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India's Iran dilemma

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COMMENTS

16 January 2012 15:00

Ian Hall is a Senior Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University.
 
India Today recently reported that a high-level Indian delegation quietly signed a series of new infrastructure deals in Tehran in late November 2011. The big ticket item was a new railway from Iran's Chah Bahar port, which India also promised to help upgrade, to the Hajigak region of eastern Afghanistan, where Indian firms have interests in iron ore.

At first glance, this deal looks motivated by business rather than political imperatives. But India Today also quoted a former Indian diplomat, MK Bhadrakumar, who suggested it signalled something more. India Today paraphrases Bhadrakumar as saying that the deal is a product of a new and 'broad strategic understanding with Iran' intended to challenge the US-led containment of that country.

If Bhadrakumar is correct, India is heading for a confrontation with its American strategic partner, not to mention India's biggest high-tech arms supplier, Israel. But is he right? 

India certainly finds itself in a difficult position over Iran, with which it has deep and enduring links. It is the Islamic Republic's third biggest customer for oil after China and Japan. India's cultural links with the Persian world are also deep, and many Indian Muslims are Shiite coreligionists. The two also have common geopolitical interests, not least in limiting Pakistani ambitions in Afghanistan.

India's response to Iran's nuclear program has been muted. On the one hand, it has consistently voted in favour of sanctions at the UN over the past decade. On the other, it has been conspicuously quiet about recent moves to target Iran's oil exports to put further pressure on the regime. While China, Japan and South Korea, as well as the European Union, have all had high-profile dialogues with the US on this issue, India has sat on the sidelines.

Does this silence signal an intention by India to undermine America's containment of Iran, as Mr Bhadrakumar suggested to India Today? 

Some Indian commentators would no doubt like an opportunity to teach the US a lesson. Standing up to Washington on Iran, they imply, would show the Americans that India is not to be taken for granted. For these analysts, in other words, the Iran issue is a test of India's 'strategic autonomy'.

The more likely explanation is more prosaic: New Delhi is quiet because it is hoping the storm will blow over before it has to make any difficult decisions.

India's dilemma is a very serious one. On the one hand, cutting off oil supplies from Iran and pushing up fuel prices will slow an already weakening economy even further. On the other, letting Iran acquire a weapon with which to threaten American and Israeli interests, not to mention the four million Indian citizens working in the Gulf, is also an unhappy prospect.

India is not the only state in a difficult position on Iran, but which way it decides to move will be significant in signaling how the crisis over Iran's nuclear program will be resolved. India's elite know their Iranian counterparts well. President Ahmadinejad briefly visited New Delhi in March 2011; an invitation has been extended for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to reciprocate, following a mission to Tehran by the Indian Foreign Secretary last July. There are, in other words, few countries better positioned than India to read Iranian intentions.

Photo by Flickr user slmp.co.uk.

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