The Coming U.S.-India Train Wreck
Image Credit: White House

The Coming U.S.-India Train Wreck


Iran is the crisis of the hour in Washington, and for the first time in recent memory talk now routinely turns to military action. In an effort to forestall Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, the United States has launched a worldwide effort to limit Iran’s oil exports and increase the economic stress on the Iranian regime. Where sanctions on Iran were once seem as a somewhat quixotic American campaign, they are about to go worldwide; the United States will soon sanction firms that do business with Iran’s Central Bank, which now processes a large percentage of oil transactions. The European Union, meanwhile, is poised to embargo Iranian oil and Asian countries, including South Korea and Japan, are enlisting in the effort to economically isolate Iran

As this effort proceeds, Americans will inevitably look to India, the fourth-largest importer of Iranian oil. But they will see a view of Iran that looks very different in New Delhi than it does in Washington. This difference over Iran poses a genuine problem to the two countries and, unless it’s bridged, it could throw a tremendous spanner into the machinery of U.S.-India relations.

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of the Iranian nuclear threat in the minds of most American policymakers. They see in Tehran a regime that pursues an atomic weapon capacity at the same time that has aided American enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, supports Hizbollah, Hamas and the thuggish regime in Syria, allegedly tries to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, all while denying the Holocaust and threatening death to America. An Iranian nuclear weapons capacity, many policymakers fear, could hand Tehran a deterrent behind which to pursue an even more aggressive drive for regional domination, set off a regional arms race, and threaten the stability of the Middle East.

In New Delhi, the picture looks very different. India imports roughly 12 percent of its oil from Iran, and because Pakistan blocks Indian commerce through Afghanistan to Central Asia, Iran forms a key transit Indian transit route. Indian Shia comprise a relatively small percentage of the population, but represent an important swing vote in elections. India and Iran have long cultural and population ties, and in 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went so far as tell an American interviewer that, “Our relations with Iran, we cherish a great deal.” 

Yet this has begun to change around the edges. The talk of cherishing ties has faded, and India has begun increasing its purchases of Saudi oil. Singh has said explicitly that India opposes an Iranian nuclear weapon, and New Delhi voted to censure Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Still, the new U.S.-led sanctions push may put Washington and New Delhi on opposite sides of this critical issue. Asked about America’s new sanctions, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said this past week: “We have accepted sanctions which are made by the United Nations. Other sanctions do not apply to individual countries. We don’t accept that position.” Indeed, he went further, noting that an Indian delegation would travel to Iran to “work out a mechanism for uninterrupted purchase of oil from Iran.” And India and Iran have reportedly agreed to settle some of their oil trade in rupees to avoid restrictions on dollar-denominated trade. 

January 22, 2014 at 12:24

Things have changed dramatically within the last month. Russia will buy 500,000 barrells of oil from Iran daily bypassing sanctions. It is India’s choice to forgo Iranian oil at a massive economic price. Iran loses nothing. In return Russia will sell goods and build another nuclear power plant.

December 16, 2013 at 14:48

US approved Iraq’s chemical attacks on Iran during the Iran Iraq war. Even today they claim to prosecute Iraqi generals for chemical attacks on Kurds and turn a blind eye on war attrocities on Iranians. India has stood by Iran over the last 3 decades. It will continue to do so. USA has realised that Iran has a necessary and important role to play in its Asia Pivot especially after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Its about time the US swallowed a bitter pill and quit Sabre rattling.

March 30, 2012 at 23:29

Each country has to put its national interest first. India should put its national interest first with regarding to Iran. A growing India is highly dependent on gulf oil. Before US invaded Iraq,Iraq was a reliable supplier of oil to India. Due to American misadventure in Iraq, that country has become highly unstable (but I am sure Americans have secured all the oil fields for their own interests). The only other reliable place for oil to India is Iran. Of course, India imports oil from Saudi as well, however Saudi Arabia is not a reliable supplier, as it has many times in the past indulged in anti-India activities; an example of this is Saudi Arabia funding wahabi fundamentalists mhadrasas which has become a specialist in training terrorists. Even though O.B. Laden is a Saudi and most of 9/11 terrorists are Saudi nationals, America blatantly wants to close it’s eyes and sell billions of military equipment (land, sea and air) the Saudi’s and making the region very unstable. The US has also persuade its own interests vis a vis Pakistan providing military aid, F16s and billions in monetary aid, which it is going to use directly in anti-India activities; further it is known fact ISI aided Taliban, have killed hundreds of US soldiers; not to tell about safe haven provided to O.B. Laden for many years, at the same time fooling the US. In these matters US has taken decions which is contrary to India’s interest, (Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world with more than hundred WMD and has a poor record on nuclear proliferation. Pakistan has the most religious fundamentalists who are anti-India and the US in the world). the Americans are expecting India to follow their line Vis a Vis Iran. If there is a war between India and Pakistan Saudis would immediately stop oil supplies to India so it is in Indias national interest to have a good relation with Iran. Further, Irans strategic location as an exit point Vis a Vis Afghanistan and oil rich central Asia makes India’s relation with Iran indispensable. India having strongly stated it’s position on Iran’s nuclear program, should try to leverage it’s influence on Iran to come clean on their nuclear issue and should abide all the conditions set by the IAEA but at the same time tell Americans emphatically that it cannot join it’s band-wagon on it’s misadventures

February 4, 2012 at 14:30

if the US wants poodles for allies, then it need look no further than europe – even japan is asserting itself – asia is not going to be a willing colony of the US and asia does not and should not give a whit about a dysfunctional US congress
US needs to redefine diplomacy beyond the parameters of arms twisting, threats, loads of cash, remote controlled drones and spying on foreign diplomats at the UN

btw, iran is nowhere near to nuclear weaponisation nor does it have the missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads – it also has a right to engage in civil nuclear research and the iaea has not a shred of evidence that its nuclear program is anything but

perhaps if facts get in the way, we can have less insanity than we have experienced throughout this century

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