Donald Trump’s second address to the United Nations General Assembly was more sober than his inaugural speech. Twelve months ago, Trump had referred to North Korea’s President Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man”, and deemed him to be, “on a suicide mission”. On Tuesday, he reserved his most complimentary words for the same leader. Few others received the same glowing tributes. India, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Poland were picked as the shining stars in the global assembly, while Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, China and Germany came in for varying degrees of criticism. It marked one more small step in the shift of India into the US orbit.
The Modi government took a large leap in that direction earlier in September, by signing COMCASA, or the Communication Compatibility and Security Arrangements, which enhances interoperability between the armed forces of signatory nations. The agreement is usually called CISMOA, or The Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement, but some changes were made to the standard format (it is unclear precisely what these were) to accommodate India’s needs. COMCASA is the second of three agreements needed to cement India’s place as a military ally of the US. The first, known as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), was signed by the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the then US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in 2016. The final step will be signing the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geo-spatial Cooperation.
Once the three agreements are sealed, India will be locked into a US-dominated military framework, and will divest itself of Russian weapons. It will be a lengthy process, given that India continues to purchase very sophisticated Russian arms like the S-400 missile, which is among the best anti-aircraft defence systems in the world, but will proceed inexorably.
India’s shift into the US camp is taking place without generating any debate within the country, which is bewildering considering that the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement concluded exactly ten years ago nearly brought down the Manmohan Singh government on the charge of selling out the nation. There’s been more discussion in the Indian media about Pakistan moving into China’s orbit than about India jettisoning its long-stated commitment to non-alignment. But the nation will soon have to make very tough decisions, because being a US ally comes with real costs, one of them being pushed into partisan positions based on American perceptions of American self-interest. The costs will become very clear very soon, at which point we may finally see more commentators questioning the wisdom of getting quite so cosy with a nation that has a decades-long habit of waging unjust wars.
Looking at the diplomats seated at the US table in the General Assembly, I recalled the motto of the House of Stark in the Game of Thrones: Winter Is Coming. Last year, Donald Trump sounded unhinged in his UN speech, but at that time there were forces within his camp restraining his wildest instincts, among them Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster. Now, McMaster and Tillerson are gone, replaced by two crazed hawks, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. Bolton, in particular, has openly called for regime change in Iran, as have the leaders of two nations Trump praised in his speech alongside India: Saudi Arabia and Israel.
There are a few issues currently causing friction between India and the United States. One is the S-400 purchase from Russia, which is forbidden by the United States and will require a US waiver, failing which India will face sanctions. Another is the US push against Iran, which will kick in with full force in November. The Iran sanctions not only punish Iran but any entity doing business with the Iranian regime. This has scared off all private enterprises, which need access to the international financial system dominated by the US. In order to continue doing business with Iran after November, nations will have to work in ways that can exist apart from the US financial system.
The European Union, which has voiced its continued support for the Iran nuclear deal while opposing US sanctions, has finally taken concrete steps to continue buying oil from Iran. After a meeting with foreign ministers from France, Britain, Russia, Germany, China, and Iran on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini announced the setting up of a payments channel to bypass US sanctions. India is restarting the rupee trade with Iran, which it utilised during an earlier period of sanctions.
The question is, how strongly will the Modi government reject American demands with respect to Iran? The American play seems clear. After making noises about India’s S-400 purchase from Russia, they will finally agree to provide an exemption, on condition that India brings its Iran oil purchases down to almost zero. Getting two waivers is impossible, which means India will not be able to bypass the Iran sanctions without seriously hurting its relations with the US. This is specially true because, as Iran’s second-largest oil export market, India will play a major role in determining how deeply the Trump sanctions bite.
Donald Trump’s singling out of India at the United Nations came soon after his fulsome praise for his “friend” Narendra Modi in a conversation with India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj. The central government is basking in the warmth of this affection, but if winter does come in the form of the next Gulf War, we could find ourselves unprepared and exposed.
Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of this article stated that Herbert McMaster was a previous US Secretary of Defence. He was National Security Advisor.