15:45 GMT15 January 2021
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    While India views Iran as an important partner in its vision for the Indo-Pacific region in the coming years, American sanctions on Tehran have forced New Delhi to draw down its ties with the Iranian government. This has affected India's Indo-Pacific strategy, which diverges from that of the US in some respects.

    Despite growing proximity between India and the US under President Donald Trump, former Indian diplomats have told Sputnik that the "anxiety" about secondary sanctions on Indian companies involved in Iran have a bearing on India's Indo-Pacific approach.

    Yogendra Kumar, who has served as India's ambassador to the Philippines and authored two books on New Delhi's maritime strategy, stresses the role of Iran in New Delhi's Indo-Pacific vision, against the backdrop of unilateral US sanctions on Tehran imposed after US President Donald Trump walked out of the JCPOA, or the Iran Nuclear Deal, in 2018.

    "India's Indo-Pacific vision rests on providing a network of connectivity for a more economically viable and inclusive region", says Kumar.

    "Chabahar provides a critical access route to Afghanistan – and to Central Asia – due to Pakistan denying overland access to Afghanistan in violation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) charter", further states the ex-diplomat.

    India has been eyeing the resource-rich central Asia to fulfil its energy requirements and as a potential market for its exports. 

    The strategically-located Chabahar Port in Iran has often been described as a crucial part of India's Indo-Pacific vision. New Delhi has been invested in the development of Chabahar since 2003, also viewing the strategically-located Gulf of Oman port as a counter-weight to the Chinese presence in the nearby Gwadar Port in Pakistan.

    Kumar argues that even though India managed to get an exemption from direct US sanctions over its involvement in Chabahar, the risk of secondary sanctions is still present.

    "The Trump administration's sanctions against Iran do not cover India's involvement in Chabahar for access to Afghanistan but the anxiety about secondary sanctions against Indian and foreign firms for execution of connectivity projects remains a major obstacle", reckons the ex-diplomat.

    Pressure from the Trump administration to cut down on ties with Iran has weighed on New Delhi-Tehran ties.

    Not only has New Delhi complied with the US' request to scale down its crude imports from Iran to zero, it has reportedly also been forced to halt funding for a proposed rail line between Chabahar and Zahedan, close to the Afghanistan border.

    Kumar, however, argues that there is "some lack of clarity" about the terms of completion of the Chabahar-Zahedan railway line project, pointing to an official statement by India which denied media reports about New Delhi being dropped from the connectivity project.

    Divergences in India and US' Indo-Pacific Strategy

    Anil Trigunayat, who has served as India's envoy in West Asian countries such as Jordan and Oman, points out that there are "divergences" between American's Indo-Pacific Strategy and New Delhi's vision for the region.

    "The US' strategy towards Indo-Pacific serves its own geopolitical interests, mostly centred in East and Southeast Asia. India, on the other hand, wants its partners from Asia (including Iran) and Africa to be part of our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific", states Trigunayat.

    The former envoy also feels that New Delhi's Indo-Pacific vision is more focussed on enhancing connectivity in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions, compared to the more "militaristic" US approach. "We just want to secure and expand our trade and traditional interests through our Indo-Pacific vision. The US, on the other hand, wants to mainly preserve its military hegemony in Asia", he explains.

    Trigunayat recalls Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2018, which marked the first time when New Delhi's political leadership spelled out its Indo-Pacific vision.

    "India's Indo-Pacific vision is not a strategy aimed at any other country, and that includes China. We have been wary of formalising the Quad military alliance. The tempo on [the] Quad has only picked up because of the territorial threat we have been facing from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) since May", contends Trigunayat.

    He expressed confidence that the perception of a hawkish Indian role within the Indo-Pacific region will subside if the ongoing border standoff between New Delhi and Beijing is sorted out through dialogue.

    Trigunayat also underlines that even as the official US document on its so-called Indo-Pacific strategy clearly identified China as a "threat", New Delhi has been wary of name-calling.

    He also referred to remarks made by India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar last month, in which the top Indian diplomat stated that New Delhi's Indo-Pacific vision was a "rejection" of spheres of influence.


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