It is some relief for those fearing further escalation of the US confrontation with Iran and its possible drift into a major war that both sides have backed off after being on the brink. The de-escalation can, however, hardly be deemed to be permanent given the propensity of both sides to indulge in brinkmanship. In a White House address on Wednesday, US President Donald Trump said Iran "appears to be standing down" after it fired more than a dozen missiles at two Iraqi bases housing US troops in retaliation for the US assassination of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani. Contrary to Iranian claims that 80 Americans were killed in the raids, Trump denied any loss of lives and the US claim has gone unchallenged. There can be no disputing the fact, however, that there is widespread anger in West Asia over American highhandedness.
The trigger for the strained ties was Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord and imposition of crushing sanctions on Iran’s economy in May 2018 which have hit the Iranian economy hard. Trump has been a hawk from the word ‘go’ and he seems to feel that his tough stand has gone down well with Americans at large as the countdown begins for the presidential elections for his second term in office. Trump’s election managers can now boast about how he, daring to take a step discounted by his predecessors as too inflammatory, killed Soleimani, whom he blasted as a terrorist "monster.” The significance of Soleimani and his acceptability stemmed from the manner in which he had carved out a sphere of Iranian influence running through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, challenging regional rival Saudi Arabia as well as the United States and Israel. His strategic moves will long be remembered in the region. Yet, Iranians are fed up of the economic hardship they have been facing due to economic sanctions and are hoping that de-escalation stays.
Being heavily dependent on Iran for oil, the implications for India of any long term disruption of supplies are huge. Consequently, while India keeps its ongoing contact with the US, it is also not cold-shouldering Iran. A fine balancing act is on the cards because it is not just oil but the joint development of the Chabahar port in Iran which India is keen to maintain in its plan to neutralise the ill-effects of Gwadar port with active Chinese participation.