Is India a mediator?

India, which has close ties with the US and Iran, is the right nation to discuss ongoing conflicts and options to defuse them.

Harsha Kakkar

Harsha Kakkar

The Statesman


File photo provided by The Statesman.

January 19, 2024

NEW DELHI – Indian foreign minister Dr S Jaishankar visited Tehran on Monday and met his counterpart, Hossein Amirabdollahian. He also called on the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi. The visit emerged after a conversation between Jaishankar and the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. After the discussion with Blinken, Jaishankar tweeted, “A good discussion this evening with my friend US Secretary Blinken. Our conversation focused on maritime security challenges, especially the Red Sea region.

Appreciated his insights on ongoing situation in West Asia, including Gaza.” Iran has backed Hamas in Gaza which is battling Israel, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has threatened to join the conflict, especially after Israel targeted a few of their leaders in Lebanon. The entry of Hezbollah into the conflict can draw in other entities and expand the war. Iran also supports the Houthis based in Yemen and has provided them with drones and missiles, enabling them to target shipping in the Red Sea. The Red Sea is among the most important waterways for global shipping. One-third of the world’s container traffic flows through this region, including 40 per cent of Asia-Europe trade. For China’s Belt and Road Initiative, it is a critical link.

However, it will not impact the India Middle East Europe Economic Corridor. Houthi attacks have resulted in vessels avoiding the Red Sea and taking the longer route around the horn of Africa, enhancing oil prices. It has also impacted insurance premiums of ships. The US leads a naval task force of a number of countries, named ‘Prosperity Garden’ to counter the Houthi threat. However, regional players are not members of the same, reducing its global acceptance. Last week, the US and UK retaliated to the drone and missile strikes by targeting Houthi locations in Yemen resulting in a few casualties. The Houthis have threatened to retaliate.

Their spokesperson stated, ‘By committing an aggression, Washington has opened a Pandora’s box that it will never close.’ The Houthis are no longer at war with Saudi Arabia and hence free to challenge the US. The US intent behind the strikes is to reignite the Yemen civil war, compelling the Houthis to concentrate inwards. While the strikes may partially deter the Houthis, the reality is that the war is proving costly for the West. The US is compelled to use high-end missiles to destroy fairly cheap explosive drones being launched by the Houthis. One successful strike on a US warship could prove disastrous for President Joe Biden in an election year.

A strong retaliation to such a strike could enlarge a conflict the US is desperate to keep localized. Aware that US and UK actions can expand the conflict, a number of nations have criticised them, including Russia, Oman (which had earlier negotiated between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia), China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Kuwait remains neutral while European allies and Bahrain back the strikes. With the US and UK involved, the UNSC is unlikely to be effective. Iran holds the key in curtailing the growing conflict in West Asia. Its support to groups challenging the West and Israel makes it a key player in the region. It is a close ally of Russia and China who would desire that the US gets bogged down in containing the war while ensuring Israel has the wherewithal to continue fighting. This will reduce US involvement in the Russo-Ukraine conflict and the Indo-Pacific, benefitting Russia and China respectively.

The Israeli economy is showing a decline as its reservists continue serving in the Gaza conflict. Unless the war ends soon and Israel is able to reduce its troop deployment, deterioration of the economy would continue. US-Iran relations remain cold. US sanctions on Iran, since Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the nuclear arms deal, with Iran in February 2018 continue. In January 2020, Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, a revered figure in the country, was killed in a missile strike near Baghdad’s international airport, for which Tehran swore revenge.

In end December 2023, senior Iranian officers were killed in missile and air strikes by Israel in Syria, with US approval. Iran has also accused the US and Israel of being behind the recent blasts which killed nearly a hundred civilians. Thus, for Iran to expand the conflict and draw in the US is logical. India has historically maintained close ties with Iran. It is building the Chabahar port and Tehran is a key element to the North-South corridor currently under development. In February 2018, the then Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, visited India. Last year, PM Modi met the Iranian President on the sidelines of the BRICS summit.

Thus, India which has close ties with the US and Iran, is the right nation to discuss ongoing conflicts and options to defuse them. Further MV Chem Pluto, a merchant vessel affiliated to Israel, moving towards the Indian port of Veraval was hit by a drone in the Arabian Sea. It was a chemical products tanker. It was rescued and there were no casualties. It is possible that the drone was launched from Iran. India would have obtained technical confirmation from remnants of the strike.

Placing suspicions in the public domain would only add to tensions. Maturity in diplomacy implies discussing the subject with the country directly. This could also be an agenda item in the visit of Jaishankar. It is unlikely that India would convey any threats from the US as it would be unwilling to mar its relationship with Tehran. The visit would be aimed at seeking a possible solution to ongoing conflicts, discussions on a two-nation concept for Palestine and containing the Houthis as also other issues concerning IndoIran relations.

In today’s world, India is an emerging geopolitical power. It is acceptable to opposing camps. It has refused to take sides in any conflict, adhering to its principles. This provides it with the benefit of negotiating and obtaining a possible solution to the ongoing crisis, especially when both camps are unwilling to talk. If India does obtain a possible middle path, it would work to its benefit. Jaishankar, a seasoned diplomat, is ideal for such tasks. While details of the discussion may not emerge in the public domain, the results would be visible shortly.

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