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Gulf and Af-Pak fast changing: India has to gear up

by Prasad Nallapati

We are witnessing fast moving changes in the Gulf and Af-Pak area. Emerging geo-politics have set in motion headwinds for India, warranting quick and imaginative diplomatic maneuvers to keep itself unaffected.

No one wants another major war in the Gulf. However, what the Trump administration and its allies seem to aim at is a simmering blaze that keeps Iran burning slowly but surely, unless their demands are met. He sent `sugar-coated’ messages to Ayatollahs that he could be their best friend who can make Iran great again, if they agree to re-negotiate the nuclear accord on his terms.

The US has unilaterally withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) demanding Tehran to re-negotiate the agreement so as to permanently cripple its nuclear and missile capabilities. His administration has imposed unprecedented sanctions, even on its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, as part of the policy of “extreme pressure”. Adding insult to injury, they declared that its Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who was the chief negotiator for the JCPOA, to be the next in line to be sanctioned.

As the European signatories of the agreement are not showing any urgency to make good their promises to offer relief from sanctions, hardliners in Iran have opted to hike up the situation to pressure them to act fast. They breached the JCPOA limits of 300 kgs and 3.67 per cent of uranium enrichment with more steps in the offing if the European powers do not act within sixty days. Shipping liners are caught in cross fire with Saudi vessels coming under attack in Emirati ports and Iran trying to seize a British tanker in the Straits of Hormuz in retaliation for the UK seizing an Iranian tanker in the Mediterranean Sea.

Marine General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced efforts to form a military coalition in two weeks to ensure freedom of navigation in the Straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab. It is going to be really a test for American allies to join the coalition as European partners oppose Trump’s actions against the JCPOA and the Gulf powers do not want to be dragged into a war, despite being prime backers of the American punch against Iran. However, they may have little choice but to join the military coalition as Trump had already declared that the US is not going to do others’ bidding.

Efforts by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, French President Emmanuel Macron and emissaries from Qatar/Oman have apparently not gone down well. Macron is making his last-ditch efforts to convince Iran abide by the JCPOA but there are no signs of his having any aces up his sleeve. Britain, another signatory to the JCPOA, has almost declared a war on Iran by seizing its oil tanker.

The Ayatollah regime has never bowed to any pressures and demands in its forty years of rule of the Islamic republic and it is hard to imagine that it will be any different now, despite the hardships. Iran faced a long drawn out war with Iraq, backed by the GCC countries and the US. It faced sanctions for much of the past forty years. Many efforts to change the regime did not succeed. The current moves against Iran are therefore a continuation of the effort that began in 1979 to dismantle the clerical regime that came to power overthrowing pro-American Shah.

With neither the Ayatollah regime nor the Trump administration willing to step back, what we have is a simmering blaze that keeps the region unstable for a long time to come. Shipping is going to be unsafe and expensive, despite US-led coalition maintaining freedom of sea passage, with its own consequences.

Indian strategic interests are perhaps the worst affected by the American policies toward Iran and Afghanistan. New Delhi is in no position to resist the American demand of zeroing its oil imports from Iran, drawing the ire of Tehran. India also had to scale down its efforts to develop the Chahbahar port as there are no takers for using the facilities nor operating logistics as the sword of sanctions hanging above. It is doubtful if India gets an extension of exemption on the port activities. Trump is already pitching for a battle against India over trade issues, and latter’s S-400 missile deal with Russia will only complicate Indo-US relations.

The White House’s eagerness to have a quick deal with the Taliban to pull out of Afghanistan and to embrace Pakistan to facilitate the process have other dimensions that are not yet apparent for casual observers.

Gen. Mark Milley, President Trump’s nominee to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the US needs to maintain strong military-to-military ties with Pakistan based on shared interests of the two countries. Speaking at a confirmation hearing last week at the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said “While we have suspended security assistance and paused major defence dialogues, we need to maintain strong military-to- military ties based on our shared interests.”

He further pointed out that President Trump’s South Asia strategy recognized Pakistan as “a key partner in achieving US interests in South Asia, including developing a political settlement in Afghanistan; defeating Al Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan; providing logistical access for US forces; and enhancing regional stability”.

This is perhaps a clear hint of US plans for a larger role for Pakistan army in regional stability rather than simply facilitating American military withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is obvious that the US is concerned about regional stability in the Gulf and Iran, in particular, and not so much South Asia. The US has earlier used Pakistan army’s assistance for “logistical access” not only to Afghanistan, but also to Iran.

The Pentagon and the CIA were earlier reported to have carried out cross-border operations from Pakistan’s Baluchistan territory to destabilize Iran’s clerical regime. If the US wants to revive them, It serves American objectives very well to keep the Ayatollah regime shaky, in addition to the pain from sanctions.

It may not be a coincidence that the Trump administration declared the Baluchistan Liberation Army as a Terrorist organization earlier this month. This has long been the demand of the Pakistan’s army.

While none of these American geo-political objectives are directed against India, they will have serious implications for Indian interests.

Any peace agreement that is acceptable to Afghans is a welcome move. However, the fact that the duo – China and Pakistan – will be the underwriters of the accord does not portend well. There is a big question mark on the future of Indian investments and protection of its interests both in Afghanistan and Iran. Its geo-strategic plans are in disarray and need course correction.

India’s support base in the US remains strong and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charm offensive still works well with Russia and China. A few trade concessions critical to the US do not do us any harm. Continued military purchases from Moscow and diplomatic silence on the core concern of Beijing, the Dalai Lama, should keep us in good stead. It is inevitable to re-calibrate our expectations from Iran and Afghanistan as a tactical measure and wait for right opportunities.

This article was earlier published in Economic Times on July 15, 2019)

(Prasad Nallapati is the President of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Asia-Africa Policy Research, and former Additional Secretary to the Govt of India)

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