Iran-US tensions: Why Tokyo and New Delhi should arbitrate (But will they?)

After the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities

Iran’s ties with the rest of the world, especially Washington, have witnessed some interesting developments in recent weeks. While there was a possibility of a thaw between Washington and Tehran after the G7 Summit (held in August 2019 at Biarritz, France) with both sides making the right noises.

Tensions between both countries have risen yet again after two oil facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais, of Saudi Aramco (a Saudi state-run company) were attacked by drones and missiles on September 14, 2019. The Houthis of Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Saudis and the US blamed Iran. US President Donald Trump warned of retaliatory action against Iran (the US also sent troops to the Gulf to prevent further escalation), while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the attack as an ‘act of war’.

Iranian reactions to US statements

If one were to look at Iranian reactions to US statements, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in an interview on September 19, stated that if the US or Saudi Arabia launched a military attack on Iran, in retaliation for the strikes on the Saudi oil facilities, he did not rule out an ‘all out war’. Zarif did say that Iran wanted to avoid conflict and was willing to engage with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

On September 22, the anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Iran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned against the presence of foreign troops in the Gulf, saying that this would lead only to more apprehensions and insecurities. The Iranian President also stated that Tehran had extended its hand of friendship towards countries in the region for maintenance of security in the Gulf, as well as the Strait of Hormuz. On the same day, Zarif made a much more measured statement, arguing that Tehran wanted to make September 22 a day of peace not war. Referring to Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980, he stated that this act, which received support of global powers, has been one of the reasons for turmoil in the region. Hours before Rouhani’s speech, Zarif, in an interview with the American media company CNN, stated that Iran was ready for a re-negotiated deal, provided Donald Trump lifted economic sanctions. The Foreign Minister made a telling remark:

We continue to leave the door open for diplomacy. In the meantime, our campaign for economic pressure will continue.

Rouhani had expressed his openness towards meeting Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Hours before his speech, one of his spokespersons stated that Tehran was willing to give commitments with regard to not expanding its nuclear program, provided the US lifted sanctions. During his speech, Rouhani made it clear that while he was willing to engage with the US, he would not do so under any sort of pressure, and Tehran would only engage with Washington if the US-imposed economic sanctions are removed. Rouhani dubbed these sanctions as economic terrorism.

Statement (and remarks) issued by France, the UK, and Germany with regard to the attack on Saudi’s oil facilities

What was significant, however, was the statement issued on September 23 by the UK, Germany, and France that Tehran was responsible for the attack on the oil facilities run by Aramco. The three countries, which have been firmly backing greater engagement with Iran, and have been so far critical of Trump’s approach, in a statement held that Iran was responsible for the attacks, and that these could lead to greater conflict in the region. The statement issued by the three countries did make the point that these countries supported the Iran and P5+1 nuclear agreement/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), asking Tehran to comply with the deal and adhere to the commitments.

Significantly, British PM Boris Johnson spoke in favor of Trump renegotiating the JCPOA, while French President Emmanuel Macron stated, in a conversation with reporters, that he was not ‘married to the JCPOA’. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while speaking in favor of talks between Tehran and Washington, stated that Tehran’s conditionality of sanctions being lifted before talks take place was unrealistic.

Why France’s statement was especially surprising

Statements made by Macron came as a surprise, given that he has played a pivotal role in keeping the JCPOA intact and differed with Trump’s approach towards Tehran. Apart from fervently supporting the JCPOA, the UK, Germany, and France had also set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to circumvent sanctions from Iran. This move had been criticized by senior officials of the Trump Administration, including Mike Pence, John Bolton, and Pompeo.

Macron also attempted to organize a meeting between Zarif and G7 Ministers on the sidelines of the G7 Summit held at Biarritz (the French President did meet Zarif, with G7 leaders giving him a go ahead to negotiate with Iran). A statement made by Trump, where he stated that he was willing to meet with Rouhani and described Iran as a country of great potential, raised hopes of possible engagement with Iran. Trump in his usual style did put forward conditionalities, and did state that he was not party to a joint statement by G7 on Iran.

It would be pertinent to point out that Macron even attempted a meeting between Rouhani and Trump on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting, though this did not work out. The French President did meet with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. A tweet by the Iranian representative to the UN stated that apart from bilateral relations, Macron and Rouhani discussed ways in which the JCPOA could be saved.

Trump’s approach towards Iran: Back to square one?

The removal of John Bolton, a known Iran hawk, as National Security Adviser also raised hopes with regard to US engagement with Iran. In fact, Bolton’s approach vis-à-vis Iran was cited as one of the main reasons for growing differences between Bolton and Trump.

The attacks on the oil facilities have made Trump more aggressive

The attack on Saudi facilities however acted as a spoiler, and has given Trump the opportunity to act aggressively and put more pressure on France, Germany, and the UK to adopt a tough stance vis-à-vis Iran. Washington has already imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, and while Iran has warned of retaliations in case there is any sort of military action, US cyber attacks on Iran can not be ruled out. At the UNGA, Trump attacked Iran by saying it is a security threat to ‘peace-loving nations’. The US President also said that there was no chance of lifting sanctions as long as Tehran’s ‘menacing’ behavior continued.

With the UK, Germany, and France also backing US claims with regard to Iran being responsible for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Trump has become further emboldened.

Role of countries like Japan and India

While the reactions of European countries and the UK are important, one country, which has been very cautious in its reaction, has been Japan. Japan’s Defence Minister Toro Kono, in fact, stated that ‘We are not aware of any information that points to Iran’.

Japan has close economic ties with Iran. Earlier, Shinzo Abe had made efforts to intervene between Iran and the US. Abe, who visited Iran in June 2019, met with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stating that it was a major step toward peace. The Japanese PM had also sought the release of US citizens detained by Iran.

Interestingly, Brian Hook, US Special Envoy to Iran, while alluding to Japan, China, and other Asian countries, stated that countries must not shy away from unequivocally acknowledging that Iran was responsible for the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities. Hook gave the example of the UK, France, and Germany. He also sought Asian participation, especially Japan and South Korea, in Washington’s maritime initiative to protect oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

It would be important to point out that Japan, which has close economic ties with Iran, has already started looking at other sources of oil given the situation in the Middle East.

It is not just Japan. Even India would not like escalation of conflict with Iran, though so far it has stayed out. While New Delhi is looking to various sources for its oil needs (during Modi’s recent visit, one of the issues high on the agenda was closer energy ties with the US), the Chabahar Port, in which New Delhi has invested, is of strategic importance. Some recent statements from the Iranian side suggest a growing impatience with New Delhi, not merely due to toeing the US line with regard to the importation of oil from Iran (India had stopped buying oil from Iran, after the US removed the temporary waiver which it had given), but also slow progress on the Chabahar Port.

During the G7 Summit, Macron had urged the US to allow India to import oil from Iran, while Modi, during his meeting with Trump, also is supposed to have raised the Iran issue. While India has not made any statement with regard to the attack on Saudi oil facilities, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale visited Iran days after the attack (a number of issues, such as the progress of the Chabahar Port, and issues pertaining to trilateral connectivity between India, Afghanistan, and Iran, were discussed). The Indian PM also met with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. Both of them are supposed to have discussed issues of bilateral and regional importance.


It is time that countries which have close ties with the US and robust economic engagement with Iran find common ground, rather than speaking in different voices. While at the G7 meeting, there was an opportunity for the same, but this was short lived. This is essential, not just for economic and strategic purposes, but also to ensure that Iran does not become totally dependent upon China. Beijing’s recent commitments of investing over $400 billion in Iran are a clear indicator of the point that, as a result of economic isolation, Tehran is left with limited options, and is tilting towards Beijing.

China has not just made important commitments in oil and infrastructure projects, but Beijing will also be stationing its troops to protect it’s investments in the oil sector. It is not just European countries (Germany, France and the UK) but countries like Japan and India, which should be wary of the growing proximity between Tehran and Beijing. New Delhi and Tokyo would be advised to work in tandem, to get both Washington and Iran to moderate their stance. While this is no mean task, given Trump’s unpredictability it is absolutely imperative.

7 thoughts on “Iran-US tensions: Why Tokyo and New Delhi should arbitrate (But will they?)

  1. If there is to be arbitration it’s possible that India and Japan would be good arbiters, perhaps the best, as you argue. But don’t forget that it is not the case that everyone wants any arbitration at all. I, for one, want the US-imposed sanctions to destroy the religious-fascist regime of the mullahs. It seems to me that any arbitration at all would tend to prolong their lease on life.

  2. Tridivesh; You also speak of Mr Trump as if he were the worst warmonger. In fact, I think he has demonstrated extraordinary patience. (It’s too much patience for me. ) And no, no one but noone in America is considering a land war in the Middle East.

  3. The reason JCPOA is failing because of the EU. France and Britain in particular. Macron’s negotiation is phony and deprived of substance. The E3 promise normal relations after US withdrawal and yet SWIFT remove Iranian Banks from their service. The EU has great influence over SWIFT, why did they use it to prevent? US will never consider sanctioning SWIFT. ECB is an entirely European entity, yet E3 try to pretend that they cannot instruct it continue lending and normal business with Iran. There plenty of European companies that has no exposures to US, the EU pretend that they have no control. Their scheme was to play a phony good cop risking the JCPOA. In fact, the French was threatening sanctions even before they took even a single step to meet commitment under JCPOA after Trump withdrew.

    Macron’s “diplomacy” was even worse. He was not even proposing European solution but a ” European solution with US permission”. The entire point of Iran agreeing to remain in JCPOA after US left was that Europe will develop a strategy that does not depend on US acceptance. Macron acts as a mediator but how can you mediate on a deal in which you are party to and have independent commitment to? This is the fundamental flaw of the SPV, if it was created to promote oil sale and banking, it would not have depended on private company. It would have been a fully funded entity that broker banking and oil sale. SPV would buy oil from Iran and resale to European consumer. It is amazing how China is able to purchase Iranian oil irrespective of sanctions while “mighty Europe” cannot and is asking permission from Mike Pompeo. This is the same thing that happen with the Gulf Security initiative. Everybody knew it was a bad idea. Even Defense Secretary Esper who proposed it knew it was a bad idea. That is why he emphasize only overwatch as the mission of Operation Sentinel. Nevertheless, it took several weeks for Germany to say no, she at least showed some courage, France has yet to stop double-speaking, and Britain support it and does support it or want to be in both. JCPOA could have been saved and could still be saved but European dithering more than anything is destroying JCPOA. Turkey is a perfect example of actual leadership. You may say anything about Erdogan but one thing he is not is a coward. He dealt with US pressure and sanctions when he purchase S-400, he goes on American TV and categorically refuse to back sanction on Iran natural gas and oil. Europe can do the same thing. Germany want to do it but they are constrained by being part of the EU of France and Britain. When the Iranian nuclear program is out of control in the next two-three years. Europe is definitely to blame.

  4. Mr. Maini,

    We are not (yet or again) living in a bipolar world. Perhaps, China may one day stand as the (near-)equal of the U.S., as the Soviets once did in the aftermath of WWII. However, at the present, China is only tentatively, and for the first time in modern history, expanding its geopolitical reach beyond its immediate periphery. China’s influence beyond its immediate neighbors is largely the shallow gravitational pull of direct (foreign) investment (FDI), rather than the tight binds of interlocking defense structures.

    The (post-Brexit) E.U. is, for all its strident proclamations otherwise, a U.S. client polity that leans deeply on the American market and military capability. The E.U.’s budget, at both the constituent national and supranational level, suggest a continued preference for reliance on U.S. power, rather than an attempt to construct a truly independent geopolitical “pole.”

    India is but at the very first phase of the (century long) transition to a true global force. Russia is not so much an independent geopolitical pole, as a hyper-spoiler. Russia has not the technological, economic or even military potential to truly menace, much less rival, the U.S. in relation to America’s core interests. But, Russia certainly can raise the cost enough to deter the U.S. from acting in relation to its secondary interests.

    However, Iran has been of extremely limited use to Russia, or any party for that matter.

    Focusing on Iran and its diplomatic apparatus, Iran has created a support axis of clients, including (Lebanon’s) Hezbollah, Syria’s governing coalition and powerful Iraqi political parties and militias. However, these are of limited or no use against the U.S. in the instance of negotiating an off-ramp to hostilities and economic strangulation since Iran’s use of these volatile paramilitary assets would alienate any support for Iran among U.S. allies or within the U.S. itself (while certainly strengthening support and sympathy for regional rival Israel). Iran has not the global reach or heft to mobilize any important “non-aligned” powers, such as (for instance) Indonesia or South Africa.

    Thus, Iran stands alone and unaided, without the ability to leverage any geopolitical counterweight to U.S. global power. In this instance, the “physics” of geopolitics requires Iran to offer far more than it receives in order to achieve a diplomatic settlement.

    Yet, that is not the Iranian (Persian) way, historically or currently, in the bazaar or at the embassy negotiating table. Indeed, the Persian-Iranian Way of Negotiation is typified by maximalist demands, to be met before negotiations even begin. In this instance, Iran expects the U.S. (and its alliance partners) to grant Iran all of its positions as a precondition to negotiations. Nor is this just a publicity-motivated veneer, to be quickly discarded, in order to advance to realist diplomatic deliberations.

    Iran (formerly Persia), a mid-sized Middle Eastern regional power (of 82 million people producing a Gross Domestic Product [GDP] of $428 Billion), with virtually no geopolitical allies of any weight, approaches all of its diplomacy (at least with Western Powers) as if it were in a position to dictate terms to a humbled supplicant.

    To understand the genesis of this negotiating strategy, one must understand millennia of Persian (and “Cradle of Humanity”) history and culture. In its most distilled form, just as an American sees himself as a rugged, self-reliant cowboy-frontiersman, so the synthesis of an Iranian is of a Princely Heir, through unbroken bloodlines (as opposed to Arabs), to the Ancient Persians and Bazaari (merchant and trader class). This self-understanding makes (diplomatic or commercial) negotiations with Iranians often frustratingly unfruitful. Iranians “know”, not just expect, that they will “win” negotiations–achieving virtually all of their desired goals while simultaneously denying their “enemy” all or most of their goals. Nor are negotiations ever final and complete, as Iranian strategy is to keep “interpreting” the meaning of accords in line with currently desired goals and needs.

    This paradigm has occasionally succeeded, as it did with the Obama Administration White House, which was desperate to extricate itself (and the U.S. broadly) from the Middle East’s infinite, interlocking and intractable conflicts. These occasional Iranian-Persian successes, what a Westerner might deem “complete wins,” come regularly enough to justify (at least to the Iranians) the continued use and cultural enshrinement of such maximalist tactics. The Iranian Regime publicly honors and accredits great accolades to politicians and diplomats who achieve such unitary successes. There does not appear to be much debate, discussion or analysis in public about whether the Iranian state and people are better on average and/or overall in achieving these total, but infrequent, diplomatic successes.

    But, under current conditions, in which Iran and the U.S. (under President Trump’s Administration’s similar negotiating style and goals) are both engaged in using similar negotiating tactics, a fruitful breakthrough in diplomacy appears exceedingly unlikely. However, it is noteworthy that sometimes such tactics can yield seemingly highly unlikely, but unexpectedly positive results. Conversely, when both parties to a negotiation are using similarly maximalist positions, deadlock, breakdown and even conflict are much likelier.

    The addition of India and Japan as “mediators” will be regarded by Iran as simply bringing in more U.S. allies into the discussion (i.e. “ganging up”). Ironically, the U.S. may similarly demure out of concern that Iran may just create previously absent “friction” between itself and its allies. In short, the proposal will receive a doubtful reception by either or both Iran and the U.S..

  5. Why would Tokyo and New Delhi arbitrate US-Iran tension? Tokyo always listens to Washington, and Tehran is no friend of nationalistic India. What is the point of having more US allies to ‘gang up’ the dialogue, is it meant to overwhelm and thus coerce Iran? No, no way.

Please keep it civil

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