India and the ‘Pariah’ States: Iran

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Written by Uddipan Mukherjee, Contributor

There is no gainsaying that U.S.-India bonhomie has been on the rise. Whatever speculations existed in the scholarly discourse regarding the Obama administration have probably been assuaged to a significant degree by the recent overtures of the American President.

In this context, it is pertinent to explore India’s relationships with the so-called pariah states like Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar since India’s foreign policy regime vis-a-vis these countries may define the future trajectory of its bilateral relationship with the United States.

It is not at all unlikely for one to discover on a frequent basis anything similar to the following:

“While India and the United States have embarked on a campaign to strengthen their bilateral relations, as symbolized by the proposed U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal, it appears as though New Delhi has similarly begun to pursue a more robust relationship with another major power: Iran. The two states have recently expanded cooperation in a number of key areas, including counterterrorism, regional stability, and energy security. What are the implications of this ‘New Delhi-Tehran Axis’ for the United States, and how should Washington respond to growing ties between India and Iran?”

The aforementioned abstract was asserted in a background paper released in 2008 by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

It is quite natural for foreign analysts, especially Americans, to believe in the above manner as far as India-Iran relations are concerned. For instance, in a CRS report prepared for Congress in August 2006, Alan Kronstadt and Kenneth Katzman echo somewhat similar concerns. Nevertheless, they sound positive as far as future U.S.-India bilateral ties are concerned:

“India’s growing energy needs and its relatively benign view of Iran’s intentions will likely cause policy differences between New Delhi and Washington. Given a clear Indian interest in maintaining positive ties with Iran, New Delhi is unlikely to abandon its relationship with Tehran or to accept dictation on the topic from external powers. However, India-Iran relations are unlikely to derail the further development of close and productive U.S.-India relations on a number of fronts”.

However, the doubts regarding the “New Delhi-Tehran Axis” may be somewhat unfounded as Indo-Iranian ties can hardly be interpreted as ‘strategic’. In fact, that is what Indian analyst Harsh V Pant argues in his recent paper in The Washington Quarterly (34:1 pp. 61-74)

He says that “ever since India and the United States began to transform their ties by changing the global nuclear order to accommodate India with the 2005 framework for the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, Iran has become a litmus test that India has occasionally been asked to pass to satisfy U.S. policymakers”.

He further states that: “Nascent Indian-Iranian ties have been categorized by some analysts as an ‘‘axis,’’ a ‘‘strategic partnership,’’ or even an ‘‘alliance,’’ which some in the U.S. strategic community have suggested could have a potentially damaging impact on U.S. interests in Southwest Asia and the Middle East”.

Such dialectics notwithstanding, it remains a reality that the U.S. views India’s moves vis-à-vis Iran quite cautiously and on the other hand, India keeps the Iran card up its sleeve in a post-U.S. Afghanistan scenario where its ‘childhood enemy’ Pakistan may become a potent player. A Sunni-radicalized Afghanistan may not be a lively picture for either secular India or a Shiite Iran.

India has some valid interests in Iran and chief among those is energy. Moreover, Pakistan has signed a pipeline deal with Tehran. Also India’s Asian competitor China is venturing into Iran to grab the energy field left open after the Western companies vacated the area.

Already in 2005, India had signed a long term (25 year), $22 billion agreement with Iran for the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Furthermore, India also initiated another energy project; and that too with much fanfare. It was the construction of a 1,700 mile, $7 billion pipeline to carry natural gas from Iran to India via Pakistan. However both these projects have been stalled.

About the latter, the Indian government says that it would pay for the gas only after it will be received at the Pakistan-India border. Also, New Delhi does not agree to Tehran’s demand to revise the gas prices every three years.

On the other hand, the LNG project is yet to proceed as the proposed plant would need American components, which might violate the U.S.-Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA).

Plainly speaking, behind the garb of commercial losses that India is citing, it is the American-factor which is telling its tale. And this is no mere presumption; it can be corroborated from the following facts.

Of late, India has repeatedly voted in favor of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) resolutions against Iran on grounds that a nuclear Iran is not in India’s interests. However, New Delhi also stresses that it favors dialogue and diplomacy as means of resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis; in tune with the legacy of its Nehruvian foreign policy.

On the issue of energy relations, India proclaims that Iran is an important partner as well as a significant source for hydrocarbon resources. Iran is also one of India’s largest suppliers of crude oil, and India in turn is a major supplier of refined petroleum products for Iran. While the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution does not directly affect India’s oil trade with Iran, the U.S. monitoring surely must have had an impact. Moreover, the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal, along with its caveat The Hyde Act, categorically mentions that India ought to toe the U.S. line with regard to pariah states like Iran.

However, such a weird Indian behavior with respect to Iran may not be totally blamed on the U.S. hegemony in post Cold War era. It probably has some diplomatic basis on specific Indo-Iran ties.

It will be worthwhile to reminisce that Iran was not supportive of the Indian nuclear tests in 1998. Moreover, it also backed the UNSC Resolution asking India and Pakistan to cap their nuclear capabilities by signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Iran repeatedly has urged India to accept the NPT regime. With the conclusion of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, Iran warned that the pact had endangered the NPT and would trigger new ‘crises’ for the international community.

Although Iran has claimed that such an assertion was basically directed at Israel (which is not an NPT signatory), the implications of that move could be seen in the recent diplomatic counter-attacks launched by India as far as Iran’s nuclear programme is concerned.

Tehran has been critical of the Indian government’s way of handling protests in Kashmir. This made India to issue a demarche, expressing reservations against Iranian interference in India’s domestic issues.

In this scenario, it may appear prudent for India to follow Harvard’s recommendation that “India should distinguish sharply between Iran’s nuclear position and other areas of cooperation. That is, while India needs to continue cooperation with Iran in pursuit of its own national interests, New Delhi should make it clear that it will continue to strongly support American efforts to bring Iran into legal compliance over its nuclear program”.

Nonetheless, though such a recommendation appears to be fine on paper, it might be diplomatically unfeasible for India to pursue a dualistic foreign policy vis-à-vis the pariah states. For instance, standing by the U.S. side in order to sternly monitor Iran’s nuclear programme would make it quite difficult to go ahead with the gas deals; since such a move would evoke apprehensions in both the U.S. and in the Iranian camps.

India’s position regarding the contentious issue of the Iranian nuclear programme is actually logical. India believes that since Iran is an NPT signatory, it needs to conform to NPT guidelines and clarify doubts, if any, to the IAEA. India never denies the fact that Iran has the right to pursue nuclear energy programs for civilian purposes. However, the existence of a stubborn political dispensation in Tehran will not make matters smooth in this regard and Indo-Iran mutual camaraderie would be on tenterhooks. In addition to that, American and Israeli misgivings regarding Iran’s motive will not create any salubrious diplomatic ambience for India either.

India needs to perform the ‘balancing act’ to a level of precision. For that, it shall be natural for New Delhi to maintain the status quo regarding the gas deals with Tehran, at least in the foreseeable future. That is, New Delhi is most likely to procrastinate on the gas deals by citing commercial problems and likely terrorist infringements. However, it is unexpected that it would scrap the deals altogether. However, it cannot be denied that Pakistan and its homegrown terrorist network shall remain a perennial problem in the path of fructification of the gas deals.

Nevertheless, any future sanctions against Iran would entangle India, at least on a tangent because India is at present a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. And if it seeks for a permanent position in the influential body, it needs to quickly solve the foreign policy conundrum toward the pariah states.