The confrontation brewing between Iran and the US in the Gulf poses a threat to global energy markets at large. And if it should boil over, which of the chief players stands to lose the most? Actually, neither of them. That unenviable role would go to India, which imports up to two thirds of its crude oil from the region.
And yet New Delhi has been conspicuously silent. Although it has dispatched naval vessels and revived contingency plans drawn up during the First Gulf War of 1990-91, there have been almost no diplomatic efforts to mediate. Meanwhile, the tensions between the US and Iran cast an ever-lengthening shadow over the Gulf region’s energy exports. American stealth bombers, marine transport ships, a carrier strike group and additional surface-to-air missile batteries are roaming the region, while Iran has threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz. So far, six oil tankers and Saudi oil pipelines have been targeted in mine and drone attacks. Iran’s recent breach of caps on uranium enrichment, which were agreed under the 2015 nuclear deal, also risks raising tensions even further.
India’s economic growth and energy supplies are acutely dependent on stability in the Gulf. In 2018, India imported 84 percent of its total stock of crude oil, almost two thirds of it from the region. US sanctions have cut off oil flows from two of India’s largest suppliers, Iran and Venezuela. Although Saudi oil giant Aramco has reportedly offered to increase oil sales to India by up to 200,000 barrels per day, that is still far short of the 479,000 barrels a day that would normally have come from Iran. Emergency reserves are another problem: India has less than 10 days’ worth to cover its needs.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to address this deficiency. He has dispatched two navy ships, the Chennai and the Sunayna, in June to reassure Indian vessels traversing the Gulf. And India has dusted off contingency plans devised almost 30 years ago that enabled India to carry out the largest evacuation in history, airlifting 170,000 Indian nationals who had managed to escape from Kuwait to Amman overland, a feat wonderfully captured in the 2016 film, “Airlift.”
India, therefore, has a direct strategic interest in deploying its diplomatic resources to defuse the tensions, and thanks to its cordial relations with the US, Iran and the Arab Gulf states, it is in a favorable position to do so. The newly appointed foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, appears to have the ideal credentials to navigate the complexities; he understands both the US – where he served as India’s ambassador from 2013-15 – and nuclear diplomacy, the subject of his doctorate degree.
So why, in spite of overwhelming self-interest and even necessity, has Indian diplomacy been so completely absent?
There are several reasons. At the regional level, Indian policymakers recognize the Gulf’s entrenched security dilemma, where deep mistrust produces cycles of escalation that are often difficult to interrupt. That mistrust, no doubt exacerbated by America’s unpredictable behavior and Iran’s reliably subversive activities, undermines any would-be mediator’s chance of success. This was amply demonstrated by the attack on a Japanese-operated oil tanker in June, which took place right after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrapped up a two-day mediation effort in Tehran.
Navigating the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is a delicate balancing act for India, and despite Prime Minister Modi’s dynamism and emphasis on relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the past five years, India’s position remains too circumspect for it to single-handedly wade into the diplomatic minefield of US-Iran relations. The attack on Japanese interests following Prime Minister Abe’s mediation attempt is likely to further dissuade New Delhi from taking on such a role in the Gulf.
Quite aside from the somber reality of events in the Gulf, India’s relations with the US have dipped to a low point. As part of President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign on Tehran, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on April 22 that the US would end waivers on oil imports from Iran, tightening the noose on India’s energy imports. On May 31, President Trump also revoked India’s preferential trade status under the General System of Preferences, in effect raising duties on Indian exports to the US. In June, India retaliated by imposing additional tariffs on US exports, only days ahead of the G20 summit in Japan. With this current uneasy dynamic in US-India relations, the prospect of India taking a prominent diplomatic role in the Gulf becomes fraught with complications.
Finally, the Indian foreign service remains notoriously under-resourced, both by comparison with India’s international peers and relative to its global ambitions, which include aspiring to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. According to a 2016 parliamentary report, India’s diplomatic corps is smaller than those of the UK, France or Japan. An undernourished bureaucracy is just one more pressing challenge that India’s new foreign minister must deal with before venturing into Gulf affairs.
On the face of it, India has every reason to throw its diplomatic weight behind resolving the US-Iran problem; after all, the country’s energy security and, by extension, its economic growth depend on stability in the Gulf. But when failure is very much an option – as history shows – reverting to the traditional position of lying low seems like the wisest course.
Hasan Alhasan is a researcher at the India Institute at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the office of the first deputy prime minister of Bahrain.