran was seized by protesters in November 1979 and American hostages are held inside for 444 days, and finally released in January 1981. Years 1985-86 saw the Iran-Contra scandal, when the U.S. had secretly shipped weapons to Iran, allegedly in exchange for Tehran’s help in freeing US hostages held by Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. The profits were illegally channeled to rebels in Nicaragua, creating a political crisis for Reagan. In 1988 the American warship USS Vincennes shot down an Iran Air flight in the Gulf killing all 290 people on board. The U.S. said the Airbus A300 was mistaken for a fighter jet. Most of the victims were Iranian pilgrims on their way to Mecca. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President George Bush denounced Iran as an “axis of evil” at par with Iraq and North Korea. The speech caused outrage in Iran.
In 2002 an Iranian opposition group revealed that Iran was developing nuclear facilities including a uranium enrichment plant. The U.S. immediately accused Iran of a clandestine nuclear weapons program, which Iran denied. A decade of diplomatic activity and intermittent Iranian engagement with the UN’s nuclear watchdog followed. Meanwhile many rounds of sanctions were imposed by the UN, the U.S. and the EU against Iran. In September 2013, a month after Iran’s new moderate president Hassan Rouhani took office, he and US President Barack Obama spoke by phone, and it became the first such top-level conversation in more than 30 years. Then in 2015, after a flurry of diplomatic activity, Iran agreed to the nuclear deal. Under the accord, Iran agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.
In May 2018, US President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal, before reinstating economic sanctions against Iran and threatening to do the same to countries and firms that continue buying its oil. Iran’s economy fell into a deep recession. Relations between the U.S. and Iran worsened in May 2019, when the US tightened the sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports. In response, Iran began a counter-pressure campaign. In May and June 2019, explosions hit six oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and the US accused Iran. On 20 June, Iranian forces shot down a U.S. military drone over the Strait of Hormuz. And finally the Qasem Soleimani assassination.
Iran-Saudi Dominance Dynamics
The Middle East is a complex region with local regional dominance struggle, Shia-Sunni differences, the global re-emergent multi-polar power system, and the desire of U.S. to disengage from the region. The important other players in the region today who sit on its margins are Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Israel. Egypt and Iraq have been sidelined. Arab leadership is left to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who struggle with it. Palestine and Iran, continue to be activist and disruptive. American policy is mostly focused on Iran and the Islamic State. They are also concerned that Russia and Turkey, may be greater challenge over the long term. Saudi and Iranian threat perceptions are heavily influenced by suspicion and hatred of each other since Iranian revolution of 1979 challenged the legitimacy of Saudi regime, and threat of exporting revolution across Middle East. Saudis on the other hand try to undercut Iran, and promote intolerant versions of Wahhabi Islam and anti-Shia sentiments. After U.S. occupation, when Iraq began to disintegrate, Iran started bringing Iraqi people under its own influence. It began arming and financing militias and political parties. When popular uprisings spread across the Arab world in 2011, Saudis approached U.S. to restrain rival Iran. Iranian support enabled President Assad’s resurgence in Syrian civil war. Rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq precluded efforts to remove Assad. Iran has been supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations following an attack on Saudi embassy in Tehran in January 2016 after Saudis executed Shiekh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric. There was little doubt by late September 2019 that Iran’s clergical leadership was truly in command of the dynamics of the transformation of the Persian Gulf region. Tehran was playing a masterful game, delicately balancing between its publicized confrontation with the U.S. in the Persian Gulf and its real quest for a regional power status. The Iran-proxy strike on Saudi oil facilities demonstrated impotence of Saudi Arabia and its supporters. Riyadh wants stability to court foreign investments, in an effort to wean away from oil dependency. There are signs that Saudi Arabia was serious about cooling tensions with Iranian proxies in Yemen. Both countries are major oil and gas exporters and have clashed over energy policy. While Saudis can afford moderate prices due higher oil reserves, Iran wants high prices due to its low standard of living of its larger population, and the recent sanctions.
Iranian Armed Forces
Iranian armed forces comprising of the Army, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps total about 523,000 active personnel. Iran’s military is ranked as the 14th most powerful armed forces in the world by Global Firepower’s 2019 Military Strength Ranking. Iranian military, which was once equipped with relatively modern sophisticated US-made military equipment delivered before the 1979 revolution, has been described as the Middle East’s “most powerful military force” after Israel. Iran is one of the five countries that has a cyber-army capable of conducting cyber-warfare operations. Iran has produced several reverse engineered domestically developed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Iran has the Shahab series of surface-to-surface missiles with ranges from 300 km to up to 2,000 km. Iran is also believed to have started the development of an ICBM/IRBM missile project, known as Ghadr-110 with a range of 3000 km. The Iran Air Force possesses around 350 fighters, mostly of American origin. They have been considering acquiring the Russian Su-30 jets, Chinese J-10 and Sino-Pak JF-17 Thunder.
During much of the Cold War period, the Imperial Iran was closer to the United States, and non-aligned India closer to Soviet Union. Following the 1979 revolution, relations between Iran and India strengthened momentarily. However, Iran’s continued support for Pakistan and India’s close relations with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war kept relations on hold. In the 1990s, India and Iran supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban regime. They continue to collaborate in supporting the broad-based anti-Taliban government led by Ashraf Ghani and backed by the United States. India and Iran signed a defence cooperation agreement in December 2002. Iran is the second largest supplier of crude oil to India. India is one of the largest foreign investor in Iran’s oil and gas industry. India imports crude oil and exports diesel to Iran. About 40% of the refined oil consumed by India is imported from Iran. In 2011, the $12 billion annual oil trade between India and Iran was halted due to economic sanctions on Iran. India quit the India-Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline deal in favour of the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement for energy security. India, despite close relations and convergence of interests with Iran, voted against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005, which took Iran by surprise. Indo-US nuclear deal was conditional to India supporting the U.S. on the Iran issue. Despite increased pressure by the U.S. and Europe, and a significant reduction in oil imports from Iran in 2012, India have clearly stated that they are not willing to stop trade relations altogether.
The two countries share some common geo-strategic interests, but India and Iran differ on some key foreign policy issues. India is opposed to Iran’s nuclear program. Even though both oppose the Taliban, India supports the NATO presence in Afghanistan which Iran opposes. Most Iranians like Indians and India’s culture and policies. Iran has frequently objected to Pakistan’s attempts to draft anti-India resolutions at the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and Human Rights Commission. India welcomed Iran’s inclusion as an observer state in the SAARC. Many Iranian students are enrolled at universities in India. The world’s largest population of Zoroastrians are the Parsi community in India. There are nearly 15 percent Shias among Indian Muslims, and Clerics of Iran look at them sympathetically. On 22 May 2016, Indian PM Modi paid an official visit to Iran focusing on bilateral connectivity and infrastructure, energy partnership, and trade. Yet, in July 2017, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appealed to Muslims worldwide to back the freedom struggle in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Chabahar port is being jointly financed by Iran and India, and it will give India access to the oil and gas resources in Iran and the Central Asian states. Also India hopes to compete with the Chinese, who are building Gwadar Port, in Pakistan. Iran plans to use Chabahar for trans-shipment to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and also act as alternative to its main port at Bandar Abbas which is the major hub mainly for trade with Russia and Europe. India, Iran and Afghanistan have signed an agreement to give Indian goods, heading for Central Asia and Afghanistan, preferential treatment and tariff reductions at Chabahar. The 213 km highway between Zarang and Delaram in Afghanistan, connecting to Chabahar is being built by India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO). India is also aiding Iran to upgrading the Chabahar-Milak road. The Chabahar port project is also Iran’s chance to end its US-sponsored economic isolation and benefit from the resurgent Indian economy. A strategic partnership between India, Iran and Russia is intended to establish a multi-modal transport link connecting Mumbai with St Petersburg, providing Europe and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia access to Asia and vice versa. The objective of the corridor is to increase trade connectivity between Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku, Astrakhan etc. A dry run from Mumbai to Astrakhan via Bandar Abbas have already been done in 2014. The results showed considerable reduction in transport costs. Other routes under consideration include via Armenia, Kazakhastan, and Turkmenistan.
US Actions – Complications of India-Iran Relations
The 19th Session of the India-Iran Joint Commission was held in Tehran on 22 December 2019, co-chaired by External Affairs Minister of the two countries. The countries are going through a low point in their relations. The meeting was barely meaningful mainly because of the tension between Iran and the United States. Meanwhile, India now has closer ties to the West. Major recent joint goal has been the Chabahar port. The strategic port’s development was halted in 2016 as a result of international sanctions against Iran, and recommenced again later as part of a trilateral agreement between Iran, India and Afghanistan, and interrupted again by US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 from the Iranian nuclear deal and unilateral US sanctions. Although US administration exempted Chabahar port from sanctions, the general considerations about collaboration with Iranian institutions prevented companies from getting engaged in the project. India’s rapidly developing economy needs energy security and markets and connectivity for export. Iran’s troubled relations with the developed world can work in the favor of newer Indian companies looking to invest and work in Iranian energy industries. But all of those ambitions are at stake due to the US sanctions against Iran and are putting pressure on India to downgrade its partnership with Iran overall.
Security Implications For India
India considers Iran apart of extended neighborhood. Central Asia and Indian Ocean have serious security interest for India. India-Iran relations unfortunately have had many ups and downs. Iran chose to support its Islamic and allied neighbour Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. India’s succumbing to American pressures during and cutting off its oil imports from Iran, and also repeatedly voting against Iran in the IAEA makes Iran treat India as unreliable, albeit they do understand the international dynamics. Iran’s recent joint naval exercise with China and Russia in the Indian Ocean may be interpreted as a reminder to India. India cannot ignore the much more powerful USA who is a crucial partner in any potential confrontation with China. India is a natural partner for the United States in Asia’s balance of power to contain or manage the rising China. In this dynamics India loses on two geo-strategically important things from Iran – energy security and connectivity Central Asia and Europe.
It is also in India’s interest that USA remains in Afghanistan and does not leave the country in the hands of Pakistan controlled Taliban. This gets further complicated in view of Pakistan’s close relations with China and China’s desire to extend the Belt and Road Initiative towards Iran through Afghanistan. If Pakistan abandons USA in favour of China, USA will all the more need India’s support in the region, including for Afghanistan. Americans have already been encouraging India with providing security support and construction aid in Afghanistan. India’s geopolitical limitations, make it important to remain close to Iran. It shall also be of long term interest of USA that Iran and India remain in close contact to contain China. Iran’s joining China openly could be disastrous for U.S. grand strategy. It should thus continue to tacitly support India-Iran partnership. Best strategy for India will be to continue to engage Iran on both fronts. Simultaneously keep seeking concessions from USA for oil trade and Chabahar port. India could be a more acceptable link between Iran and USA. Any overtures to Iran cannot be at the cost of India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE links to which are even more important currently. In next two decades the emergence of alternative energy sources will reduce the importance of oil. West Asia will still remain an important trade route to Europe and Central Asia. Any strategy will now evolve after the COVID-19 is behind the world. ‘Wait and Watch’ will be the best policy for India.
This Article was written for Defence and Security Alert (DSA) and has since been updated
Picture Credit: globalvillagespace.com