NEW DELHI: Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif arrived in New Delhi on Monday for talks with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj on the impact of US sanctions on its oil industry as well as a ratcheting up of tensions in the Persian Gulf region.
Zarif is to meet Swaraj for talks on Tuesday, a schedule put out by the Indian foreign ministry showed. Though Zarif was keen to make a visit earlier, national elections in India, it is learnt, played a part in the Iranian minister's visit getting scheduled to third week of May.
India, one of Iran’s largest buyers of oil – more than 20 million tonnes a year till recently – has had to bring down its imports to zero after 2 May, when stringent US sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, kicked in. The US has indicated that there would be no waivers offered to countries from sanctions importing crude from Iran – putting countries like India, China and others in a bind.
In recent weeks, the US has indicated to New Delhi that India will not get any more time to reduce its imports to zero and has to look for other sources of oil. The aim of the US sanctions is to cripple Iran’s oil industry – the mainstay of the Iranian economy – to force Tehran to come back to the dialogue table to re-negotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as well as end support for proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Last year, US President Donald Trump announced that the US was pulling out of the previous Barack Obama era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 ie China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States and concluded in 2015. He also announced strict measures targeting any country or entity that does business with Iran after 2 May 2019. In recent days, the US has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 stealth bombers to the Persian Gulf region. In retaliation, Iran last week said it would begin enriching uranium at higher levels in 60 days if world powers failed to negotiate new terms for the deal.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia – Iran’s major rival in the region – said two of its oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in attacks that caused "significant damage" to the vessels, media reports from the region said. These reports came as other news reports said that the US has warned ships that "Iran or its proxies" could target maritime traffic in the region – raising tensions in the region.
For India, the sanctions present a dilemma – the loss of a near source of crude that was available at cheaper rates being the most obvious one. New Delhi has been looking at developing Iran’s Chabahar port as a means to reach landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia bypassing a hostile Pakistan. With India stopping oil imports from Iran, it is unclear whether Tehran will be keen on allowing India to develop Chabahar -- seen as a project advantageous to primarily to India and Afghanistan.
India also has millions of its nationals working in many countries in the region who send back valuable remittances to the tune of billions of dollars every year.
India also has a Shia minority in the country – which numbering some thousands are an influential section of society.