Mounting tensions in the Persian Gulf have come home to India in a most tragic way: An Indian has been killed and three more injured when a United States Navy vessel fired on their fishing boat off Dubai. The four men, all from Tamil Nadu, worked for a United Arab Emirates company and the incident has stoked the same kind of anger in their home district of Ramanathapuram as the unprovoked killing of two fishermen by Italian marines off the coast of Kerala did last February. The U.S. has conveyed its “regrets” and promised an investigation but there is no escaping the bottom line: the steadily expanding American military presence around Iran since January 2012 has claimed its first ‘collateral’ victims. The Obama administration has tightened the sanctions noose on Tehran and moved significant military reinforcements to the Persian Gulf in an ill-advised attempt to force a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. More fighter aircraft have been deployed and the U.S. Navy has added minesweepers and an amphibious transport and docking ship reportedly to serve as the Pentagon’s first floating staging base for military operations or “humanitarian” assistance in the event of hostilities. USNS Rappahannock, whose guards fired at the Indians in their fishing boat, was a military supply ship. The U.S. Navy has said “a series of non-lethal, preplanned responses” failed to warn off the approaching boat, necessitating the use of force. What exactly transpired may never fully be known. But clearly, the incident points to a military on the edge.
India’s response to the crisis in the Persian Gulf so far has been to try and balance its competing interests with both Tehran and Washington. It has fully complied with the United Nations Security Council’s trading restrictions on Iran for its refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. U.N. sanctions do not cover crude, and despite U.S. pressure on importing nations, India has continued to source Iranian oil, albeit in reduced quantities. However, the death of an Indian citizen in American firing should serve as a wake-up call for New Delhi because it underlines the uncertain fate that lies ahead for the nearly six million Indians who live in the Gulf and West Asian regions should the U.S. escalate its stand-off into full-scale hostilities against Iran. Passivity in the face of the looming storm is no longer an option. In its own interests, India needs to up its diplomatic game and do what it can to prevent another war in that region. It must do this by working with like-minded countries to persuade the U.S. to reverse an unnecessarily aggressive approach that is only worsening instability and making the Iranian nuclear issue even more intractable.