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K.P.FABIAN | 4 MAY, 2019

Why is India so Keen on Punching Below its Weight vis-a-vis US

India begs US for waivers for oil imports from Iran


Now that the Modi government has done more than four years and we still do not know as yet whether Modi will succeed in his plan to succeed himself as Prime Minister following the 2019 general election, it is time to draw a balance sheet of India’s ‘Modified’ foreign policy with its emphasis on a “56-inch chest”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) heads of state/government for his inauguration, a gesture that was almost universally praised by the media and the academia with none pointing out that it was an attempt to project himself as the 'new emperor' of South Asia. If the intention was, as advertised assiduously, was to improve relations with the neighbours, the current state of disrepair in relations with Pakistan and Nepal shows that Modi has been floundering.

As to do full justice to the theme would require a series of essays, or better still, a book, this article will confine itself to two topics about how India under Modi has dealt with the US.

Dealing with the US is, for most countries, the most important part of foreign policy despite the fashionable talk of our living in a multi-polar world. That we live in a financially unipolar world dominated by the US dollar with US imposing sanctions on other states, either through an obedient UN Security Council, or otherwise, is often ignored.

The first topic for us is US’ sanctions on Iran, and the second is US sanctions on states entering into ‘significant’ defense deals with Russia in the context of the deal with Russia on S-400 anti-missile system.

The three countries--India, Iran, US -- form a geopolitical triangle where contrary to Euclid's theorem one side is longer than the sum of the other two. On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that US was walking out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, technically known as JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Trump gave no valid reason for his decision for the good reason that there is none. He has a visceral urge to undo Obama's legacy and to side with Israel whether what it does is right or wrong.

Let us look at India’s reaction.

Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said, “India has always maintained that the Iranian nuclear issue should be resolved peacefully through dialogue and diplomacy by respecting Iran’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy as also the international community’s strong interest in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”

India noted that “all parties should engage constructively to address and resolve issues that have arisen with respect to the JCPOA.”

This was wishful thinking and there was no hint as to how India would deal with the sanctions in the context of its import of oil, engagement with Chabahar, and associated plans for infrastructural projects for enhanced connectivity with Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia.

On June 27, 2018, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called on Modi and as per media reports urged India “to cut its dependence” on Iran oil. The same reports implied that Modi had agreed. MEA did not share with the media what transpired and did not bother to correct the implication.

Two days later, Minister of Petroleum Dharmendra Pradhan said that there was no problem in stopping import of oil from Iran. India's basket of crude imports has become “multi-country” and India can buy from Latin America, Brunei, and USA.

The same minister said on October 9 that India would continue to buy oil from Iran and that orders for delivery in November have been sent though the US sanctions will take effect on November 4.

Obviously, there was a course correction.

Since the Modi government cannot be faulted for excessive transparency, one has to guess at what might have caused the course correction. A thought experiment might help us to guess intelligently: Imagine MEA’s Policy Planning Division undertaking a study of India's options in this regard on November 8 2016 when Trump was elected; after all, candidate Trump had made no secret of his intention to break the deal.

MEA after consulting with all concerned, including Ministry of Petroleum, would have concluded that the national interest required deft handling of relations with Iran without spoiling relations with US; since it was not just a question of oil only, MEA alone will speak on behalf of Government of India (GOI); India needed to import oil from Iran and make progress with the Chabahar project.

When Trump walked out of the deal on May 8 2018, India should have offered a deal to Iran to continue buying oil against deep discounts and delivery – Cost, Insurance and Freight (CIF); once Iran accepts the deal, India should make it clear that India alone will decide when and how to communicate its decision to import oil from Iran to US. Washington should be told of this with due diplomatic secrecy at a chosen time; India has real clout as a big arms buyer from US, and India can agree with US on how to put it to the world and even if go through the charade of waivers… India gets oil from Iran at a discount and we all buy cheaper petrol at the pump.

Obviously, MEA did not do any policy planning. Hence, the course correction we have seen.

On the S-400 system India showed some imagination. Defence Minister Nirmala Seetaraman said publicly (July 13, 2018) that India was going ahead despite the threat of US sanctions. Obviously, the intention was to sign the $5 billion deal during the visit of President Putin.

US spokespersons repeatedly told India that it might come under CATSAA (Countering Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). But, Delhi did not bother to respond. It is to be noted that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said days before Putin was due in Delhi that it was for India to decide what arms to buy and when.

But it seems that Moscow had some fear that India might cave in to US pressure. To forestall any such eventuality, a senior official in Moscow announced the day before Putin left that the S-400 deal would be signed during the visit. In short, India has dealt with the S-400 more adroitly than with the import of oil from Iran.

However, there is another matter of importance. Reports indicate that India is seeking ‘waivers’ from Washington for oil import and for S-400 purchase. The National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had recently gone to Washington for this purpose. Scholars and the media have unanimously advised New Delhi to seek waivers. None of them asked the obvious question: Why not stop begging for waivers?

Having signed the military-to-military agreements at the 2 plus 2 and wanting to sell more arms to India, Washington cannot afford to impose sanctions on India. Any sanctions on arms purchase will be sanctions punishing General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, and Trump, the most enthusiastic salesman for the military-industrial-Congressional complex, will never do that. Is not diplomacy the art of punching slightly above one’s weight?

Why is India so keen on punching below its weight vis-a-vis US? Where is the 56-inch?

K. P. Fabian is an Indian Diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000, during which time he was posted to Madagascar, Austria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Canada, Finland, Qatar and Italy.
 

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