India Lets U.S. Down on Iran
Image Credit: Office of the Indian Prime Minister

India Lets U.S. Down on Iran


The Indian government’s ill-advised statement last week that it will continue to purchase oil from Iran is a major setback for the U.S. attempt to isolate the Iranian government over the nuclear issue. 

The New York Times reported recently that Indian authorities are actively aiding Indian firms to avoid current sanctions by advising them to pay for Iranian oil in Indian rupees. It may go even further by agreeing to barter deals with Iran – all to circumvent the sanctions regime carefully constructed by the U.S. and its friends and allies. According to the Times, India now has the dubious distinction of being the leading importer of Iranian oil.

This is bitterly disappointing news for those of us who have championed a close relationship with India. And, it represents a real setback in the attempt by the last three American Presidents to establish a close and strategic partnership with successive Indian governments.

The Indian government’s defense is that it relies on Iran for 12 percent of its oil imports and can’t afford to break those trade ties. But India has had years to adjust and make alternative arrangements. Ironically, the United States has had considerable success on the sanctions front in recent months. The EU has decided to implement an oil embargo on Iran, the U.S. is introducing Central Bank sanctions and even the East Asian countries, such as China, have imported less Iranian oil in recent months. That makes India’s recent pronouncements seem extremely out of step and out of touch with the new global determination to isolate and pressure Iran to negotiate in order to avoid a catastrophic war.

There’s a larger point here about India’s role in the world. For all the talk about India rising to become a global power, its government doesn’t always act like one. It is all too often focused on its own region but not much beyond it. And, it very seldom provides the kind of concrete leadership on tough issues that is necessary for the smooth functioning of the international system.

The Indian government has supported the four U.N. Security Council resolutions passed since 2006. It says Iran should give up its nuclear ambitions. But India hasn’t stepped up to a leadership role in the negotiations and has resisted the option of being a bridge between the Iranian government and the West. It has, instead, been largely passive and even invisible on this critical issue.

I wrote a Boston Globe column recently arguing that the U.S. should commit to an ambitious, long-term strategic partnership with India. I remain convinced of its value to both countries and to the new global balance of power being created in this century.

With its unhelpfulness on Iran and stonewalling on implementation of the landmark U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, however, the Indian government is now actively impeding the construction of the strategic relationship it says it wants with the United States.

Presidents Obama and Bush have met India more than halfway in offering concrete and highly visible commitments on issues India cares about.  On his state visit to India in November 2010, for example, President Obama committed the U.S. for the very first time to support India’s candidacy for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council. Like many others who wish to see India become a close strategic partner of the U.S., I supported the president’s announcement.

Unfortunately, India has made no corresponding gesture in return for the big vision that Obama and Bush have offered the Indian leadership. It’s time that India speaks much more clearly about the priority it places on its future with the United States. Most importantly, India must begin to provide the kind of visible leadership on difficult issues such as Iran that its many friends in the United States and around the world had expected to see by now.

R. Nicholas Burns is Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. He served as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Previously, he was U.S. ambassador to NATO. The following piece was originally published at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government “Power and Policy” blog

April 17, 2014 at 14:03

India-Iran are not only ancient neighbors but they are related culturally and both are great civilization that influenced the entire is the version of Anglo-Saxon World and the Continental Europe which has more common no wonder India can relate more to what Iran stood for…How it is excited to See India-Iran with Russia defending the world against western military adventures and imperialism !

[...] is often the subject of criticism in some U.S. political circles for its diplomatic and other ties with Iran. Much of the criticism [...]

February 16, 2014 at 03:44

this article completely ignores the fact that india has more people than all the countries of africa and middle east combined.IT NEEDS OIL. it cant rely on saudi bcuz they sponsor wahabis. also the author ignores that india has the second largest shia population on earth who are favorable to one point there were more shia in india than iran.Indian people have no love for iran bcuz persian rulers massacred millions in india but they still need iran and this is why they support the clerics instead of the iranian kings (pallavi).

Tom F
December 14, 2012 at 20:18

+1 on your sentiments, though I wonder if it needs to be extended to include having and using friends to enhance one's interests.
The Arab Springs has shown that with friends, even a disgruntled rabble can overthrow a national army.

Tom F
December 14, 2012 at 20:09

In the game of ultimate self interest, it is some time in one's own interest to put self interest second to taking sides. 
You'd have to be living under a rock to not notice the world is rationing carbon based energy, potable water, rare earths, and that ole favourite, money/funding. These aren't things easily won and kept using guns, rockets, warships and fighter jet. IMHO, if India thinks it needs no friends, then good luck to the Indian people.

December 14, 2012 at 00:35

The situation in the middle east played out by the US is only to protect the domiinance of the petrodollar , the use od US dollars as reserve currency. When the petrodollar system collapses, the US economy will crumble. Iran and earlier Iraq, Libya, have tried to substitute the dollars, with Euros or other local currencies. Allegations of dictatorship, or weapons of mass destruction were only used as a lame excuse to initiate war in these countries by the US. 
P.S: I wasn't really sure of the middle-east situation and why the US pokes its nose so much until I read about the petrodollar cycle. It is mind-blowing. The US federal reserve "prints" dollars to buy oil, almost for free. Because all OPEC nations are required to carry out transactions in USD, thus maintaining a demand for USD worldwide. Even worse, the surplus profits gained by oil-exporters is put back to the US national securities and bonds. Thereby, US gets to buy oil using printed money and have the OPEC nations to buy the debts which accounted from printing the money in the first place!!!! 

Silent pbserver
September 5, 2012 at 02:07

Why does US expects India to follow them their economy is a war economy but that is not the case with indian economy and we had cultural relations with IRan for thousands of years and we can't shun those relations…

July 31, 2012 at 15:52

Take but no give ? right ,Who had isolated India from access to nuclear and rocket technologies?
Who  turned a blind  eye towards pakistan's nuclear program and helped them? 
who gives billions of dollars of military aid to pakistan even though knowing that all that money is used to counter India?
who turned a blind eye towards china's involvement  in pakistan's nuclear program?
who had planned an attack on India during the bangladeshi liberation war in 1971 when India was trying to stop the massacre of bangaldeshi people by the pak army?     Oh yea……… It's the US
who overthrew the democratically elected govt in Iran in order to satisfy their lust for oil ? oh yea it's US and UK 
what is that one country which has not signed the NPT in the middle east…….oh yea it's Israel  

July 31, 2012 at 15:38

you are so bloody right!!!

July 9, 2012 at 15:57

India wants to be friendly with every country, we dont want war, we want peace and prosperity, we want all the countries in the world to grow and peaceful. We dont war with any country… Why USA and EU always talks about war??? Why cant they (US and EU) think about keep NO.1 position in economic status by investing more funds into Research and development…

July 9, 2012 at 15:49

See, after a long years of suppression ( colinization by UK), India struggled with international isolation and growth was slow for the past 5 to 6 decades. After economic liberalization in mid 1990's we are slowly growing, we completly depend on imported oil as a source of energy for our growth. US dont even take liability in case of any nuclear accidents, so US just needs only buisiness with out liability in case of nuclear accidents. What happened in case of BHOPAL gas tragedy (Dove Chemicals), because US sees India life is very Cheap. First change your (developed countries)  attitude towards the developing countries, then make friendship, friendship should be as equals, US cannot dictate terms to India on its foreign policies.

July 9, 2012 at 15:39

Why all the powers are forgetting growth in India. Many people are still poor, We need oil for growth. We dont even have a permanent seat in UN security council. How much oil US and EU countries are using, think about their population.Think before talking about india.

S Petal
June 28, 2012 at 03:43

So the author is suggesting that India is the new outpost for US imperial aspirations (less Euro colonial, more Roman style minion). The US must always look for new enemies to keep the military/complex in power in the US.
Time can adjust the balance without war. Take Vietnam as an example, now an ally of US even after it suffered a near genocide at the hands of US.
Had it just left Vietnam alone in the 60's (as it has done during the 70's onwards after the defeat) then the commies would have run their course by the 80's without the 000's of US losses and millions of Viet lives lost. 
Indian is part of Asia, US has moved it's strategic focus many times since the start of the 20th century. Once used, India will still be in Asia long after the US dollars/strategy is looking for a new enemy somewhere else.
The Indians already have a unique status of hating all immediate neighbours; do they want to extend that further to include Iran, Russia, Malayasia & Indonesia (last to included as US is allied to Oz and Oz hates these two nations as they are not prepared to allow the expansion of the Oz colonisers further north than east Timor).

April 15, 2012 at 09:00

Iran’s condemnation of Salman is nothing compared to the Pakistan’s killing of 29 US CIA officers when Pak military double crossed them. The same team that killed Osama Bin Laden. 2005-2010 proved to the world that Pakistan is a bigger threat to the World than any other country. Saudi needs and supports Pakistan on Islamic agenda. US needs Saudi on oil agenda. Dumb US will people will know the Saudi’s sword edge when oil crosses $5 a gallon.

April 15, 2012 at 08:55

if US is a responsible Leader country, why has it not thought of India’s 15% oil imports from Iran which effects a billion people. Perhaps, US sanctions on Iran are a result of Saudi’s money-laundering-based lobbying and Obamas political gain calculations for re-election. If not, How is Iran more of a threat to US than Pakistan which is the cradle of terrorism? No wonder twisted US policies for the gain few elitists killed 19 CIA officers in Afghan by Pakistan.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief