India's Iran Dance
Image Credit: Indian Prime Minister's Office

India's Iran Dance


Over the last several years, the United States and India have worked hard to achieve a warming of relations. Both nations share various mutual interests: they face pressure from a rising China, are hopeful on cooperation on sharing nuclear technology, are increasing cooperation on strategic and military matters, and see increasing trade opportunities.

There does, however, seem to be one issue that could drive both nations apart – that of Iran’s nuclear program and India’s need of Iranian oil.

In the face of the new sanctions placed on Iran, India finds itself in a precarious situation.  India seems unable to honor the demand for sanctions that involve stopping the import of Iranian oil. Procuring 12 percent of all its oil imports from Iran, and with little leeway for switching to other suppliers, India’s national interests demand continuing its relationship with Tehran.

New Delhi certainly wants Iran to honor its commitments to the Non-proliferation Treaty. This would entail Tehran satisfactorily answering all questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency and coming clean on its activities in the nuclear domain. At the same time, New Delhi also wants the United States to realize the limits of sanctions to force behavior. Both the U.S. and Iran are important to India’s national interests, and India certainly doesn’t fancy a situation in which it might have to choose one over the other.

Iran, therefore, has become a test case for India’s nuclear diplomacy. The balance between the two conflicting parties – Iran and United States – will have to be carefully managed. During the Cold War, non-alignment involved avoiding “bloc” politics, but under today’s scenario, it will have to be defined as forging a foreign policy that can allow India to chart an independent course that depends on the situation and which is firmly rooted in its national interests. 

In the case of the Iranian nuclear drama, the pursuit of non-proliferation, Iranian oil and American goodwill are all important for India. Striking a balance between these interests’ calls for deftly utilizing the strategic relationship that India has with the United States and to explain its compulsions and viewpoint.

Equally, India must use the leverage that it has with Iran as its economic partner during this difficult time. India may well again face situations again where it may feel it must choose between its growing U.S. ties and other important national interests. What the United States and India must both appreciate is that even the greatest of allies will have differences of opinion, and neither should sabotage this growing relationship. The Iranian issue should not, and need not, undermine the goodwill that these two allies have developed.

February 16, 2012 at 22:11

India needs Iran to save Afghanistan. A good relation with Saudi is helpful to keep an eye on Pakistan. And with US, it is the relationship of the future. The later is of strategic but the issue is which has to be prioritised – practicality or strategy? Probably India can act as a good buffer between these two poles.

February 16, 2012 at 12:04

The Israelis are not idiots – they have an extensive intelligence network in the Islamic world and with the Israeli PM claiming Iranian involvement it is not easy to dismiss this as mere rhetoric!

Plus, add to this the three Iranians caught in Thailand – the bombs found in Georgia! This is an international conspiracy to attack Israelis and no small time groups work like this – this has all the hallmarks of a foreign government or international terrorist organization like Hezbullah.

There are many non-state actors that the Iranians support like Hezbullah and any of these could have carried it out without Iranian government knowledge. Also, it is possible the Iranian government carried this attack out with the confidence that India will do nothing because India isn’t capable of tracking their involvement or even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it!

February 16, 2012 at 11:58

The Indian government doesn’t trust the Saudi Government. The Saudis say a LOT of nice things and they are very useful but they are also the biggest financial supporters to Pakistan in the Islamic world. They actively aid and support Islamic radicals with charity money and they also aid radical Islam in India.

Saudi Arabia is useful to be close to but not somebody to pin all your hopes on. Iran is useful in balancing the Sunni’s and keeping them in “check”. The Americans and the Israelis don’t see it like that, unfortunately!

While Hezbullah is a pain, so is Al Qaeda and they are just two sides of the same coin – Islamic fundamentalism.

February 16, 2012 at 11:55

And you know this how ??

Do you work in the Iranian nuclear program or are a key member of the Iranian government ??

The UNSC has imposed sanctions on Iran to persuade it to give up its nuclear enrichment program that evidence increasingly suggests it is a military program. The IAEA has said there is sufficient evidence to doubt Iran’s claims.

Yet you are making statements otherwise!

February 15, 2012 at 14:58

@ Anil Jai Singh,

Your are absolutely right ….. you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be able to figure out this all too familiar game. This time it is a ploy to put India under pressure to break with Iran.

This game has been played over and over again by the Americans and their allies, 9/11 being the biggest sham of all …… !!

Anil Jai Singh
February 15, 2012 at 05:48

Enjoyed the article and the comments-the attack on the Israeli Mil Attache’s wife has brought the spotlight squarely on India in the US-Israel-Iran imbroglio and we are caught in the crossfire with our strategic space severely constrained. May I take the liberty of thinking aloud – the haste with which Israel blamed Iran for the attack without any substantive proof(the Indian security apparatus had not even begun an investigation till then) to suggest so and its occurence in India at this critical time when India was trying a delicate balancing act much to the displeasure of the US and Israel seriously makes me wonder… and raises many questions such as why would Iran jeopardise isolating India at such a juncture and who would really gain from distancing India from Iran.
I am not an expert either on this region or indeed in understanding international politics and its subtleties but there may be a lot more to this than meets the eye…

February 15, 2012 at 00:27

Call me a cynic but I would guess that India sees an opportunity to prize Saudi away from Pakistan and bring it closer to it, given that Saudi these days is not very happy with Pakistan and the monarchy considers itself under threat from the same forces that Pakistan nurtures to use against India and in Afghanistan. If this comes with more oil from Suadi, even better.

I do not think “civilizational connection” with Iran or anyone else matters in the world of international relations. It does not stop the the US and Europe from following policies in the Middle East that support Islamist forces against secular regimes in places like Syria – and may also end up destroying the Christians in Iraq and Syria.

February 14, 2012 at 17:46

The comparison with Pakistan and the US is inane. India does NOT provide free arms and military training to Iran or anyone else aimed at attacking the US. The US has consistently and for years provided Pakistan with arms and training to attack India, arms which are only useful against India not, say, Afghanistan. I appreciate the US in many things but this fact remains, even after Pak has attacked India with US arms again and again.

February 13, 2012 at 21:28

The Saudis threatening to go nuclear is ballony…… the Saudis already have the nukes developed through Pakistan. The Saudis bankrolled Pakistan’s nuclear program, apparently not for charity …….. !!

1. Just as US relations with Pakistan is independent of it’s relations with India, India’s relations with Iran is also independent of its relations with the US.

2. Just as the US will not give up Pakistan for India, India will also not give up Iran for the US.

3. Just as a nuclear Pakistan is apparently not a treat to the US, a nuclear Iran is also not a threat to India.

4. Just as the US provide tens of billions of dollars to make sure Pakistan’s economy does not collapse, India will also do everything it can to help Iran’s economy.

Iran is India’s gate-way to the Central Asia. There is no absolutely no reason for India to abandon Iran, a neighbour with which it has a civilizational connection, and very important economic and strategic relations.

February 13, 2012 at 21:07

There is an elephant in the room here – Saudi Arabia. India and the Saudis seem to have been getting very close lately and if India moves away from Iran, I wonder how much that has to do with Saudi rather than the US. The US for its part probably would not see it as the end of the world if Iran gets the bomb – but will care if that is the trigger for others such as Saudi and Egypt going the same way. The US may be more interested in stopping a chain reaction in the Middle East rather than with Iran getting the bomb per se – this is a guess only. It is after all Saudi that has demanded that the US strike Iran to stop it getting the bomb I would guess that Indian sensibilities towards Saudi may affect its Iran policy as much if not more so than its sensibilities vis a vis the US.

February 13, 2012 at 17:04

The Iranians are developing nuclear tech for peaceful purposes. The allegations by the US are totally absurd.

Ayyappan Ramasubbu
February 13, 2012 at 16:52

India has got the requirred diplomacy to tackle the same.

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