Trump pulls out of Iran deal: Why US president has terribly let India down
When Narendra Modi took over from Manmohan Singh India's quest for having a better relationship with the United States, a country with which it did not traditionally share positive ties, the pundits praised his government's foreign policy. Modi, who was once denied access to the US because of his alleged role in the Gujarat riots of 2002, made as many as five visits across the Atlantic between September 2014 and June 2017.
He made a rockstar-like appearance at Madison Square in New York during one of those visits while addressed the US Congress amid cheering lawmakers during another. He also invited former US president Barack Obama as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in 2015, an unprecedented event which was seen a diplomatic masterstroke by Modi to reverse India's foreign policy orientation.
It was said that to meet the demands of time, it was natural for India and the US - two among the the world's biggest democracies and economies - to forge a relationship which remained eclipsed by the Cold War politics.
The two countries were perfectly complementary to each other in the post-9/11 world where they needed to back each other in the fight against terrorism; to boost joint economic growth and also work to uphold democracy, it was believed. Even though the US's ploy of seeing India as a balancer against China and a trusted ally in the fight against terrorism was considered by many as means towards a self-serving foreign policy, but yet its new-found friendship with the US accorded India a magnified role in world affairs and the Indians weren't complaining about it. Afterall, who doesn't like to stay close with the most powerful?
Trump's arrival blew away the Modi-Obama bonhomie
But after the advent of Donald Trump as the US president, things started to look uncomfortable for India. The routine exchange of pleasantries happened but for those who expected that the equation between Trump and Modi would just be a natural continuation of Obama and Modi, it was not exactly an occasion to be ecstatic.
Trump's first meeting with Modi took place at the White House in June 2017, five months after the president took over. And although there were bear hugs, the substance of the new found bonhomie seemed to be on the wane especially after the new White House administration started asserting the "America First" policy in matters of immigration and visa. Being a country which has massive links with the US at the private and people-to-people level, the Trump administration's inward-looking stance was not something that India could feel hopeful about.
US has seen India as someone it can use to serve its own interests
Trump has treated India more like a friend who it can use to counter countries like Pakistan (in Afghanistan) and China (in the Asia-Pacific which Trump renamed as Indo-Pacific to make a probable ground for the revival of the quadrilateral alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India to counter the Chinese).
But when it comes to safeguarding US's own interests at home, Trump has not hesitated to alienate India. He has neither come to India's aid when the latter found it pitted against China in matters related to politics and economics.
Experts are divided over how the US should have responded when India locked horns with China over a serious standoff in Doklam but the fact that the US openly invited India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan to suit its interests but showing restraint when New Delhi had a serious confrontation with China speaks about certain duplicity.
The US's open trade war with foes like China as well as allies also cements the belief that it is not very wise to bank on the Trump administration to gain any advantage - strategic or political.
It is not without a reason thus to see India and China trying to bridge their traditional divides because both have started realising that Trump's protectionism is something that could hurt them both and hence bettering their own relationships count in these times. Afterall, they both belong to the BRICS group which looks to bring into play an alternative world arrangement not dominated by the West.
In these backgrounds, Trump administration's decision to pull out of the nuclear deal on Iran puts India under all the more stress. It is something that potentially harms India's and more particularly Modi's limited foreign policy success so far and also creates more challenges on New Delhi's way for future foreign engagements.
US's pulling out of Iran deal a blow for India
A peace initiative helps all parties - directly or indirectly related to a problem - and India likewise gained when the former Barack Obama administration made the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran deal a reality. As the West's sanctions were lifted from the country and it found a way to reconcile with the outer world under a moderate leadership, India also breathed easy since Iran is one of its key partners - economically and strategically. India depends on Iran's oil and also requires its geostrategic backing to corner Pakistan and gain access to Afghanistan and Central Asia where it is gradually turning ambitious and was also formally admitted in the Eurasia-focusing Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in June last year.
India's Chabahar diplomacy could be undermined
India made efforts under Modi to develop the Chabahar Port in Iran to not just facilitate its link with Afghanistan and Iran bypassing Pakistan but also encircle Pakistan and compete with the Chinese-backed Gwadar Port in Pakistan. Modi himself made a trip to Afghanistan and Iran in mid-2016 to stress these foreign policy priorities of New Delhi. India has also committed over $500 million for the development of the port which was made operational in 2017.
Now, with Trump's decision which would see new sanctions getting imposed on Iran and Tehran becoming isolated again, India's plan to use its friendship with Iran to counter China-Pakistan game plans in South Asia faces a blockade.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a visit to India in February when the two sides concluded a number of agreements, including one that would lease a part of the Chabahar Port to an Indian company. Now, even those plans could stand jeopardised as Iran has its own battle to fight.
India's challenge of remaining neutral
Another challenge for India will now be to stick to a stance of neutrality. India has done well in developing ties with both Iran and its serious foes like the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia but under the drastically changed circumstances now, New Delhi would face a big challenge to maintain the balance.
On one hand, the US's pulling out of the deal could see Iran leaning more towards the Russia-China-Pakistan club which would undermine India's foreign policy plans. Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif expressed interest over Islamabad joining the development of Chabahar and a possible linking of Chabahar with Gwadar during his visit to Pakistan in March. This doesn't sound great for India.
India could be perceived as anti-US
On the other hand, Chinese officials have expressed a desire to induct Iran in the SCO of which India, along with Pakistan, are set to become formal members next month. This also poses a risk to India's foreign policy initiatives since the SCO is dominated by countries not known to be friends with the US and India's formal inclusion in the group could be perceived negatively by Donald Trump's hawkish administration. India's association with the quadrilateral club in the Asia-Pacific to counter China could also be affected by this.
Overall, India's foreign policy has faced challenges in the Trump era when despite not being at odds per se, New Delhi has found in Washington an uncomfortable ally who has not cared about others' convenience while pursuing its own interests.