Idea of India and Iran
There is a curious divide 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 former view is of India and Iran as bosom buddies, close friends who help each other diplomatically and economically. This view likes to speak of 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 latter view is hardly hostile to Iran, but it knows from experience that Iran is a difficult, very self-interested nation who has no problem in playing hard ball or turning on India if it believes it will benefit by doing so. In other words, a good old player of realpolitik. Which is fine, that is the norm in the world anyway. However, they know there is no “special relationship” between India and Iran, just one based on specific shared interests and a number of divergent 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 gap has between over Iran’s atomic ambitions where 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. The key petroleum relationship was that India refined Iranian crude and sent it back go Iran or to other third countries. The Reliance Corporation pulled the plug on that last year. India does import oil, but much of that is fungible — we can get it from somewhere else.
India’s 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. That’s nearly a fifth of what was being shipped in 2009-10. Iran is actually more desperate 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 Statets 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 cussed nation, its value structure and governmental system is brutal, regressive and terroristic — it does not provide a model for India in anyway 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 when they work on those they can get a fair amount of good things done. The constructive behaviour takes place best when there are no illusions that India and Iran are brethren.