Three countries in the region – India, Pakistan and Iran are geographically continuous. Yet the US policies and strategies towards these three are significantly different.
It is imperative to study these three interactions – US-India, US-Pak and US-Iran, for they have serious implications for the bilateral relations between these three. Though the US is not a part of the region, its interactions with India, Pakistan and Iran on a bilateral framework also shape the regional security.
At least four issues could be identified in the US interactions with the India-Pakistan-Iran triangle. First, bilateral relations of these three countries with the US are tenuous at this juncture. Second, bilateral issues alone do not strictly shape the US relations of these three countries; other factors outside the bilateral ambit play a crucial role. Third, the US approach towards these three countries is shaped by the American interests elsewhere – for example, in West Asia, China and the Indo-Pacific. Fourth, the US interactions and its individual approaches towards these three countries impact the bilateral relations within India-Pakistan-Iran triangle, and are likely to increase the tensions further in the region.
The bilateral relations between the US and India have been on an upward trajectory. Historically, never before the objectives of these two countries have been aligned as closely as they are today. Though both remained two big democracies since the end of the world war, as Dennis Kux would explain, they were rather estranged until the 1990s.
Since the Clinton era, there has been an upward swing. The strategic partnership, Indo-US nuclear deal, bilateral military exercises and the latest two plus two negotiations highlight the positive swing in the bilateral relations between the US and India.
The interactions between the two countries have never been this intense, as has been the case during the recent years. Multiple institutions – government and outside are dialoguing with each other; there are institutions and structures in these bilateral interactions between the US and India.
The US also sees India as a big market, not just from trade in goods, but also to sell large-scale military hardware. Since the breakup of Soviet Union, India has also been looking forward to expanding its military purchases.
At the popular level, despite visa restrictions, the number of Indians working in the east and west coasts of the US have been on a steady increase. The fact that inter-continental long direct flights are linking the Indian and American cities highlights the bilateral movement between the two countries. The fact that the Indian movies produced in Mumbai and other regional headquarters such as Chennai also get released in the US, highlight the presence of Indian diaspora in the US.
The above bilateral interactions, however, are not strictly bilateral. The US sees New Delhi as a partner (though it prefers to pursue India as an ally) in its larger international calculations, especially in the Indo-Pacific. The US push towards building the Quad (along with Japan and Australia), renaming of the Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific would highlight the more significant American interests in the mainland and maritime Asia. The rise of China is another huge concern for the US, where it would like to see India playing a balancing role in Asia.
India pursues the US as an opportunity to find a place for itself in the global table. An expanding India would need the US to support and even push New Delhi’s case in larger international forums. For example, India’s push to get into the NSG is dependent heavily on the US. If the US has its global calculations to support India, the latter also has its ambitions, especially in the region. For example, New Delhi would like to have the American nod to expand its footprints in Afghanistan.
However, these interactions are not entirely one-dimensional. There are serious differences. While the US would want to see India as an ally, New Delhi would like to guard its autonomy in decision-making. Though the US support helps India to expand its footprint in Afghanistan, Washington’s opposition is likely to undermine its relations with Iran. New Delhi’s investments in Chabahar are likely to face problems if Trump goes ahead with his sanctions plan. Though India takes pride in maintaining its “strategic autonomy” the fact that New Delhi had to vote against Iran in the IAEA a few years ago highlights the Indian limitations and American pressure.
If the US-India relations have been on an upward swing during the recent years, US-Pakistan relations have been on the opposite. Post 9/11, there was a spurt in the US investments – political, military and economic – in Pakistan. Though it started with a threat of “With Us or Against Us”, Musharraf made full use of the American needs in Afghanistan.
The American economic and military aid surged upwards during the last decade. However, during the last few years, this has changed considerably. There has been a steep decline in the bilateral relations between the US and Pakistan. One could see this change during Obama’s administration; and expanding further under Trump. Increase in US drone attacks on Pakistani territory, the American pressure on Islamabad to “Do More” in Afghanistan, the extraordinary raid into Pakistan violating latter’s space to kill Osama bin Laden and the violent attack on Salala military post – will highlight the downward trend in US-Pakistan bilateral.
Under Trump, the bilateral relations have worsened further. His New Year tweet on Pakistan highlighted of things to come. Military aid to Pakistan was suspended and later cut off. The US pressurised the Paris based FATF (Financial Action Task Force) to place Pakistan on a “grey list” and has objected to the IMF bailing out Islamabad again.
If the US-India military relations are on an upward swing, the opposite is happening in the US-Pakistan military relations. Outside the military purchases, during the Cold War, both the militaries had built a good rapport. The Pentagon-Rawalpindi axis had its impact on the more substantial US-Pakistan bilateral relations. This seems to be breaking now. Afghanistan has been the primary cause for this breakup.
Pakistan sees the US as an ungrateful ally. Islamabad believes that the sacrifices of Pakistan in fighting the “American War on Terrorism” has never been adequately recognised by Washington.
Pakistan also has its game plan vis-à-vis the US. During the Cold War, it made the best use of its geography to achieve its own goals in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Pakistan also succeeded in hoodwinking the US on its clandestine nuclear business.
Currently, the relations between the US and Pakistan are in flux, forcing Islamabad to look at China and even Russia. If Washington had its game plan for Islamabad due to Pakistan’s geostrategic location, Beijing has its game plan owing to Pakistan’s geo-economic position. For Beijing ‘s larger ambitions on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) forms a crucial spoke in the larger wheel.
During Obama’s period, US reworked its approach towards Iran. Until the 1979 revolution, both the countries shared better relations. Since 1979, the bilateral relations between the US and Iran took a nosedive. Tehran became the primary component of the axis of evil for the Americans.
The US imposed a series of sanctions on Iran and also pressurised the other countries to follow suit. Tehran became an international outcast, thanks to the American drive.
During Obama’s period, there was a realisation that though the sanctions have hurt Iran, it did not break the will of the people. Obama attempted a different approach to engage Iran; the nuclear deal was a part of the American effort to re-engage Iran. The process though was at a nascent stage, but on an upward trajectory, when Trump became the President.
Instead of taking the process forward, Trump reversed the American approach towards Iran, by walking away from the nuclear deal. The bilateral relations were shaped by more substantial American interests in West Asia, where Washington has decided to ally with Riyadh. Another incidence of the American policy towards a country being shaped by more substantial regional interests than direct bilateral aspects.
The US and the IPI Triangle
Should the three countries and the region be concerned about the individual bilateral interactions with the US?
They should. The US interests in the region have always played a role in India-Pakistan bilateral relations. India was asked “to do” more vis-à-vis Pakistan. India will be asked not to do more with Iran.
US actions against Pakistan have already made Islamabad move closer to China and Russia. A series of meetings and a few statements on joint cooperation between Pakistan and Russia highlight the geo-strategic realignments in the region. What is happening between Pakistan and Russia is the opposite of what happened during the 1980s in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the American engagements with India have made China apprehensive about New Delhi’s intentions. Beijing is afraid that India is a willing partner of the American designs in the region; such a perception would lead to questioning New Delhi’s genuine pursuits, especially in India’s east – starting from Southeast Asia to East Asia and Australia. While India has its reservations on Chinese approaches and projects, the BRI being the most important one, New Delhi’s objections should not be seen as a part of Indo-US engagements.
For the three countries – India, Pakistan and Iran, their bilateral relations with the US are less likely to be bilateral. The regional fallouts and internal dynamics will have to be managed.