Bolton’s Iran policy: could it strengthen the China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan axis?

John Bolton, who took over as Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser on April 8, has had significant differences with India on a number of issues in the past. As US Ambassador to the UN, he opposed India’s elevation to the United National Security Council (UNSC), even at a time when relations were at a high during the Manmohan Singh-Bush era. Bolton had initially opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal, though later he lent his support. While the Trump administration has sought to elevate India’s role in the Indo-Pacific region, Bolton has expressed the view that there are some fundamental differences between India and the US. In the short term, though, there is no serious divergence.

Bolton and Iran

What would really be of concern to India however is Bolton’s hawkish approach towards Iran. Bolton’s views are not very different from those of US President Donald Trump and recently appointed Secretary of State John Pompeo. Bolton is opposed to the Iran Nuclear Agreement signed between Iran and P5+1 countries in 2015. In 2015, the NSA designate called for bombing Iran, last year he had criticized the deal, and last year he had called for scrapping the deal.

The Iranian response to Bolton’s appointment was understandably skeptical. Commenting on Bolton’s appointment, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, the spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said:

Tillerson, as someone who supported the nuclear deal, was removed and someone has come [on board] who is opposed to the nuclear deal. This appointment shows that Trump has the goal of regime change for Iran and that Americans have a hostile posture toward Iran.

The deal will come up for consideration in May 2018, and through pressure from European allies it is likely that, for the time being, it will remain intact. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had negotiated hard for keeping the deal intact. A worsening of ties between US and Iran would have a number of important repercussions for India. First, India has invested in Chabahar Project, and has in recent years developed robust economic linkages with Iran, as was evident during the Iranian President’s visit to India in February 2018.

Will the Iran-Pakistan-Russia trilateral get stronger with a hawkish Bolton?

If one were to look beyond the possible ramifications for the Chabahar Project in Iran, as well as other economic ramifications, New Delhi would also be wary of Iran moving even closer to Pakistan and Russia, in case Bolton does adopts an excessively hawkish stance vis-à-vis Iran.

At the bilateral level all these countries have been seeking to strengthen ties in terms of connectivity and economics, as well as the strategic sphere. These bilateral ties could lay the foundation for a strong trilateral backed by China.

Iran-Russia relations

Tehran has already established a strong rapport with Russia in the strategic sphere. Only recently, the Russian Foreign Minister (Sergei Lavrov) criticized the US for trying to negotiate terms of the Nuclear Agreement. Commenting on this issue, Lavrov stated: “It has nothing to do with diplomacy. It’s an attempt to enforce its own interests while completely ignoring the interests of others.”

Economic Sphere

If one were to look at the economic sphere some important steps have been taken to enhance cooperation. In November 2017, Russian oil producer Rosneft and the National Iranian Oil Company signed a road map on the implementation of “strategic” projects in Iran with total investments worth up to $30 billion.

In March 2018, Zarubezhneft and Dana Energy, a private Iranian company, signed a 742 million USD deal to jointly develop the Aban and Paydar fields in Ilam province.

Iran-Pakistan ties

It is not just Iran-Russia ties, but even Iran-Pakistan ties which have witnessed an upswing recently. Iran has had problems with Pakistan, including accusing Islamabad of lending support to certain Sunni groups in Baluchistan. In May 2017, after 10 Iranian border guards were killed in clashes in a town located close to the Iran-Pakistan border, the head of the Iranian armed forces had issued a stern warning, promising that Iran would hit the safe havens of these groups in Pakistan if action is not taken against them.

Of late, Iran has been trying to move closer to Pakistan. During his visit to Pakistan last month, Iranian Foreign Minister, Javaz Zarif, invited Pakistan to join the Chabahar Project during the course of a lecture at an Islamabad based think-tank. New Delhi was quick to state that it had no objection to Iran’s invitation, but Iran’s offer to Islamabad must have come as a surprise to India.

In December 2017, a major consignment of fruits from Pakistan was transported to Kazakhstan via Iran. The 350-tonne cargo arrived in the south-eastern Iranian city of Zahedan by train, from the Pakistani city of Quetta, before being finally transported to the port city of Aktau in Kazakhstan.

Pakistan-Russia ties

As a consequence of India moving closer to the US, Russia-Pakistan ties too have witnessed an upswing. Only recently, Pakistani Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan stated in an interview to a Russian publication:

Air defence system is a different kind of weapon we are interested. We are very much interested in a very wide range of the Russian weapons technology. We are in negotiations [on air defence systems] and once we conclude negotiations, we will be able to announce them.

Khan also spoke about acquiring T-90 tanks, but in the context of a long term deal rather than a one-off. During Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s visit to Russia in February 2018, both sides decided to establish a joint commission on military cooperation for fighting IS. It was also decided to carry on with joint military exercises, which had begun in 2016, and discussions were held regarding key defence purchases by Pakistan.

Both sides are also increasing cooperation in the area of energy. Russian state-giant Gazprom is in negotiations with Pakistan for supplying LNG to the latter. Another big project is the 1100 kilometre gas pipeline from Lahore to Karachi, which could go ahead in the very near future (so far US sanctions against Rosneft had prevented this deal from materialising).

Attempts are thus being made towards making Russia-Pakistan relationship a holistic one.

Complexities of Geopolitics

Geopolitics is complex, and the fact is that Iran and Russia both have robust economic and strategic ties with New Delhi. Interestingly, one of the projects on which Iran and Russia is joining hands is the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. Similarly, New Delhi wants Iran and Russia to be part of the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which will provide India access to Europe. Yet the changing dynamics require alacrity, and New Delhi will need to reshape or tweak it’s policies accordingly.

In conclusion, New Delhi can not dictate Bolton’s policies, yet India needs to watch out for its own interests. It would be most concerned about Bolton’s rather belligerent approach towards Iran, and would hope that his new responsibility will moderate his stance. A rigid Iran policy would be good news for China, as it would pave the way for a strong China-Iran-Pakistan-Russia axis. This certainly would not be good for India. Trump’s isolationism has benefited China, in this case his rigidity on Iran, along with Bolton’s, could too.

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