India is caught between a rock and a hard place in the standoff between Britain and Iran over the seized British tanker, the Stena Impero. The crisis has underscored the point that New Delhi may have burnt all its bridges with Tehran, rendering even more difficult the release of 18 Indian sailors held by the Iranian authorities.
India’s unenviable position was the sub-text as the British High Commissioner Sir Dominic Asquith launched a broadside against Iran during a briefing in Delhi. He termed Iran’s seizure of the tanker as a ‘completely illegitimate act’, rejecting reports of a possible swap of the Stena Impero with the Iranian tanker held by the British Navy in Gibralter.
In his view, “The Grace 1 (the Iranian oil tanker seized by the British) is a problem not because it had Iranian oil, the Iranian oil is not the problem but it was suspected that the oil was to be sold to an EU-sanctioned entity. It was headed for Syria and EU sanctions apply against Syria It sailed of its own volition into Gibraltar waters and the Royal Marines took action along with the Gibraltarian police.”
Expressing surprise that the captain of the Iranian ship had stated – in India media news reports – that he was unaware the ship was in Syrian waters, the British High Commissioner noted London’s clear warning to Tehran that such action would be taken against Iranian vessels violating EU sanctions.
“Do remember that on the Iranian side, the Stena was going through the recognised international channel. You can see this on the tracker; you can see the pictures highlighting the route of our ship when the Iranian Revolutionary Guards took possession of it. These two are completely different incidents – one in concurrence in international law, the other in complete contravention to it,” he said.
The comments by the British High Commissioner would have been duly noted in South Block, which is mulling over how to get back its 18 nationals on board the Stena Impero. The dilemma for Delhi is there appear to be few incentives India can offer Iran at the moment. New Delhi has stopped importing oil from Iran under U.S. pressure, and India’s supposed ‘rethink’ on the Chabahar port has put the India-Iran relationship under considerable strain. A direct consequence is Tehran’s languid indifference to Indian suggestions that the Indian sailors be released at the earliest.
West Asia scholar A.K.Pasha at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that the Iranian action, or lack of it, may be due to Tehran’s growing frustration with New Delhi. “We have followed a zigzag policy regarding Iran and we need to keep our national interests in mind. On the one hand, we supported the gas pipeline project (India-Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline) but when the American pressure became too much we gave up, citing the Iranian raising of price and security problems in Balochistan. These to my mind were all minor issues. Then our non-committal stance on the JCPOA when other nations and organisations like China and the EU stated their commitment to the nuclear deal, has sent the wrong message to Tehran. This will not help us with energy security, the security of our workers in the Gulf, trade investment and maritime security in the long term.”
Pasha warns that India’s policy has other serious implications. “If we identify ourselves too closely with the U.S. and GCC countries we will further push Iran into the lap of Russia, China and eventually Pakistan. In this way, our long term interest in getting Iranian gas and oil is compromised and our link through Iran to Afghanistan and Central Asia is likely to face a big question mark. Already, China is getting emboldened by increasing investment in Chabahar along with Pakistan. Apart from these economic considerations, this has major security implications for India as our attempts to contain and counter BRI will virtually come to nothing.”
But there could be a silver lining. High level talks on Tuesday between security officials of the United Arab Emirates and Iran in Tehran hinted at the possibility of a breakthrough. The UAE has been vociferous critic of Tehran and this was the first meeting between the two sides in seven years. The UAE has pulled out thousands of its troops from Yemen (where it was battling rebel Houthis supported by Iran), and is reported to be wary of any conflict in the Persian Gulf.
An agreement to lower tensions and stop the ‘tanker war’ could bring relief to all sides, even more so for India whose vulnerabilities have been exposed in the standoff in the Straits of Hormuz.