India's Interests Collide Over Iran

Posted in India | 29-Oct-05 | Author: P.R. Kumaraswamy

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) shakes hands with Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh in Tehran last month.

India's growing desperation in wanting to resolve Iran's nuclear crisis diplomatically has more to do with its own foreign policy dilemmas than any desire to punish Iran. After voting for a U.S.-backed International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) resolution on September 24, 2005 that condemned Iran for not complying with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (N.P.T.), New Delhi frantically hopes that in the November 24 meeting of the I.A.E.A. it will not be forced to endorse a resolution calling for the immediate referral of Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. Conflicting signals emanating from New Delhi underscore the different pressures facing the Congress-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Iran"]

The September 24 vote did not go over well with the Indian public, with senior Indian coalition members planning nationwide agitation over the issue. With the winter session of India's parliament just around the corner in November, the fallout will only increase for the current Indian government.

India's current foreign policy in regard to Iran underscores fundamental conflicts that exist in India's foreign policy calculations. For different politico-strategic reasons, India needs the unqualified support of the United States as well as Iran, but India's interests collide on two key issues: Iran's nuclear program and India's energy needs. The September I.A.E.A. vote forced India to choose between the two.

The Nuclear Bind

India understands that partly because of its own actions, Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers such as Pakistan, Israel and Russia. Having become a state armed with nuclear weapons, India is no longer in a position to advise others, especially Iran, to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Such a course of action would be hypocritical, especially from a country that for decades thrived on lecturing the world about the virtues of nuclear disarmament. Moreover, one of the persistent Indian criticisms in the past was directed at the inability and unwillingness of the international community to ensure access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, something that Iran is entitled to under the N.P.T.

At the same time, India is unable to endorse Iran's nuclear ambitions without undermining its own interests and security. Such a posture runs counter to India's self-perceived role of being a "responsible nuclear power." Its leaders, especially after the 1998 nuclear tests, have called attention to New Delhi's track record in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. In spite of the limitations and ineffectiveness of the present non-proliferation regime, they maintain that India "will not be the source of proliferation of sensitive technology."

Indeed, while India considers nuclear weapons essential for its national security, it did not follow the example of China and Pakistan in helping with the nuclear ambitions of third parties. Nor did India ever recommend that any other country take the nuclear path.

Moreover, there are no suggestions that India sees a nuclear Iran as an ally. Despite the obvious advantages vis-à-vis Pakistan, a nuclear Iran would pose a can of unpredictable worms for India. For instance, given the inevitable spillover effect on neighboring Arab countries as well as Israel, Turkey and those states in the Central Asian region, such a course might not be to India's liking.

Furthermore, any Iranian progress in a nuclear delivery system would certainly bring India within reach of Iran's missiles. Currently, there is not much of a debate in India over Iran's weapons of mass destruction programs, and if there is a debate it is primarily focused within the Israeli context. However, Iran's Shehab missiles could also travel eastward and could threaten the Indian homeland.

In conclusion, India cannot endorse Iran's nuclear ambitions, nor can it remain indifferent to them.

The Iranian controversy also underscored the contradictions in India's position toward the recent nuclear deal with the United States. It would have been a mistake for India to expect that the Bush administration would be able to overcome the powerful non-proliferation lobby in Washington -- who are concerned with growing U.S.-India cooperation on nuclear issues -- if India was indifferent to American concerns over Iran; New Delhi could not expect Washington to deliver on nuclear energy cooperation if India took Iran's side in its nuclear conflict with the United States and the E.U.-3. [See: "The Implications of the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership"]

Given the complexity and conflicting pulls, for months New Delhi opted for being a fence-sitter and counseled Tehran to negotiate with the I.A.E.A. As long as the E.U.-Iran negotiations were proceeding, India was able to maintain its non-committal and non-controversial approach. However, this policy came to an end when the issue of referral to the U.N. Security Council came before the I.A.E.A. Despite all of its ambitions and aspirations, India is still not as powerful as China or Russia and could not have followed their example of refusing to back the U.S. and E.U.-3 policy on Iran.

India's backing of the resolution did not, however, go well within the country because Iran has emerged as one of the few foreign policy issues where there is domestic consensus.

Iranian Enticement

Since the end of the Cold War, relations between India and Iran enjoyed considerable bi-partisan support in India. All of the mainstream forces including the Congress Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Left parties have worked toward promoting and maintaining closer ties with Iran. Due to strong political and economic interests, as well as due to ideological undercurrents, India sees Iran as an important ally in the Middle East. If Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao visited Iran in September 1993, he hosted Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani two years later. Likewise, the visit of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Tehran in 2001 was followed by the visit of President Mohammed Khatami in January 2003.

Against this background, the debate over Iran's nuclear crisis must take into account India's energy politics, especially over imports of gas from Iran. When the idea of the Iran-India gas pipeline was first brought up in the early 1990s, India was lukewarm to the proposal. Since the pipeline would pass through Pakistan, India's security establishment was vehemently opposed to making state energy supplies a hostage to the vagaries of periodic Indo-Pakistan tensions.

At the same time, growing dependency upon and need for stable sources of energy supplies eventually compelled India to overrule security concerns and opt for an economic solution to its energy needs. The pipeline project was seen as a boost to regional cooperation and before long it became a sign of improving Indo-Pakistan relations. In January 2005, India committed to a 25-year contract with Iran that would ensure five million tons of liquefied natural gas annually. With an estimated cost of over US$20 billion, this is one of the largest commercial contracts that India has ever signed.

This, however, brought India into confrontation with the United States, especially over Washington's oil-related sanctions against Iran under the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. While China, Russia and the European powers have managed to circumvent the American ban on oil-related investment in Iran, India is in a more disadvantageous position.

India's disadvantageous position was reflected in the candid statement of the Indian prime minister during his July 2005 visit to the United States. Unlike some of his cabinet colleagues who promised to pursue the pipeline project without worrying about the dictates of "third parties," Singh was more cautious. In an interview with the Washington Post, he admitted: "I don't know if any international consortium of bankers would probably underwrite this." In short, despite its recent strides, India is yet to reach a stage where it can defy international financial pressure, especially from the U.S.

Indeed, the deal over U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation has been seen by some as carrots to induce India to abandon its gas deal with Iran. Within hours after the September I.A.E.A. vote, Iran even issued a veiled threat to cancel the deal as a sign of its displeasure over the Indian reversal.

Internal Politics

Recently, India's Left parties, whose support has been vital for the survival of the Singh administration, have joined the chorus criticizing the government. They see Iran as a rallying point for their anti-American rhetoric and have issued strong warnings against India abandoning a fellow member of the Non-Aligned Movement in favor of what they argue is American imperialism.

In their view, the nuclear row offers an opportunity for India to live up to its erstwhile image of being a torchbearer of third world solidarity. Support for Iran in the I.A.E.A., they argue, would help restore India in the forefront of the anti-imperialist struggle. After the Iraq crisis, the Left in India found Iran as a new avatar for its ideological effort.

On the question of Iran, the Left parties are likely to play the rule of internal spoilers. Given his dependency upon their outside support, Singh cannot dismiss their opposition if he wants to survive in office. It was their dictates that prevented the government from increasing domestic oil prices steeply even when the price of crude on the global market was skyrocketing. Indeed, there is growing pressure on the government to abstain when the second I.A.E.A. vote is taken in November.

The issue also brought into focus strong emotional outbursts in India. As External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh candidly admitted prior to the vote, any decision on Iran would have to be predicated on the "sentiments" of India's 150 million Muslims, especially its Shi'a population. Though controversial, such rare public admissions underscore the dilemmas facing the government, especially within the larger context of electoral politics where Muslim voters assume considerable influence.


Thus, as long as the nuclear question was confined to the I.A.E.A., India could afford to be indifferent. Its passive stand did not threaten the interests of any major parties and was even interpreted domestically as an attempt to resolve the issue diplomatically. As Western patience wore thin, especially following the unexpected victory of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this policy was no longer possible.

At the same time, the September vote was not without its share of drama. For many observers, the vote looked sudden and abrupt. During the weeks prior to the vote, Indian leaders, especially those in the Foreign Ministry, were advocating caution and seeking more time for diplomacy. The Ministry's pro-Iranian stand in public was suddenly reversed when New Delhi decided to vote against Tehran.

Therefore, having voted with the U.S. in September, India will not be able to make another somersault in November and vote against U.S. policy. Such a stand would damage India's credibility both in the U.S. and elsewhere. At the same time, domestic pressure, especially from the Left, might compel India to opt for a middle path and abstain when the referral issue finally comes up in Vienna. Prime Minister Singh might find it easier to withstand pressure from Washington than from his coalition partners on the Left.

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