India's Tough Choice on Iran

By Sadanand Dhume
Special to's Think Tank Town
Saturday, August 11, 2007; 12:00 AM

With last month's consummation of a landmark agreement to cooperate with the United States on civilian nuclear programs, India took another large stride from the periphery to the center of the global order. Not many countries can boast a special relationship with the world's sole superpower, an economy that's expanding at upwards of 8 percent per year, and a democracy lauded for holding together a billion people of every conceivable class, color and creed.

Indeed, at times it seems as though most everyone has reason to smile upon a rising India. For idealists here's proof that democracy belongs as much to poor countries as to rich ones, and that you don't have to choose between democracy and development. For realists, a large English-speaking country with a free market and rule of law is a reassuring presence in a neighborhood that includes both an unpredictable China and the turmoil of Pakistan and Afghanistan. For the first time since India's independence 60 years ago the West appears willing to see it as the pivotal power in an arc stretching from Singapore to Aden.

But as the world adjusts to India's new clout, India itself is struggling to come to terms with new responsibilities. Nothing captures this as starkly as its relationship with Iran. Should India sidestep or stonewall the international community's effort to thwart Iran's apparent drive for nuclear weapons, it gives India's detractors -- including those in the U.S. Congress who would like nothing better than to bury the civil nuclear deal -- proof that New Delhi sees global problems in narrow regional terms, and that it is yet to kick an old habit of conflating policy independence with anti-Americanism. On the flip side, nothing will dispel those doubts faster than an unambiguous message that a nuclear armed Iran is as unacceptable to India as it is to the U.S., the U.K. or France.

To put it bluntly then, India faces a simple choice. A tepid response to the Iranian threat will reveal an India too mired in Third Worldism and too heedless of the dangers of proliferation and global terrorism to be counted on as a reliable partner for the West. A robust response, on the other hand, will showcase a country ready to shoulder responsibilities commensurate with its size, ambition and growing economic heft.

Until now, India has veered between cooperation and confrontation. At the International Atomic Energy Agency, India voted twice in the last two years to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council. At the same time, successive Indian petroleum ministers have ignored U.S. concerns and publicly touted an Indo-Iranian gas pipeline that would undercut efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. A defense co-operation agreement has also raised questions.

And, just last month, India's ruling Congress party, backed by its communist allies, nominated for the (largely ceremonial) vice presidency a former Indian ambassador to Iran publicly sympathetic toward its nuclear program.

Understanding India's Iran policy requires unpacking a complex mix of interests, sentiment, politics and diplomatic habits. Many Indians view Iran's vast oil and gas reserves as essential to quenching India's long-term thirst for energy. Iran and India also share an interest in taming Afghanistan's Taliban--and the brand of Sunni fundamentalism it represents--that predates U.S. involvement in the country. Finally, Iran offers India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia denied by a hostile Pakistan.

Then come intangible, cultural sympathies along with somewhat cruder considerations of domestic politics. Hindi and Persian, we're reminded, both belong to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family, and in more recent times Persian was the court language of India's Mughal empire. India houses the world's second largest population of Shia (about 30 million people). Their concentration in pockets of north and central India, reputed affinity for Iran, and alleged tendency to vote en bloc, gives them an outsized voice in New Delhi's calculations.

More broadly, Indian Muslim groups and communists have entered a loose compact that hinges on their mistrust of both market-friendly reforms and closer ties with the United States. They jointly spearheaded last year's protests during President Bush's visit to India, and scuttled a bid to honor him with an invitation to address parliament. Their voice is amplified by disproportionate representation among India's intellectual elites, many of whom would like to see a foreign policy marked more by the anti-American rhetoric of Zimbabwe and Venezuela than by the quiet realism of, say, Korea and Japan.

This impulse is reflected in the matter of, for want of a better term, diplomatic style. The pipeline project, for example, is little more than a fantasy at this point, and Indo-Iranian defense agreements barely worth the paper they're printed on. Yet when it comes to Iran some Indian politicians scarcely let pass an opportunity to tom-tom an "independent foreign policy" and "deep civilizational ties."

In fact, despite all the talk about ancient ties, Iran's ruling mullahs are completely at odds with India's proud tradition of pluralism, and aren't exactly known for their appreciation of Indic culture. Annual two-way trade is a relatively paltry $6 billion, most of it made up of Indian oil imports. People-to-people ties scarcely extend beyond visiting Indian pilgrims and the odd mullah-in-training in Qom.

Should India look dispassionately at Iran, it will see a regime whose nuclear ambitions only add volatility to an already volatile region. The two country's approaches to nuclear weapons could not be more different. India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty on principle, but has been scrupulous about adhering to international non-proliferation norms. Iran signed the NPT and then cheated by surreptitiously shopping at Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan's nuclear black market. And though Iran does not support terrorism in India, New Delhi can hardly expect the world to condemn Islamabad's coddling of assorted jihadists while ignoring Tehran's backing of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Ultimately India must weigh its interest in emerging as a responsible member of the international system against a bilateral relationship long on rhetoric but short on substance. The world will be watching to see which way India turns.

Sadanand Dhume is a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company