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Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012

The Iranian factor in U.S.-Indian relations

Special to The Japan Times

LOS ANGELES — In what some are seeing as a diplomatic victory for Tehran, New Delhi has so far resisted complying with new U.S. sanctions aimed at shutting down the Iranian petroleum sector as a means of pressuring the Islamic Republic to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.

With India purchasing about 10 percent of its oil imports from Iran, many analysts have tied New Delhi's stance to its burgeoning energy security needs. But there is also another important factor at work, though it is largely unrecognized in Washington: the Obama administration's quickening disengagement from Afghanistan is pushing India to strengthen relations with Iran.

Energy security is a substantial reason for New Delhi's reluctance to break its oil links with Tehran. Possessing the world's second largest oil and natural gas reserves, Iran ranks just behind Saudi Arabia as India's most important crude oil supplier. Given its rapidly growing population and economic base, as well as relative dearth of domestic energy resources, India would be hard pressed to reduce drastically its reliance on Iranian oil in the short term.

Tehran's atomic ambitions have been an irritant in U.S.-India relations for a number of years. Influential voices in the U.S. Congress, for instance, attempted to link New Delhi's cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue to passage of the landmark U.S.-India nuclear cooperation accord. With the Indian government defying the latest round of anti-Iranian sanctions, analysts are once again warning that New Delhi risks being seen in Washington as an unreliable strategic partner.

But strategic fecklessness is also a charge that India can creditably levy at the United States. Indeed, another significant reason for New Delhi's continuing desire to engage Tehran resides in the adverse effect on Indian security concerns caused by the U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan. With domestic politics largely driving U.S. strategy, key differences are bound to emerge between the U.S. and India regarding the political endgame that is now unfolding.

Looking toward the exits, Washington will not be overly concerned with the exact details of the future makeup of Afghanistan or the viability of the government in Kabul it leaves behind. In contrast, New Delhi, which has invested heavily in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, has strong security interests in ensuring that any regime in Kabul is capable enough to be a bulwark against Pakistan as well as a gateway to trade and energy links in Central Asia.

India has traditionally relied upon Iran, whose interests in Afghanistan are roughly congruent, to help accomplish these goals. Indeed, both countries may go so far as to revive their cooperation during the 1990s that provided critical support to the non-Pashtun militias battling the Taliban regime. (Already reports are surfacing that the old Northern Alliance may be reconstituting itself.) The Americans will surely grumble about the cozying up with Iran, but the geopolitical logic of the Obama withdrawal leaves New Delhi little choice.

India has for some time now signaled how the Afghanistan factor looms over its relations with Iran. Speaking in mid-2010, at a time of renewed U.S. pressure on New Delhi's bonds with Tehran, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao (who now serves as New Delhi's ambassador in Washington) gave a noteworthy address on the relationship. She highlighted the "unique" civilizational ties and "the instinctive feeling of goodwill" between the two countries. She spoke of how links with Tehran are a "fundamental component" of Indian foreign policy and how there has been a recent "convergence of views" on important policy issues. Regarding bilateral cooperation on Afghanistan, she argued that New Delhi and Tehran"are of the region and will belong here forever, even as outsiders [read the Americans] come and go."

Reinforcing this message, a senior Indian official was quoted in the press at the same time as saying that efforts to tighten relations with Iran were a policy "recalibration" caused by the "scenario unfolding in Afghanistan and India's determination to secure its national interests."

The tussle over Iranian sanctions is a harbinger of bigger challenges ahead for U.S.-India relations. One of the key foreign policy conundrums the Obama administration faces is how to reconcile its approach on Afghanistan, which has the effect of aggravating ties with New Delhi, with its recently-unveiled strategic "pivot" toward Asia, the success of which hinges in important measure on a strengthening of the security partnership with India. The interplay of two conflicting dynamics in bilateral affairs — growing strategic cooperation in East Asia and unfolding differences over the future of Afghanistan — will be a key factor to watch for in the months ahead.

David J. Karl (asiastrategy21@gmail.com) is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm based in Los Angeles. He earlier served as the director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy.

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