After Jerusalem, Trump turns his guns to Iran – What it means for India

“We will work with partners to deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon and neutralize Iranian malign influence,” says US Strategy document


President Trump has proven time and again his unwavering tenacity to implement electoral promises, come what may, as he strongly believes in his instincts and convictions. He walked through two of his Middle East declarations, defeating the ISIS and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

He is now sharpening his guns on Iran.  He has made it very clear on the need to “fix” several issues to correct what he called the flawed nuclear deal, the `Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ (JCPOA), which was signed in July 2015 between Iran and P5+1.   Expanding Iranian influence across the Middle East and supplying of advanced weapons to its proxies that threaten Israel and Saudi Arabia are other aspects driving American policy.

Trump refused to certify Iran’s compliance of the JCPOA following quarterly review on October 12 and asked Congress to pass a legislation to fix issues relating the deal.  The 60-day deadline for Congress passed off this month without action as Democrats and other liberals were unwilling to do anything that leads to violation of the nuclear deal and that does not have support of the European allies.

Come January, the President will again have to decide on Iran’s compliance with the provisions of the JCPOA and further action if he does not want to certify.  Trump had earlier stated that if Congress doesn’t act, he’ll withdraw from the deal.

With Congress failing to go along, will he carry out his threat?

Very unlikely.  For valid reasons.

Trump needs support of allies

Early this month, the US President jolted the confidence of his European allies with his decision to move American embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. He has to cajole them now to back his actions against Iran, as these would not be effective without their support.

Presenting his first `National Security Strategy’ on December 18, Trump declared “We will work with partners to deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon and neutralize Iranian malign influence.”

The report stated, “Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, has taken advantage of instability to expand its influence through partners and proxies, weapon proliferation, and funding. It continues to develop more capable ballistic missiles and intelligence capabilities, and it undertakes malicious cyber activities. These activities have continued unabated since the 2015 nuclear deal.”

His administration has already begun to walk the extra mile to prepare the ground to convince the allies and international community of violations of the JCPOA and associated UN resolutions by Iran.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley fired the first salvo declaring, “It’s hard to find a conflict or a terrorist group in the Middle East that does not have Iran’s fingerprints all over it.”

Referring to the latest UN report on Iran, Haley said on December 14 that it makes a “convincing case” of Tehran violating international law by illegally supplying dangerous weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen.  “In its strongest language yet, the Secretary General’s report shows violation after violation of weapons transfers and ballistic missile activity,” she added.

Addressing a press conference at the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling outside Washington DC, Ambassador Haley unveiled previously classified information on recovered fragments of what she described as Iranian missiles supplied to Houthi militants, which the latter fired from Yemen at a civilian airport and other targets in Saudi Arabia.  She further said that the US rarely declassifies such military evidence but felt it necessary to convince the allies of Iran’s destabilizing actions.

How Trump strategy against Iran looks like?

It is possible to draw some broad contours of his strategy toward Middle East in general and Iran in particular as it all can be reduced to the overriding “America First” policy.

  1. There will be no unilateral withdrawal from JCPOA as such a move does not serve American interests in the face of the refusal by European allies to go along with it.
  2. Instead, there will be a call for a new regime of additional controls and sanctions, under the UN aegis, which in effect will increase American leverage on Iran without deterring the allies. The US is moving in this direction going by its efforts to declassify military evidence on Iran’s violation of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 2231) relating to the nuclear deal. And has already won over the UK.  British Ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, has announced  support to any appropriate action by the Security Council against Iran’s negative role in the region.  Other allies may follow suit if Washington comes up further “compelling” evidence.
  3. Allies in the Middle East are expected to contribute more toward their own defence as Washington will not be making any new military commitments. A clear give away was the US approval in November to sell missile defence systems worth over $ 15 billion to Saudi Arabia to counter Iranian threats.  More such deals are expected in view of increased missile attacks on Riyadh from Houthis in Yemen. Saudis and Americans blame Iran for supplying these weapons to the Houthis in violation of the UN resolutions.
  4. US and Israel may have a tacit understanding with Russia to restrict Iranian presence in Syria in any final settlement. Israeli airstrike in early December on a proposed Iranian military base near Damascus did not evoke any reaction from Moscow like several other Israeli attacks in Syria. According to Wall Street Journal (Dec 13, 2017), Israel has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in Syria, most of them aimed at what it says are convoys ferrying weapons to Hezbollah fighters.

New sanctions on Iran – Implications for India

While the extent of new sanctions on Iran is yet to be decided, India has reasons to be deeply concerned of their impact on its investments in developing Chabahar port and infrastructure around it.  India has earmarked over $ 650 million for the purpose.  Media reports say Indian leadership had discussed the issue with visiting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Trump wants India to play a bigger role in the stability and economic development of Afghanistan.  New Delhi sees Chabahar port as a step in that direction and therefore the port serves American policy on Afghanistan.  The port, along with its road and railway infrastructure, helps India to channel its developmental aid to Afghanistan.  Pakistan refuses to allow India to use its land route to channel such supplies and has similar restrictions on use of Karachi port.

As Indian investments in the Chabahar port are primarily aimed at catering to the stability and development of Afghanistan, the Trump administration should not have serious objections.  And it means a grudging willingness to allow India specific exemptions from any future sanctions regime to operate the port.  South Bloc may have to gear up for some persuasive diplomacy.

This will not only enhance New Delhi’s brand image in Iran and beyond but also serve America’s strategy on Afghanistan.