West Asia, or what the United States calls as the Middle East, is volatile in a way it hasn’t been for a long while. It’s difficult to precisely predict or imagine what lies ahead but it won’t be business as usual or diplomacy as usual.
After this week’s face-off between Iran and US, the territory of Iraq has become a place of proxy war between the two nations. It was in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, that the US assassinated a top Iranian military leader Maj Gen. Qaseem Soleimani and Iran retaliated by targeting US forces in Iraq with ballistic missile attacks.
The Iraqi parliament also passed a resolution asking the US to withdraw from Iraq. The US may withdraw some of its forces but will not do so comprehensively. However, the only sliver of hope in this dismal situation is the signal coming from both sides that they would not like to escalate the conflict to a higher stage. The US will not like to leave Iraq for Iran. The US will try to use more sanctions to cripple Iranian economy. Both nations are using aggressive language. The US has declined to issue visa to Iran’s foreign minister Javed Zarif to attend United Nations meeting in the New York. The US as the host of the UN Head Quarters is supposed to allow foreign officials to attend UN meetings.
Interestingly both Iran and the US have submitted letters to the UN, invoking Article 51 of the UN charter, saying their act was in self-defence. The US letter says killing of Soleimani was in response to an ‘escalating series of armed attacks in recent months’ by Iranian backed forces. Iran’s letter justifies attacks on US bases saying it was in self-defence against the killing of Soleimani.
The US will elect a new President this year and Donald Trump is in the race. Many Americans believe, the killing of Soleimani, will to some extent, help Trump’s prospects. In 2011, the US killed the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attack Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’s Abbottabad. Barrack Obama was the President then. In recent history, it is for the first time the US has killed a state official.
Soleimani was considered as the most influential leader after Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During the funeral service of Soleimani, in his home town Kerman, passions ran so high that more than 50 people were killed in a stampede. The sentiment was anti-America.
Nobody was injured in Iran’s strike on the US bases in Irbil and Ain al-Asad in Iraq. On Wednesday, Trump signalled he will not respond militarily to Iran’s retaliation. Already volatile scenario resulted in rise of oil price. If scenario continues for some time then, it will affect most of the countries as prices may touch three figures (in USD) per barrel.
The relations between two countries are problematic for many years. In 1953, US and British intelligence agencies allegedly orchestrated a coup to oust Iran’s democratically elected secular PM Mossadeq. He tried to nationalise Iran’s oil industry. Obama tried and engaged with Iran. In 2015, Iran agreed to a nuclear deal with a group of world leaders known as P5 + 1 – the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany. Under the deal, Iran agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear programme. Donald Trump withdrew US from the deal in May 2018. Now, Iran has announced that it would no longer abide by limits on its nuclear programme stipulated in the deal.
India is a strategic alliance of the US and we have cultural and trading relations with Iran for hundreds of years. India has also developed Chabahar port in Iran. Through Chabahar, India can easily access landlocked Afghanistan and also Central Asian countries. At this juncture, India cannot afford to antagonise either the US or Iran. India needs to play role which it used to play during the time of India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru. As a founding member, India must activate Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and play a pro-active role.