From antipathy to military cooperation...?
Iran’s proximity has made it an important partner for India. By opening up privileged access routes to Afghanistan and central Asia, Iran allows India to circumvent the obstacle of Pakistan. India and Iran were both hostile to the Taliban regime (1996-2001). After the fall of the Taliban, India encouraged Afghanistan to open up to Iran to reduce its dependence on Pakistan. India and Iran together have built a road through southern Afghanistan up to the Iranian border (from Zaranj to Delaram) and are renovating the Iranian port of Chabahar, ideally situated on the Gulf of Oman, with a view to re-establishing a rail link connecting it to the Afghan road network. India is banking on cooperation with Iran to ensure that its growing energy needs are met in the future (1).
On the basis of these converging interests, an ambitious strategic partnership was established between 2000 and 2005, which concerns not just the energy sector and Afghanistan but military exchanges and arms sales, too.
Nevertheless, the partnership ran into difficulties over the nuclear issue and suspicions about Iran’s clandestine activities, which arose even as New Delhi was negotiating with Washington for special treatment as a de facto nuclear power although it had not signed the Non-proliferation Treaty (2). Confirmed in its status as a responsible state in terms of nuclear non-proliferation by the Washington Accord (3) and still hoping for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, India has taken part in a number of multilateral initiatives against Iran. It has voted against Iran three times at meetings of the board of governors of the IAEA (2005, 2006 and 2009) and, since 2006, has committed itself to imposing the sanctions decided by the UN Security Council. This has strained relations with Iran.
Yet India makes no secret of its reticence towards coercive measures and is fighting for a diplomatic solution. It is particularly reluctant to impose the additional sanctions adopted by the US and the European Union – especially as they affect the activities of Indian companies (4). India’s foreign secretary Nirupama Rao complained that they could have “a direct and adverse impact on Indian companies and, more importantly, on our energy security and our attempts to meet the development needs of our people” (5). But besides protecting its economic interests, India has two main preoccupations: it is anxious not to leave the field open to China in Iran and to avoid any aggravation of the Iranian crisis which might further destabilise a part of the world already fragile beacuse of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s domestic deterioration.
This is why India is unhappy about US pressure to align itself with a policy of firmness against Iran. Washington has reminded New Delhi that, as a strategic partner, it needs not only to choose its friends carefully but also show greater zeal for bringing pressure to bear on the Islamic Republic. But the Iran issue is also a means for India to prove that it is not unconditionally aligned with the US, and to send messages when it feels the US is making too many concessions to Pakistan under the pretext of combating terrorism. The Indian government is therefore careful to maintain high-level relations with Tehran, as shown by the visits of Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in May 2008 and foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki in November 2009.
1) India imports 12% of its crude oil from Iran.
(3) Announced in a joint declaration on 18 July 2005, the agreement was signed on 10 October 2008.
(4) Since spring 2010, the US has blacklisted five Indian companies on the grounds that they are heavily involved in Iran’s oil and gas sector. See Joel Brinkley, “India leads list in ignoring Iran sanctions”,International Herald Tribune, Paris, 21-22 August 2010.