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The Washington Quarterly: India's Relations With Iran

Author: Harsh V. Pant
Winter 2011

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In the last few years, India's policy toward the Middle East has oftenbeen viewed through the prism of Indian—Iranian relations. The international community, and the West in particular, has been obsessed with New Delhi's ties to Tehran, which are actually largely underdeveloped, while missing India's much more substantive simultaneous engagement with Arab Gulf states and Israel. India's relationship with the Middle East as a region is dramatically different than a generation ago. From 1947—1986, as at least one academic has argued, India was too ideological toward the region, paying insufficient attention to Indian national interests, particularly in its subdued ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Today, however, India is developing its new Middle Eastern strategy around these three states, with New Delhi recently taking special care to nurture all these relationships and pursue its substantial regional interests.

A Weak Litmus Test

Ever since India and the United States began to transform their ties by changing the global nuclear order to accommodate India with the 2005 framework for the Indo—U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, Iran has become a litmus test that India has occasionally been asked to pass to satisfy U.S. policymakers. Nascent Indian—Iranian ties have been categorized by some analysts as an ‘‘axis,'' a ‘‘strategic partnership,'' or even an ‘‘alliance,'' which some in the U.S. strategic community have suggested could have a potentially damaging impact on U.S. interests in Southwest Asia and the Middle East.

Given the U.S. obsession with Iran during the last few years, India has been asked to prove its loyalty to the United States by lining up behind Washington at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the question of Iran's nuclear program. The Bush administration stated clearly that if India voted against the February 2006 U.S. motion on Iran at the IAEA, Congress would likely not approve the Indo—U.S. nuclear agreement. Then-Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA) threatened that India ‘‘will pay a heavy price for a disregard of U.S. concerns vis-a-vis Iran.''3 India finally voted in February 2006 with 26 other nations to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. This was the second time India voted with the United States on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program. Nevertheless, many members of Congress continued to demand thatWashington make the nuclear deal conditional on New Delhi's ending all military relations with Tehran. They cited a visit by Iranian naval vessels in June 2006 to the Indian port of Kochi for five days of joint exercises, which included training for Iranian cadets, as an example of activities that needed to cease.

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