As tensions between Iran and the West continue to escalate in West Asia, India finds itself caught in the crossfire and its energy and strategic interests difficult to secure, the broader question is what must be India’s roadmap for the West Asian region in the escalatory conflict?

In the escalating conflict between Iran and the West, one very important aspect has been overlooked by major observers in the geopolitical arena- the interests and role of India in the tensions between Iran and the West following the withdrawal of the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal and the re-imposition of sanctions. India from the beginning has been very concerned about the escalation of tensions between its regional partner Iran and its biggest trading and strategic partner in the West- the United States ever since Donald Trump took office in 2016.

India’s game plan in West Asia 

Ever since the first Modi government took office in 2014, the Prime Minister gave a personal effort to build rapport with the West Asian countries to secure India’s energy and strategic interests. Since the 1990-91 Gulf War, India has officially adopted a “balancing” approach to West Asia, which some view as a legacy of non-alignment. Although this approach has allowed India to eschew involvement in regional disputes and de-hyphenate relations with regional rivals including Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, the policy has also constrained India’s ability to press its geopolitical interests in the region.

Geopolitically, MBS and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) have over the past few years escalated their battle against political Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Most notably, this materialized in their support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s takeover of power in Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, and in their dispute with Qatar, a key regional backer of the group. Naturally, this brings them closer to Israel, which faces a growing threat from Islamist militant groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iranian-backed forces in Syria.

For now, the Modi government seems to have taken its pick. Having practically abandoned a “balancing” approach, the Modi government has, in effect, placed its bets on Israel and the Gulf monarchies, relegating relations with Iran to the side.

West Asia – India’s most important oil corridor 

West Asia continues to be the most important oil artery for India where the demand for oil is expected to rise to 5 million barrels per day by 2021, the International Atomic Energy Agency has said. 

India’s current oil demand is about a third of China’s and it should hold at least 100 million barrels as security against any disruption to supplies though it is the fastest energy growing market and closest to West Asian suppliers.

India is most definitely a growth hotspot country in the period (through to 2021). We are looking at an extra million barrels to be added by 2021 on the back of strong economic growth,” Neil Atkinson, Head, Oil Industry and Markets Division at IEA, said here yesterday.

Since India imports 85% of its oil and nearly 25% of its natural gas requirements from West Asia, therefore, the oil rich Gulf countries treats India to be an important market and, therefore, team up to develop projects to capture the oil market in India, one of the best evidences is the Ratnagiri oil refinery & petrochemical project which has been estimated to produce 60 million tonnes of oil annually will be constructed at a cost of $ 44 billion; Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer which is known by the Saudi Government has picked a 50% stake in the project with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and a consortium of OMCs of India led by the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) picking up the rest, Although the project has run into rough weather but is looking to be resolved as the Maharashtra government has signaled its willingness to provide land for the mega project.

Oil diplomacy the buzzword between India and Iran

Oil and petroleum has become the buzzword in the West Asian region ever since the Cold war period, just like the term ‘scramble for Africa’ in the 19th century characterized the vigorous attempts of the European countries to colonize the African countries to gain control of the markets, natural resources and territory; the situation bears a close resemblance to a new term ‘scramble for oil’ in the Middle Eastern and West Asian countries as the European countries scramble for oil and petroleum in the Gulf region to maintain the monopoly of the European countries in the highly fragile oil market.

The spike in tensions between Iran and the West over the US withdrawal and the re-imposition of sanctions has ignited a sort of ‘Game of Chicken’ like confrontation in the Gulf, When two powers are heading towards each other in an escalating game for leverage, the situation is often referred to as a Game of Chicken. This is a concept in game theory. The strategic calculus of the Game of Chicken is that each player thinks the other will either slow down or swerve away and, therefore, become the “chicken”. This will not only avoid a crash, but also give the persistent player an advantage over the other. The risk of the game, of course, is that if no player backs off, a crash is certain.

In all the rhetoric and war mongering, India has maintained a steady policy of trying to dialing down the tensions between Iran and the US and also secure its energy interests in the strategic region, due to the US sanctions India has been forced to reduce its oil imports heavily from May 2019 onwards. Iran was India’s second largest oil exporting partner and the country was responsible for 10% of India’s total oil imports.

India’s role of ensuring safety of its merchant vessels

To ensure the safety of its shipping vessels passing through the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the Indian Navy has launched “Operation Sankalp” where Indian warships not only escort  the vessels but also protect and ensure the smooth sailing of the merchant vessels.

Naval aircraft are also conducting surveillance in the area. The Information Fusion Centre for Indian Ocean Region which was launched in Gurugram in December last year is also keeping a close watch on the movement of ships in the Gulf region. The IFC-IOR engages with partner nations to develop comprehensive maritime domain awareness and share information on vessels of interest. The development comes after Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down the US military surveillance drone, claiming that it violated Iranian airspace. The US, however, said that the drone was over international waters when the incident took place.

However, the detention of almost 30 sailors of India by Iran after it captured oil tankers-MT Riah and the British Stena Impero has ratcheted up tensions between Iran and India. The vessel seizure came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the UK.

Iran said it had detained the Stena Impero on 19 July because it collided with a fishing boat, but Stena Bulk has said it has received no evidence of a collision. Raveesh Kumar, the MEA spokesperson has said India has approached Iran for the release of its sailors and the two countries are negotiating, already eight sailors have been given air tickets after prior verification.

Dealing with the conundrum-India’s perspective 

According to Mohammed Muddashir Qamar, an associate fellow from the Institute of Defence Analysis, India has the following options to ensure the de-escalation of tensions:-

One is to resort to buying Iranian oil through one or more informal arrangements including: devising a Rupee payment mechanism to overcome the sanctions; joining hands with the EU, Russia and China through the INSTEX mechanism; teaming up with a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) initiative to defy US sanctions. If India were to undertake such a move, its multifaceted relations with the US will be hampered and the Trump administration is unlikely to look upon such a step kindly. 

The second and more plausible option is to continue negotiating with the US to either secure a formal waiver or to have an informal understanding to buy Iranian oil. The likelihood of the Trump administration granting an exemption is remote given that it understands that there is enough oil in the international market and wants to exert maximum pressure on Iran to change its behavior. In the meanwhile, India can offer Iran to enhance its investments in the Chabahar Port development project as well as consider initiating other developmental and connectivity projects to strengthen linkages to Afghanistan, the Caucasus and Central Asia. This will help India not openly defy the US or subvert its policy towards Iran but also  at the same time ensure that its relationship with Iran is not completely derailed and it is also able to pursue an independent foreign policy. The bottom line is that while India can wait for the easing of US-Iran tensions to resume buying oil from Iran, it is unlikely to undermine its relationship with the US to please Tehran.

Whatever may be the outcome of the tensions between Iran and the West, one thing is very clear that India needs to engage all the sides involved in the conflict and bring them to the negotiating table.

Image credit: The image is in the public domain in the United States (via Wikimedia Commons)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.