Weaning India off Iran
Cooperating with US-led sanctions against Tehran would bring New Delhi long-term dividends

World Economic Forum

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  • New Delhi shows little appetite for stepping up on sanctions against #Iran @dhume01

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  • An Indian policy that privileges ties with #Iran would mean damaging long-term global aspirations

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  • If India does an end-run around Iranian sanctions, it risks falling into the company of Beijing

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How should India respond to U.S.-led efforts to halt Iran's suspected rogue nuclear weapons program? An India that uses its oil purchases and diplomatic clout to create breathing room for Iran risks scuppering the notion New Delhi has benefited from for more than a decade: that India's rise is beneficial to the West. By contrast, should India throw its weight behind a powerful anti-Iran coalition, it stands to gain by halting the further nuclearization of its neighborhood, blunting the spread of radical Islam and bolstering its credentials as a force for stability.

You would think India would decisively choose the latter path, but it's unclear where it stands on this question as of now. On one hand, since 2005, New Delhi has voted against Tehran three times at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has declared that India opposes the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, and has also withdrawn from negotiations to build a gas pipeline linking India to Iran via Pakistan.

At the same time, New Delhi shows little appetite for stepping up sanctions against the Islamic Republic, especially the recent round of U.S.-EU ones. On Sunday, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee declared that "it is not possible for India to take any decision to reduce the imports from Iran drastically."

India has sound practical reasons to avoid messy relations with Iran. It relies on Iran for land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia denied to it by Pakistan. India has helped upgrade Chabahar port in Iranian Baluchistan and has begun to link it with Afghanistan through a web of roads and railways. And as the U.S. draws down troops from Afghanistan, India and Iran share fears of a Taliban comeback. Then there's oil: Iran supplies 11% of India's imports. Meager domestic production also makes the Indian economy particularly vulnerable to a spike in global oil prices.

There are less practical factors weighing on the minds of India's foreign policy mandarins, too. Many of them imbue resisting Western pressure on Iran with almost totemic significance—as a symbol of the country's vaunted strategic autonomy. Successive governments have also felt that good relations with Iran's mullahs keeps India's large Shia Muslim population in good humor.

Not all the reasons offered by pro-Iran boosters hold up to scrutiny. There's scant evidence, for instance, that India's Shia place faith above country. And as a percentage of oil imports, India's dependence on Iran has declined about two points over the past two years. Saudi Arabia is India's top supplier.

The bigger issue is that any Indian policy that privileges ties with Iran ahead of the U.S.-India relationship misses the forest for the trees. It would mean damaging India's long-term global aspirations in the pursuit of short-term regional ones.

Consider how Indian intransigence looks to America. Cutting across party lines, policy makers in Washington don't see Iran as an issue where friends can agree to disagree. They may be happy to give India a pass when it prefers to buy European fighter jets over American ones, as it did last year; or when the Indian parliament passes a nuclear liability bill that effectively freezes out American companies, as it did two years ago. But Iran's quest for nuclear weapons is America's single most pressing security concern, and as far as many in Washington are concerned, it ought to be non-negotiable for its partners too.

India's foreign policy makers, most of whom seek the transformation of India into a global power, should understand this perception. Opposing U.S. policy strengthens the hand of those in America who argue that India is an unreliable partner. It undercuts those making the case that shared democratic values and common concerns about the rise of an authoritarian China and the dangers of jihadist terrorism bind the two countries together.

If New Delhi does an end-run around Iranian sanctions, it risks falling into the company of Beijing (India is the world's second-largest importer of Iranian oil, behind China). It would be a breathtaking miscalculation to expect that India can undermine a core U.S. security concern and still be seen as a benign power worthy of unequivocal backing at the head table of global affairs.

Whatever the short term argument for closer India-Iran ties, diminishing the mullahs' theocratic regime actually helps India in the long run. Granted, terrorism fueled by the Sunni Saudi-Pakistani axis has hurt India more directly than Shia Iran, but in the long war against radicalism, India ought to welcome the weakening of a regime synonymous with Islam's revolutionary potential, the abuse of human rights and support for terrorism.

Nor, of course, does a nuclear arms race in the Middle East serve India's interests. An Iranian bomb could well force Saudi Arabia and Egypt to follow suit.

For the foreseeable future, India's quest for security and prosperity is most effectively pursued in a predictable and stable U.S.-led international order. This means disagreeing with Washington where India's concerns trump American ones—as, until recently, on Myanmar—but being sensitive to threats to global stability. In short, India ought to bolster U.S.-led sanctions on Iran instead of balking at them.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.

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