Indian Decade

India’s ‘Realist’ Iran Policy

“India’s readiness to work with Iran stems from careful, hard-nosed calculations of what it deems to be in its vital interests.”

India is often the subject of criticism in some U.S. political circles for its diplomatic and other ties with Iran. Much of the criticism stems from the Ahmadinejad regime’s explicit hostility toward Israel, Iran's likely pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the abysmal quality of its human rights record at home. All of these criticisms are at one level quite legitimate. Few within India's foreign policy establishment are unaware of or oblivious to Iran's obvious shortcomings at home or abroad.

That being said, many of India's critics had long urged it to abandon its moralistic foreign policy and adopt a more pragmatic approach. Ironically, India's policymakers have taken this advice to heart and are acting on it. The U.S. and other great powers during much of the Cold War often overlooked the many dubious features of a host of squalid regimes as long as they were sufficiently anti-Communist. Even today, when core interests are involved, the internal attributes of numerous key allies are of little concern. For example, Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Sunni adversary, which has a legion of human rights issues, enjoys excellent relations with the U.S. and much of the Western world. 

In a markedly similar vein, India too has adopted an unemotional and practical approach toward Iran. It has supported United Nations resolutions on Iran's attempts to circumvent its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and it has adhered to United Nations sanctions on the country. However, it has evinced little enthusiasm for any unilateral use of force against Iran and has also refused to kowtow to the United States on the imposition of unilateral sanctions. India's position, quite frankly, is understandable. It not only has a substantial domestic Shia population but also recognizes that Iran can serve as a bulwark against a Pakistan-Saudi nexus. More to the point, India remains acutely dependent on Iranian oil and gas supplies despite a concerted effort to reduce its dependence on the country for these critical energy resources. Finally, unlike Pakistan which remains committed to installing a neo-Taliban regime in the wake of the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan, both India and Iran remain unalterably opposed to the Taliban retaking Kabul. This convergence of interests in a critical country in the region also leads India to work with Iran.

It is easy to suggest that India's willingness to work with Iran despite some misgivings is a sign of the return of the cussedness that had characterized much of Indian foreign policy during the Cold War. This characterization, however, is sadly out of date and inapt. India's readiness to work with Iran stems from careful, hard-nosed calculations of what it deems to be in its vital interests. These may well diverge with those of the United States, Israel, and much of the Western world. Nevertheless, they cannot be dismissed as being either chimerical or irrational.