“We’ll talk to the Saudis, but why would we want to go for excessive dependence on their energy supplies at a time when we are not convinced their leverage in South Asia is being used in a positive way?” asked Siddharth Varadarajan, a strategic affairs expert and editor of the Hindu newspaper. “I don’t think India would like to be forced away from being a major customer of Iranian oil.”
Worries about conflict
India has made it clear that it opposes a nuclear-armed Iran, supporting the United States against Iran in votes at the International Atomic Energy Agency on four occasions in recent years, despite complaints from Tehran and significant political fallout at home. India also backed away from plans to build a pipeline to import Iranian natural gas through Pakistan, partly because of American pressure.
But from India’s perspective, any effort to isolate Iran seems dangerous and counterproductive. India has long historical and cultural ties with predominantly Shiite Iran, and tens of millions of Shiites live among the more than 150 million Muslims in India.
India is also deeply concerned about the potential fallout from a Western conflict with Iran, especially if it were to worsen sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims across the region.
“Many oil-producing areas are dominated” by Shiites, said Ranjit Singh Kalha, a former Indian ambassador to Iraq. “It’s sectarian strife that will cause problems; that’s what worries us. It might ignite the whole region.”
Conflict with Iran could also force the United States into a closer alliance with Pakistan, and what many people refer to as a “military-jihadi complex” there.
Mathai put India’s concerns as diplomatically as possible this week.
“Peace and stability and a climate of moderation in the region are absolutely vital for us,” he told the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
What he meant, commentators here said, is that India would choose a nuclear-armed Iran rather than war as the lesser of two evils.
But the Indian government’s position has been criticized here.
Varadarajan said India should have done more to talk the two sides down from confrontation, “to be a strong, independent voice for sanity in the region,” and to assume the global role that its ambitions for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council imply.
Last week, the U.S. ambassador-designate to India, Nancy Powell, defended India’s policy toward Iran under some pointed questioning at her confirmation hearings. She underlined India’s moves to curb oil imports and support the United States at the IAEA, while also promising to work on the issue “very seriously and very early in my tenure.”
While it is unrealistic to expect India to cut off all oil imports from Iran, there is a middle ground. New Delhi could play a role “to provide perspectives on what is happening in the region, as well as to carry messages,” Fontaine said.
“But we have to be sensitive to politics in India as well as the U.S.,” he said. “Publicly goading India to get tough with Iran is not going to result in the outcome the U.S. is seeking. . . . The question is, how do we work with India as a partner?”