Squaring a triangle?

India wants relations with Iran, the US and Israel.

Indian communist 298.88 (photo credit: )
Indian communist 298.88
(photo credit: )
By voting with the majority at the IAEA and endorsing the decision to refer the question of Iran's suspected nuclear program to the UN Security Council, India has opened a new chapter in its foreign policy. At one level, this vote was in continuation of its decision last September to distance itself from Iran on the nuclear question and put an end to growing uncertainties in Washington over its role as a dependable player. At the same time, the vote has cast a long shadow over not only India's policy toward Iran but also the stability of the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. For political, economic and religious as well as energy considerations, political parties in India have demanded and worked toward closer ties with Teheran. Until recently the principal parties, namely, the Congress and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had sought closer politico-economic ties with the Islamic republic. Friendlier ties with Teheran were often seen as an effective countervailing force against India's troubled relations with Muslim Pakistan. Indeed, of late, relations with Iran have emerged as the only issue on which a foreign policy consensus has prevailed. THERE IS also a domestic dimension. Since the September vote, some Indian leaders have publicly underscored the Shi'ite factor in India's Iran policy. Even though the majority of its Muslim population is Sunni, support for Shi'ite Iran enjoys greater public support in India. Moreover, the communists and their allies, whose support is vital for the survival of the Singh-led coalition government, view Iran as a rallying point for its anti-American rhetoric. The Left parties have issued warnings against Singh abandoning a fellow member of the non-aligned movement in favor of what they argue is American imperialism. For them, the nuclear row in Vienna offers an opportunity for India to reemerge as the torchbearer of Third World solidarity and occupy the forefront of the anti-imperialist struggle. After the Iraq crisis the Left in India found Iran as a new avatar for its ideological platform. The potential of Iran emerging as the principal source of India's energy demands and a long-term supplier of gas added a true strategic dimension. The steady economic growth is accelerating India's dependence upon energy imports, and Iran is seen as a major source of oil and gas needs. After years of hesitation and doubts, last year India entered into an agreement whereby Iran would supply 5 million tons of gas annually over a 20-year period. THIS RELATIONSHIP with Iran, however, comes into conflict with India's ties with Israel as well as with the US. Ever since normalization of relations in 1992, Israel has expressed its concerns over the Indo-Iranian relationship. During his state visit to India in September 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused Teheran of supporting international terrorism. He even expressed concerns over Israeli military technology falling into the hands of Iranians through New Delhi and demanded strong guarantees against such an eventuality. Moreover, the muted Indian response to the "wipe Israel off the map" remarks by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not go down well with the Israeli government, and some have expressed disappointment - even astonishment - at New Delhi's refusal to condemn these statements strongly. FOR ITS part, Iran had avoided interfering in the Indo-Israeli relations. In contrast to countries like Egypt, until now it had refrained from making any adverse remarks against Indo-Israeli ties, especially the growing military relations between the two countries. A far more serious challenge to India's Iran policy, however, comes from the US. Since the end of the Cold War New Delhi has recognized the need to cultivate close ties with the sole superpower. While support from the US alone is insufficient for India to achieve great-power status, opposition from Washington could scuttle such aspirations. The willingness of the Bush administration to circumvent the powerful domestic non-proliferation lobby and meet India's energy requirements through civilian nuclear cooperation underscores India's growing importance in Washington. This in turn placed India's ties with Iran - especially the building of a gas pipeline - under the American scanner. Given its growing concerns vis- -vis Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions, the Bush administration could not be expected to endorse nuclear cooperation with India if the latter were to pursue an independent policy over Iran at the IAEA. Indeed, on the eve of the second vote, the US ambassador in New Delhi, David Mulford, issued a veiled threat against India. While voting against Iran would not be sufficient to overcome the Congressional opposition to the nuclear deal, voting with Iran would have made things worse for India in Congress. Despite the vote, India is unlikely to abandon Iran. It has strong interest in maintaining and strengthening its ties with Teheran. Unlike China and Russia, its leverage vis- -vis Teheran is relatively limited. For instance, there are indications that Iran is demanding a higher price for an already concluded gas deal. In short, for political, economic and security reasons, India needs to maintain close ties with Iran, as well as with Israel and the US. While the latter two are complementary, relations with Iran place India in a fix. That is why India's Iran policy is one of the most serious challenges facing foreign policy decision makers in New Delhi. The write teaches Israeli politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.