On May 9, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly called the Iran nuclear deal. While the decision itself may not have been surprising, its consequences could be serious for other regional actors, including India.
The JCPOA, meant to stall Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, was finalized in July 2015. The deal was concluded between Iran and the P5 (United States, Russia, France, China, and United Kingdom) plus Germany and the European Union. The deal was controversial in the United States, and Trump had promised to get rid of the deal even during his election campaign. So, his decision itself was not a surprise.
Nevertheless, the United States pulling out does create more than a few uncertainties – for regional security, for nonproliferation, and for American credibility more generally. There could also be potentially serious consequences for third countries such as India.
Typifying its usual balancing act, New Delhi issued a statement following the U.S. pull out, saying, “All parties should engage constructively to address and resolve issues that have arisen with respect to the JCPOA.”
In reality, even though India was not party to the deal, India supported it. New Delhi had watched the growing tensions between Iran and the United States before the deal was reached with some trepidation because a war could have had multiple negative consequences for India, including threats to the very large Indian expatriate population, disruption of oil supplies, and being forced to pick sides between Iran and the United States, to name just a few. Thus, India was quite happy with the nuclear deal because it eliminated the probability of immediate war.
Now, with the future of the deal in doubt and increasing tensions in the region, India has reasons to be concerned and cautious. Some officials have sought to promote calm: Commerce Secretary Rita Teaoti, for instance, stated that the U.S. decision to pull out of JCPOA will have limited impact. She said that the Obama administration’s partial easing of sanctions did not lead to larger trade between India and Iran and that the “trade with Iran has remain at even levels.” Therefore, she argued that the reinstatement of sanctions will not have a significant impact on India-Iran ties. There is an element of truth to this: India’s Iran projects were not exactly progressing with any great speed in any case.
A bigger concern is regarding India’s energy security. Iran is the third largest supplier of oil to India, supplying 18.4 million tons (mt) of crude from April 2017 to January 2018 and 27.2 mt in 2016-17. Iran’s acting ambassador in India, Massoud Rezvanian Rahaghi, attempted to reassure New Delhi, stating that “oil trade with India will not be affected.” But it is quite apparent too that he was attempting desperately to keep India engaged with Iran, arguing that given the strategic importance of the Chabahar port to India, no political issues should come in the way of developing the port.
Rahaghi went on to suggest that the India and Iran must therefore find ways to “immunize” the relationship and keep it “sustainable and durable.” India-Iran relations tend to shift in terms of who holds more of the leverage depending on how troubled Iran is: now, with Iran potentially facing isolation, New Delhi clearly is in a better position.
The second concern is about Chabahar port. Development of the port has been delayed by several years, although it appears to have gained new momentum following Modi’s visit to Tehran in May 2016. According to Nitin Gadkari, the national minister of roadways, the port will be operational by 2018. There is fear that U.S. sanctions could affect this timeline and delay the handing over of the project further.
But New Delhi is likely to make a strong case with Washington for Chabahar by highlighting the connectivity that will be established through the port. The port will create direct links with Afghanistan, which India believes is vital for New Delhi as well as Washington, in addition to becoming the gateway to Russia and Central Asia for India. More critically, if India fails to complete the project, China could step in, which would be a double blow to India.
A broader concern is about the general stability of the region. If the increasing tension in the region should ignite into a full-scale war, India faces a number of challenges. Millions of Indian expatriates live in the Arab states of the Gulf, and they would be in the direct line of fire. And politically, it will become very difficult for India to continue playing the balancing game between Iran on one side and Israel, the Arab states and the United States on the other.
Finally, India will also have to balance its other interests with the developments in the Gulf. Important as Iran might be, there is little comparison between Iran and the United States when it comes to protecting India’s larger national security interests, which heavily concerns China. If India is forced to choose, it is likely to decide that it needs Washington more than Tehran. This would not be unprecedented: India sided with the United States against Iran in critical IAEA votes when New Delhi was negotiating the U.S.-India nuclear deal. If the push comes to shove, India’s choice is likely to be no different.