India’s Iran Policy Starting to Mirror Its Israel Policy

As with Israel, India begins to hide its engagement with Iran behind hostile rhetoric.

Government building in New Delhi, India, 2008
Government building in New Delhi, India, 2008 (Laurie Jones)

A slow but sure shift can be observed in India’s Iran policy. What is curious about this is that in many ways, India’s Israel policy seems to be the blueprint.

The Indian government still emphasizes the significance of Iranian oil and gas buys. This position is bolstered by Saudi Arabia’s refusal to boost output last week in anticipation of an expected drop in Iranian exports. Following a beggars can’t be choosers logic, New Delhi has refrained from joining an embargo of Iranian crude despite heavy Western pressure to do so.

Reports have surfaced of sanctions being threatened against India for its obstructionism in this regard. The nature and substance of these sanctions remains unknown. The United States State Department though, in an unusual step, rather than squelching the rumors, added fuel to the flames, stating merely that reports to this effect were “highly speculative.”

There are two implication of such a threat being held over India.

First, that the entire dynamic of Indo-American rapprochement being a Sinocentric one now stand challenged. If India believed that its primary role was to act as a demographic counterweight to China, its gradual loss of economic traction is weakening the bargaining power it had accumulated in the relationship.

Further down the road, such pressure simply confirms the allegation of the Indian left that the United States were always going to be a perfidious ally unworthy of being relied upon. The ruling Congress party will be in no mood to forgive the Americans should such pressure result in more electoral losses as is widely expected.

In the meantime, Narendra Modi, the opposition’s likely prime ministerial candidate, while being shunned by the West, is actively wooed by China.

Given these circumstances, the calculus of balancing against China shifts decisively over the long term to bandwagoning with China should America be perceived as an economic or political liability.

Coming to the two protagonists Israel and Iran — India has for a significant time now depended on the former for traditional security and on the latter for energy security. Yet in its dealings with Israel, India has often been at the forefront of condemning every Israeli action, frequently going over and above Arab expectations.

To be fair, Arab condemnations are far more rhetorical as these countries have been obsessed for some time with the Iranian threat. So assuming a rhetorical position that aligned with Arab states while maintaining a policy more like the Arabs’ Western friends in having strong economic and military ties with Israel makes perfect sense.

With Iran on the other hand, India has frequently ignored those same Arab concerns, supporting Iran both rhetorically and in terms of putting its money where its mouth is.

South Asia in the last few weeks has witnessed the assassination of a Saudi diplomat in Bangladesh that was linked to Iran and the attempted killing an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi. Arrests in the later case are now pointing very clearly to an Iranian hand.

India’s hand are tied to such an extent that the rhetorical support of Iran has become too much of a liability. If anything, this may be just the excuse India was looking for to throw the Iranians overboard — at least rhetorically.

What to expect in the near future?

India will use the attack on the Israeli diplomat to downgrade its ties with Iran — at a visible level and also ramp up its rhetoric.

This will be to muffle the visible impact of its increasing imports of Iranian oil and gas. In many ways, this will be a mirror image of India’s Israel policy — engagement masked (and in many ways aided) by public hostility.

However, should India be arm twisted into giving up its trade with Iran in the medium to long term, a decisive cooling in Indo-American relations is to be expected as everyone in India, right and left, will perceive the alliance as simply not worth the price. Should sanctions on India eventuate (and this possibility cannot be discounted) “cooling” will in all probability turn to frigidity.

There are no easy solutions to this conundrum since at its crux, it concerns two democracies, adopting diametrically opposed policies, driven by natural democratic impulses.

Just as India has overriding domestic political considerations that make the engagement of Iran a sine qua non of Indian foreign policy, there are equally democratic considerations that make the isolation of Iran a nonnegotiable of American policy. Invariably in Greek tragedies and Hollywood blockbusters, such a situation is resolved by a deus ex machina. In reality, such devices seldom exist.

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