India’s Iran Dance

Iran is proving to be a thorn in the side of India’s relations with the United States. It doesn’t need to be.

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.

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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.