Iran-US conflict: Worst is over, but core issues remain unresolved

Delhi Jan 22, 2020, 06.15 PM(IST) Written By: Achal Malhotra

File photo. Photograph:( AFP )

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The situation poses a challenge for the foreign policy of India which on the one hand has a strategic partnership with the US and long civilisational links with Iran on the other hand.

The assassination of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani by the US and Iran’s retaliation by missile attacks on the US bases in Iraq early January brought the US and Iran on the brink of war. The subsequent decisions of the two countries to show restraint and step back has helped de-escalation, and thereby, defused the situation for the time being. The core issues which form the cause of the US-Iran conflict, however, remain on the table and are far from resolved.  

From the US and Europe’s perspective, Iran must give up its plans to develop nuclear weapons and also its interference through proxy wars in Iraq, Yemen, Syria etc. Iran on its part is determined to drive the USA out of the region. 

As far as the nuclear issue is concerned, Iran, it may be recalled, had it agreed to put a cap on its nuclear ambitions by signing the Iran Nuclear deal, officially described as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 with US, Russia, China, France, UK, Germany and EU. President Donald Trump’s decision to walk out of the deal (May 2018) and re-impose severe and crippling sanctions on Iran did not meet the approval of the other countries which are party to the deal, and they remained interested in salvaging the deal somehow. In the wake of the recent crisis triggered by the USA, The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran was reported to have declared that from now on, “Iran’s nuclear program no longer faces any operating restrictions,” but also added that “If the sanctions are lifted and Iran benefits from its interests, the Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to return to its obligations”. The announcement came after Tehran’s alleged gradual escalation of its nuclear programme in recent months. 

France, UK and Germany –three European countries which are also party to the deal- have decided not to respond to the US call for walking out of the deal but have instead invoked the dispute settlement mechanism of the JCPOA to put pressure on Iran and save the deal. While Russia says “we see no reason for this action”, Iran has warned that any misuse of the mechanism would be met with a “serious and strong response”. 

It remains to be seen how the situation pans out in the near future. Will the Europeans be able to persuade Iran to return to full compliance of the obligations under the nuclear deal? How will they be able to do so without minimising the impact of the US sanctions? Or will Iran adopt a hard line and stop cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency( IAEA) which is entrusted with the task of monitoring the implementation of the (JCPOA), and even go to the extent of walking out of the deal as well as NPT? Needless to add that any hard-line approach by Iran would have implications not only for Iran’s economy but also the global economy including India.  

India has multiple interests in the region which can be hit severely in the event of instability. For instance, India sources significant quantities of oil and gas from the Middle East and armed conflict in the region is bound to adversely impact on oil prices as well supplies due to disruptions in the supply routes; this, in turn, would impact on Indian economy which has registered drop in growth in the recent past. Further, India has invested considerably in the development of Chabahar Port in Iran and any impact on its operations would disrupt India’s connectivity with Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond, bypassing Pakistan. India may also have to incur significant expenditure on the evacuation of Indians living and working in the Middle East – a region which is a source of substantial revenue from palpable inward remittances into India. 

The situation poses a challenge for the foreign policy of India which on the one hand has a strategic partnership with the US and long civilisational links with Iran on the other hand. Iran is also a source of predictable and affordable energy supplies. 

Though the Indian side gave no details, the possibility of PM Narendra Modi having discussed the issue during his tele-conversation with President Trump cannot be ruled out as a White House statement said the two leaders also reviewed the “regional security matters”. The External Affairs Minister in his Tweet was more forthcoming to share that he had “highlighted India’s stakes and concerns" during his telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Mike  Pompeo. 

The Indian leadership also reiterated India’s “Strong interest in peace, security and stability in the region” during the Iranian Foreign Minister’s meetings in New Delhi with External Affairs Minister and Prime Minister, besides having earlier urged all concerned parties-to-the-conflict to exercise restraint.   

Neither of the two core issues is likely to be resolved in the foreseeable future, and therefore, a simmering conflict would continue to prevail, threatening the peace and stability in the region with worldwide implications. 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)