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India - Iran Relations

Ultimately, although formal India-Iran relations are cordial, they remain prickly and ultimately self-serving. India's policy has always been based on hard national security interests, despite all the talk of brotherly relations. What is clear is that the elites in New Delhi do not want to have to choose sides between Tehran and Washington. Indian policy is informed by a hard-nosed realpolitik calculus, but reflects a hope that Washington may one day adopt a modus vivendi with Tehran, at which stage India would position itself to help build bridges between its two partners.

As preeminent political commentator Raja Mohan notes, institutional incompetence may be a major hurdle for New Delhi. While previous international circumstances had made engaging with Iran difficult, Indias internal incoherence may produce big concerns. Given Indias rather porous track record in delivering promises, internal problems loom large despite a consensus being hammered out with international shareholders. Iran may not always align itself with Indias geostrategic goals. China is also crucial to Tehrans core interests.

India's ties to Iran have a Pakistan and Afghanistan dimension as well. India sees Iran as a useful power with which to cooperate to encircle Pakistan, although it recognizes that Tehran aligns with Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir, and has in the past protested India's treatment of Muslims. Iran, desiring Indian business and suffering its own strained relations with Pakistan, appears deliberately to have toned down its earlier comments on Muslims in order to maintain good relations with India. The outcome of both parties' balancing is a politely cordial but shallow commonality of interests.

Iran's importance to India is greatly enhanced by Pakistan's unwillingness to grant transit rights to Indian goods moving to Afghanistan. Helping Afghanistan is a top Indian foreign policy goal. Iran is India's least expensive alternative entry point to reach Afghanistan and Central Asian markets, leading to the Indian commitment to expand the Chabahar port and build roads from there to Afghanistan. However, the MEA has complained that Iran has been less than helpful to India in providing access to Afghanistan and support (supplies and fuel) for India's Afghan reconstruction efforts.

India engaged in a risky balancing act in its Iran policies. While the GOI had no illusions about Iran's nuclear ambitions or support for terrorism, these concerns were subordinate in its foreign policy and economic considerations. New Delhi feared the consequences of being forced to choose between Iran and the US or other western countries if the nuclear standoff escalated. Against this danger, India saw Iran as an enormous actual and potential energy supplier, and a balancing power on Pakistan's opposite border. Thus, Indian policy tries to advance its interests with Tehran, appease the West, and largely ignore looming crises. Iran was long keen to showcase bilateral visits with India to demonstrate that it was fully engaged with the international community.

US concerns with Iran (WMD programs and support for terrorism) remain largely unaddressed in GOI policy-making in part because they are hidden under two levels of neglect from decision makers. First, Iran is the third priority in the MEA division tasked with overseeing the relationships with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Second, Iran's attraction for Indian foreign policy is primarily as a source of oil and natural gas, and not out of any ideological affinity. Iran's role as a gateway to Afghanistan, a neighbor to play off of Pakistan, and a swing state in the Muslim world are also important. Although the GOI acknowledges international worries about Iran's nuclear deceit and support for terrorism, it limited itself in public to anodyne suggestions encouraging Iran to clear up problems through dialogue with the IAEA.

Indian Muslims are suspicious about US intentions regarding Iran and this has effected US relations with the entire Muslim world. While Muslim leaders are eagerly debating (with some accepting easy money from Iran or Saudi Arabia), the Muslim man on the street is largely oblivious.

Iran sees itself as a protector of Shia around the world, including some 13 million in India. The Iranian Embassy is very active in Shia cities like Lucknow. The Iranian Embassy funded a new [2006] Urdu daily "Shahafat" in New Delhi that comes out with anti-US diatribes, and Teheran was already providing lavish funding to "Hindustan," a leading Urdu daily in Mumbai. Most local Muslims view Iran with suspicion and do not want to alienate the Indian government. They are largely content to let the government deal with Iran. While Iran would certainly like to recruit Indian Muslims to its cause, they may find that their money is not well-spent in India.

The UPA came to power promising to improve India's relations with the Muslim world. Domestic opinion continued to influence GOI policy toward Iran. The UPA government derived a significant portion of its support from the Left Front and Congress factions who view Iran as a plucky developing nation holding out against Western imperialism.



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