Bridging the Gulf Between India and Iran amidst the post-Soleimani Conundrum
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Bridging the Gulf Between India and Iran amidst the post-Soleimani Conundrum

By Poornima Balasubramanian

Cover Image Attribute: A file photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the former's official visit to Tehran on February 12, 2018. / Source: Hamid Amlashi, ISNA.

Cover Image Attribute: A file photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the former's official visit to Tehran on February 12, 2018. / Source: Hamid Amlashi, ISNA.

New Year 2020 delivered a shock to Iran with the assassination of its second most powerful leader, General Qassem Soleimani by the United States’ forces, further escalating the stake of the already tensed US- Iran relations. The incident has had a severe impact beyond the region and has been a cause of renewed concern for the neighboring countries and the states that have interests in the region, including India. The spillover effect of the incident has a direct bearing on India’s energy requirements and the security of about 10 million Indians residing in the Persian Gulf. The Indian Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar has expressed India’s solicitude for the state of affairs in the region following the death of the General, especially after Iran’s declaration to retaliate. India has been a staunch advocate of peace and stability in the region as it shares profound connections with the Middle Eastern countries.   

India’s relations with the Arab states of Saudi Arabia and UAE as well as with Israel is progressing healthily along with its relationship with Iran. India’s non-involvement in the politics of the region has earned its friendships across the regional political rivalries. Iran has recurrently been dubbed as one of the most reliable oil exporters to India. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javed Zarif, reiterated this point yet again during his recent visit to India during the Raisina Dialogue. The once strong oil trade between the countries plummeted after the United States’ sanctions regimes disincentivized countries to purchase oil from Iran. The trade volume between India and Iran with respect to other products is expected to be affected after the recent turn of events, apart from the already existing caveat on petroleum trade, owing to the dwindling rupee-rial account. 

Apart from the bilateral trade, Iran seems to be holding an important position in implementing India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan. India has been working to establish its communication link to Afghanistan through the road connecting Zaranj (near the Iran- Afghanistan border) and Delaram in Afghanistan, the link to India established through the Chabahar port. This port is geopolitically significant for India due to its strategic location near the Pakistan-China port of Gwadar in Baluchistan province. Given the opportunities Iran offers to India, would the India-Iran bonhomie survive the platter of obstacles it has been facing in recent times?

In the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, when Iran and the United States have locked horns with each other, can India afford to take sides or rather exercise its strategic autonomy and balance its equations with the two rival states? The India- US relations have been founded on several common interests and has seen dramatic developments that are welcomed by both the democracies for the last two decades. The United States has identified India’s importance in its aspirations in the Indo-Pacific, much particularly, to tackle the Chinese rise. For India, its relations with the United States has deemed it to walk tight-ropes to simultaneously manage its relations with the United States’ adversaries, namely Russia and Iran. Yet, India has reduced its dependence on Iranian oil in lieu of bearing the sanctions imposed by the United States under its famous Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The construction of the Chabahar port has nevertheless, been uninterrupted.

Oil trade has been a major pillar in India-Iran relations so far, but the plight of plummeting oil trade has been a worrying factor as it can push Iran to consider taking better control of the Chabahar port that might not necessarily be in India’s interests. The situation had already become precarious with Chinese enterprises winning contracts to sell equipment for the Port’s development, in a way working counter-productive to India’s concerns of not having Chinese footprints in the project. Iran had even expressed its readiness to link Gwadar with Chabahar, inviting China and Pakistan. Beijing has made several investments in Iran, makings its presence widely felt in the region. In a first, Iran, China and Russia collaborated for a trilateral naval exercise in the Indian Ocean, strategically signaling to the US, the forging of new military cooperation. China seems to be all set to take the posture of yet another extra-regional player that holds the power to influence the political outcomes to further perturb the geopolitics of the Middle East.

At this critical juncture that has stirred the Middle East, there seems to be a call for India to play a constructive role, as a conflict diffuser, to secure its relations with Iran as well as keep Chinese interference in its interests in check. China will continue to extend its tentacles to the countries in the Middle East, to reap the fruits of its economic penetration in the geo-economically vibrant region. India has always taken pride in placing strategic autonomy as a pivot in its approach to its foreign policy. India has to push through the brewing tensity in the Middle East and between Iran and the United States to ensure that it does not discount its security and interest in the region. Its growing economy is largely reliant on imported energy resources and a well-balanced diversification of imports can be achieved only if India continues to welcome Iran as a supplier.

Looking beyond the narratives on civilizational links, both countries could share a symbiotic relationship if it is not hinged on a third party like the United States. The astute usage of diplomatic maneuvering should be India’s negotiation tool to de-hyphenate its foreign policy towards Iran and the United States that is merely based on the strategic calculations that entertain its national interest.

About the Author:

Poornima Balasubramanian (ORCID ID: 0000-0001-6051-5813) is a postgraduate research scholar of the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India. Research interests include Indian Foreign Policy and Indian National Security, Geopolitics of West Asia (Middle East), especially Israel.

Cite this Article:

Balasubramanian, P., "Bridging the Gulf Between India and Iran amidst the post-Soleimani Conundrum ", IndraStra Global Vol. 06, Issue 02 (2020), 0001,, ISSN 2381-3652

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.