India and the Iran sanctions

by Ramesh Thakur

Writing in The Diplomat on Feb. 20, R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state in the Bush administration, lamented the fact that India was going to continue to purchase oil from Iran.

He was reacting to reports that to circumvent Western sanctions on Iran’s central bank, Delhi was negotiating barter deals (Iranian oil for Indian goods) and/or payment in rupees.

In failing to join in the EU-U.S. sanctions, Burns believes, India has let America down.

This begs the question: Has not U.S. military aid to Pakistan been more gravely damaging to India’s immediate security interests than India’s oil trade with Iran is to United States?

If Washington does indeed believe that the largess of U.S. friendship comes with the expectation that a grateful India will become a client state, the bilateral relationship is in deep trouble.

Earlier, on Feb. 16, Frida Ghitis wrote in World Politics Review that India must choose between Iran and Israel. As the mid-February bombing of Israeli embassy vehicles in Delhi by suspected Iranian agents proved, India is no longer aloof from the Middle East conflicts and tensions. Yet the Ghitis demand is about as meaningful as saying that Israel must choose between enmity with Iran and friendship with India.

This did not stop the Wall Street Journal from describing India as the Iranian “mullahs’ last best friend.” Coinciding with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to the U.S., the Indian Embassy in Washington took the highly unusual step of publicly rebutting claims by pro-Israeli groups about India’s mischief-making relations with Iran.

Contrary to the popular parlance that distorts factual reality and produces flawed analysis and policy prescriptions,countries do not act in the national interest. There is no such thing. Rather, there are several interests in the plural with competition between producers, retailers ad consumers; between groups of citizens; between parties; among human rights, trade, security and the environment; and between relations with different countries.

In such a world of competing and cross-cutting pulls, pressures, values and interests, government ministers attempt to strike a balance of interests and, being human, can make mistakes in their calculations. And India has to balance a complex array of interest and values in deciding on the best course of action after the European-U.S. imposition of sanctions on Iran.

The first balance is among learning to live with Iran strengthening its capability to get the bomb without actually getting several bombs, going to war with Iran to stop it from getting the bomb, or provoking Iran into a war through sanctions that throttle its economy. These are grave enough questions that any self-respecting country of some weight in world affairs will want to answer for itself, and not outsource the decision to Washington or Tel Aviv.

There is certainly more of the smell of war in the air around the Persian Gulf this year than any other year in recent times. This is driven by fear that Iran is inching ever closer to actually getting its hands on the bomb and that its window of vulnerability to an Israeli attack may be closing rapidly. The prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb is not so much an existential threat to Israel as an end to Israeli nuclear hegemony and full-spectrum dominance over all other countries in the Middle East.

In effect, Iran would acquire a similar capacity to sponsor terrorist and other cross-border mischief as Pakistan has engaged in relations with India. This should make New Delhi sympathetic to Israeli concerns.

Yet success is not assured in any military strike on Iran and the consequences of war could be grave, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Many things could go wrong in a war: not all nuclear sites may be known; not all may be vulnerable to attack and destruction; Tehran has several options for escalating tensions and damaging Western interests in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan; the spike in oil prices will hurt Western and other economies; and an attack could delay the time frame but almost certainly strengthen the national — not just regime — determination to get the bomb. A post-attack nuclear-armed Iran will be far more dangerous and unpredictable.

The sobering truth is that we have not succeeded in preventing any regime determined enough to get the bomb from doing so. Yet a nuclear-armed Iran, although not as immediately threatening to India’s security, will bring additional strategic uncertainty and complexity to Delhi’s security environment.

India must balance relations with Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. India’s defense minister recently paid an official visit to Riyadh, the first such ever, and the two sides have agreed to draft a road map for defense cooperation that could include joint military exercises, joint training and production of defense equipment, and joint anti-piracy maritime patrolling. Relations with Washington have warmed markedly over the last decade, while those with Israel are remarkable for the depth and breadth.

But India also does have good relations with Iran based on shared trade and security interests. Iran supplies about 12 percent of India’s oil imports. Delhi has also had a long-standing interest in building a gas pipeline from Iran to India, but that would have to run through Pakistan and therefore leave India exposed to its enemy’s good will in a future emergency. There has been an equally long-standing convergence of strategic interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan that will outlast the Western military involvement in Afghanistan.

There is a sneaking sympathy in India’s strategic community for Iran’s present predicament, which is not unlike India’s being out in the nuclear cold and suffering technology denial in a nuclear apartheid order for three decades.

Just as importantly, India and Iran are not divided by any major clash of interests today or in the foreseeable future.

No Indian government can — or should — ignore the reality of 150 million Indian Muslims. Nor is India immune to the Sunni-Shiite sectarian rivalry, with 10 to 15 percent of Indian Muslims being Shiite.

India must make a real effort to appreciate U.S. and Israeli concerns. But India’s friends, too, must understand its policy compulsions.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at the Crawford School, Australian National University, and adjunct professor at the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University.