The Middle East Channel

India's Iran calculus

Is India an adversary or ally of the West in opposing Iran's nuclear ambitions? As one of the countries that has consistently voted against Iran at the IAEA--yet has been loathe to abandon business with the country--India has been viewed with both confusion and consternation in the West. Recent commentary in the international media suggests that India is reluctantly adhering to the sanctions regime against Iran because it needs the attention of the West to fulfill its major power ambitions, and that given a chance, India would trade with Iran without hesitation in a bid to protect its energy interests and to get its support on Afghanistan. These statements are often used synonymously with India's engagement with other pariah states like Myanmar and Sudan. But such commentary oversimplifies India's Iran policy, which cannot be defined in the binary "Are you with us or against us?" terms that have characterized debates on Iran in the West.

Traditional relations?

India sees Iran as being part of its "proximate neighborhood". When talking about Iran, Indian diplomats often talk about "traditional relations" -- though this is a confusing notion given that the two countries haven't had much agreement in recent history: the Shah's pro-West orientation during the Cold War was anathema to India's non-aligned views on foreign policy; whereas after the Islamic revolution, Iran's votes on the Kashmir issue at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) were often cited as a stumbling block for closer engagement.

In certain ways, the notion of ‘traditional relations' between the two countries is apparent. India has the second largest Shia population in the world after Iran and some Indian Shias have familial relations with Iran (and unlike in places including Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Pakistan, where Iran has played patron to Shia revivalist and militant movements, it has refrained from such meddling in India). Although numerically small compared to India's population, Indian Shias are an important political constituency; they are highly diverse and pluralistic, have played an active part in Indian political life, and almost all of the leading national political parties have Shia Muslim leaders in their ranks (the Vice President of India, Dr. Hamid Ansari, is himself a Shia who has also served as an ambassador to Iran). Not surprisingly, a few weeks ago, Indian Shias took out a protest march in Delhi against the sanctions on Iran.

Still, such non-official amity has its limitations--which are often overlooked.

Take the example of mutual security interests related to Afghanistan. Pakistan's recent decision to keep Indian goods out of the ambit of its transit and trade agreement with Afghanistan is likely to strengthen India's resolve on access via Iran (demonstrated in the Chabahar port being built by India in Iran to increase its export market in Central Asia). Both countries realize that resisting a feared Taliban takeover may not succeed unilaterally. However, while India and Iran share the concern about what they see as the West's readiness to accommodate Pakistani suzerainty on Afghan affairs, they vehemently disagree on the issue of NATO presence in the region. Hence, any real convergence of interests on Afghanistan is unlikely to happen until a NATO withdrawal starts in earnest.

Nor are energy interests exactly the glue binding India and Iran that they are often suspected to be. While India does get 16 percent of its oil supply from Iran, nearly 45 percent of India's oil imports come from Gulf states including Saudi Arabia. These numbers indicate that oil imports themselves are not the compelling reason for India to break ranks with Gulf states in doing business with Iran. As for exploration, India has two major proposed projects in Iran -- a $5.5 billion offshore block discovered by Indian oil companies and a $10 billion agreement to develop parts of the South Pars gas field in Iran. However, Indian companies have not yet sunk in enough money in either project to be affected by the sanctions. And Iran is certainly the center of several ambitious pipelines (such as the SAGE pipeline) and transport corridors that could link India to Central Asia. However, most of these projects are still on the drawing board. India dropped its part in the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline after pricing negotiations fell through and increased focus on its supplies from Qatar. In other words, India's opposition to US Congress sanctions on Iran is not about lost investment.

Opposing a nuclear-armed Iran

On the issue that seems to most worry Western and especially U.S. commentators--Iran's nuclear program--India shares the belief that this would prove destabilizing for the Middle East. But it does so from a slightly different perspective--it does not see Iran's nuclear intentions as a response to its rivalry with Israel (as often believed in the West), but as a product of Arab-Iran, and especially Sunni-Shia, rivalry. As India's veteran strategic expert, K. Subrahmanyam recently wrote: "The Iranian nuclear ambitions are likely to be more to counter a two-front encirclement of Shias by Sunni Pakistan and Sunni Saudi Arabia". (From this perspective, India's approach towards a diplomatic solution is likely to be geared toward Saudi-Iranian reconciliation more than anything else.)

Given these rationales, India has attempted to avert the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran in its own way. The Riyadh declaration signed in January 2010 during the Indian Prime Minister Singh's visit to Saudi Arabia asked Iran to "remove regional and international doubts about its nuclear weapons programme." In fact, India has even endorsed the Arab call for a nuclear-weapons free Middle East -- a proposal that used to be directed at Israel but which is increasingly focused on Iran. Indeed, India's stance of allying with Arab states, rather than Israel, in addressing Iran's program is explained by a combination of what it sees as the need to combat jihadist terrorism (Saudi Arabia being a pivotal state in the effort), broad energy interests, and the geographical fact of 3.5 million Indian citizens that work in the region. Moreover, as leading policy analyst Sanjaya Baru noted with a nod to the Palestine issue, "There is no question that India's strategic interests lie more with the Arab world, and certainly till Iran's and Israel's moderates return to power."

Of course, India's opposition to Iran's nuclear program hasn't been without attendant Iranian charges of hypocrisy, given the status accorded by the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) waiver to India, an outlier to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and India's stance about the treaty being discriminatory. After India voted against Iran at the IAEA for the third consecutive time, the Iranians tried to draw a parallel between their nuclear program and that of India's. Yet India rejects the comparison, seeing its own non-proliferation record as one without blemishes--an allusion to both Iran's troubles with the IAEA and NPT, as well as the A.Q. Khan network's role in the Iranian program.

Still, India's opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran (and its own active civil nuclear program), notwithstanding, why does India still oppose US sanctions? This paradox is based on three contentions. One, India sees broad-based sanctions as inevitably detrimental to the population of Iran, especially since they are in addition to UN-imposed sanctions. Two, sanctions impede the ability of Indian companies doing business in other parts of the globe and thus deemed "extra-territorial" by India. Third, and most importantly, India has traditionally shown scant belief in sanctions-based diplomacy--indeed, it has rarely imposed sanctions on any country outside the UN's aegis, with the exception of apartheid-era South Africa and Pakistan (after the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in 2001).

The majority of Indian strategists see unilateral sanctions as a path to war. As such, India has taken a strong stance against any pre-emptive military options on Iran, seeing the repercussions of such an action to be as destabilizing as the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear weapon--and with more immediate consequences. Indian strategists see the Strait of Hormuz as part of India's "security parameter" and seek to secure it from both non-state actors as well inter-state conflict. The memories of 1991 Gulf war and the oil price inflation it precipitated, which pushed the then-closed Indian economy to the brink of bankruptcy, are also a factor in India's stance. The fear of a strike was great enough for India to endorse the Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal, thereby risking political capital with the West in the process.

While India does not support the current round of sanctions against Iran, it has no sympathy for an Iranian bomb either. This complexity (rather than the ambivalence it is sometimes seen as) in India's position on Iran's nuclear program is a product of India's strategic and national security calculus--and is likely to persist for some time to come.

Raja Karthikeya is a foreign policy researcher based in Washington DC.

AFP/Getty images

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