Amidst the tension in the Persian Gulf region following the killing of Iranian Al-Quds Force Commander Major General Qasem Soleimani last Friday by the US; External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar called his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javid Zarif and noted that “developments have taken a very serious turn.” Dr. Jaishankar expressed India’s grave concerns over “levels of tension,” and both sides “agreed to remain in touch.” The Indian External Affairs Minister was in Tehran a couple of weeks ago for the 19th Joint Commission meeting and met with senior Iranian officials, including President Hasan Rouhani and Mr. Zarif. Indeed, Mr. Zarif is expected to be in India for the ‘Raisina Dialogue’, which is slated to begin on 14th of this month.
The phone call came against the backdrop of the war of words between President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders following the killing of Soleimani, the most influential figure in the region who handled Tehran’s engagements with Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Indeed, General Soleimani was often seen as the most important person after Supreme Iranian Leader, Ali Khamenei.
Iranian leaders were quick to vow that “a harsh retaliation is waiting” for the US. Echoing the popular sentiments of anger, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander was quoted as saying that “vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran since long time ago … some 35 US targets in the region, as well as Tel Aviv, are within our reach.”
This provoked President Trump to declare that the US had identified 52 Iranian sites (the number of American diplomats taken hostage by Iranian students in 1979), including “very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” and warned they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND HARD” if Tehran attacks any American target or interests. He also warned that the US would hit Iran “harder than they have ever been hit before!” Not to be left behind, Iranians reminded the world that their civilisation survived many invasions, onslaughts, and aggression.
If Soleimani was the prized catch for the Trump Administration, his assassination was also the most severe challenge facing the Iranian Supreme Leader since he assumed office in 1989. Both to defy the US and to reassure its proxies in the region, Tehran will have to respond. Such a response is most likely after Soleimani was buried in his hometown Kerman, about a thousand kilometres south of Tehran, on Tuesday.
Like much of the international community, India recognises the gravity of the situation, and in a statement issued shortly after the killing, New Delhi reminded the importance of ‘peace, stability and security’ in the Persian Gulf and hoped that the ‘situation does not escalate further’ and urged ‘restraint.’ After talking to Dr. Zarif, the Indian External Affairs Minister also phoned US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Foreign Ministers of UAE and Oman.
The million-dollar question is where and what would be the Iranian response? This is puzzling the strategic community. A direct attack on the US interests in the region or on the American mainland would be costly for Iran as that would invoke massive American response. Hence, Iran might focus on the American allies in the Middle East, such as Israel, Iraq, or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
India has close ties with all these countries. If Iranian inaction is impossible to imagine, any Iranian response will inflame the Persian Gulf region, which is vital for India.
New Delhi has vital interests in Iran—energy security, the Chabahar port, and transit route to Central Asia. At the same time, India is conveying a subtle message to the Iranian leadership that at this critical moment, Tehran is not alone and has India’s ears and understanding. The appreciation of its dilemma by countries like India should enable Iran to make a more realistic evaluation of its responses to the killing of Soleimani and their cost. Seen in the broader context of international support for Iran, India’s reaching-out could enable Iran to prioritise its actions.
Script: Prof. P R Kumaraswamy, Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU