Idea of India and Iran

There is a curious discrepancy between the popular Indian view of the relationship between New Delhi and Tehran, and how it is perceived within official circles in New Delhi.

The popular view is of India and Iran as bosom buddies, close friends who help each other diplomatically and economically. This view expounds the “civilisational” ties between the two countries and believes that if only we could get the Americans and other obstructionist types off our back, there would be no stopping Indo-Iranian ties. This is the Taj Mahal school, a vision of an Indo-Persian construction of ethereal beauty.

The view from inside New Delhi, on the other hand, while hardly hostile to Iran, knows from experience that Iran is a difficult, very self-interested nation who has no problems playing hard ball or turning on India if it could benefit by doing so. In other words, a good old player of realpolitik. Which is fine; that’s the norm in the world, anyway. They know there is no “special relationship” between India and Iran, just one based on a few shared (and many diverging) interests.

Iran generally finds common cause with India against Pakistan. It has tried to woo Islamabad in the past, but without success. But it joined India and Russia in backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. It helped keep Kashmir off the agenda of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and other such fora.

But Iran has also supported resolutions in the United Nations demanding all nuclear states sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The target was Israel, but when India protested, Tehran basically said, “Tough.” Tehran has close ties with China. And the biggest divergence has been over Iran’s atomic ambitions; India has pointed out that an overtly nuclear weaponised Iran would lead Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to implement their tacit oil-for-nukes agreement and form an extremely dangerous axis. Iran has listened and said, “Tough.”

The economic relationship is actually quite threadbare. India doesn’t import a drop of natural gas from Iran. It does import oil, but much of that is fungible — we can get it from somewhere else. India’s oil imports from Iran peaked in 2009-10 and have fallen precipitously since then. I suspect Indian imports will fall to as little as 200,000 barrels per day by summer, nearly a fifth of what was being shipped in 2009-10.

India plays a much more crucial role than importer in the Indo-Iranian petroleum relationship: that of refiner. Before the Reliance Corporation pulled the plug last year, India refined Iranian crude and sent it back to Iran or on to other countries. Iran is actually more desperate to lose India than the other way around because there are only three or four countries who can refine its sour crude.

So why is India struggling to ensure relations with Iran aren’t deep-sixed? Partly because it sees the utility of Iran rising as the United States moves towards withdrawal from Afghanistan. Partly because it doesn’t want to be seen as following the US’s unilateral moves. But a lot of its motives lie in a belief that, whatever happens, Iran is heading to become the dominant power of the Persian Gulf in a decade or so. By then the US will not be the country most affected by disrupted oil and gas supplies through the Straits of Hormuz — it will be India and China. So keeping the Persians happy will be essential.

That hardly means subservience. Iran is a cursed nation; its value structure and governmental system is brutal, regressive and terroristic — it does not provide a model for India in any way whatsoever. Indian diplomats who have to deal with Iran describe a country who sees dishonesty as acceptable at the negotiating table and which will sign deals one day and then unilaterally rip them up the next.

India owes Iran no favours and vice versa. But they have common interests, and working together has led to many successes. The most constructive behaviour happens when there are no illusions that India and Iran are brethren.


Copyright © 2012 Hindustan Times.

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