February 21st, 2012
01:00 PM ET

Burns: India let U.S. down on Iran

Editor's Note: R. Nicholas Burns is Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. He served as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Previously, he was U.S. ambassador to NATO. The following piece was originally published at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government “Power and Policy” blog

By R. Nicholas Burns

The Indian government’s ill-advised statement last week that it will continue to purchase oil from Iran is a major setback for the U.S. attempt to isolate the Iranian government over the nuclear issue.

The New York Times reported recently that Indian authorities are actively aiding Indian firms to avoid current sanctions by advising them to pay for Iranian oil in Indian rupees. It may go even further by agreeing to barter deals with Iran – all to circumvent the sanctions regime carefully constructed by the U.S. and its friends and allies. According to the Times, India now has the dubious distinction of being the leading importer of Iranian oil.

This is bitterly disappointing news for those of us who have championed a close relationship with India. And, it represents a real setback in the attempt by the last three American Presidents to establish a close and strategic partnership with successive Indian governments.

The Indian government’s defense is that it relies on Iran for 12 percent of its oil imports and can’t afford to break those trade ties. But India has had years to adjust and make alternative arrangements. Ironically, the United States has had considerable success on the sanctions front in recent months. The EU has decided to implement an oil embargo on Iran, the U.S. is introducing Central Bank sanctions and even the East Asian countries, such as China, have imported less Iranian oil in recent months. That makes India’s recent pronouncements seem extremely out of step and out of touch with the new global determination to isolate and pressure Iran to negotiate in order to avoid a catastrophic war.

There’s a larger point here about India’s role in the world. For all the talk about India rising to become a global power, its government doesn’t always act like one. It is all too often focused on its own region but not much beyond it. And, it very seldom provides the kind of concrete leadership on tough issues that is necessary for the smooth functioning of the international system.

The Indian government has supported the four U.N. Security Council resolutions passed since 2006. It says Iran should give up its nuclear ambitions. But India hasn’t stepped up to a leadership role in the negotiations and has resisted the option of being a bridge between the Iranian government and the West. It has, instead, been largely passive and even invisible on this critical issue.

I wrote a Boston Globe column recently arguing that the U.S. should commit to an ambitious, long-term strategic partnership with India. I remain convinced of its value to both countries and to the new global balance of power being created in this century.

With its unhelpfulness on Iran and stonewalling on implementation of the landmark U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, however, the Indian government is now actively impeding the construction of the strategic relationship it says it wants with the United States.

Presidents Obama and Bush have met India more than halfway in offering concrete and highly visible commitments on issues India cares about.  On his state visit to India in November 2010, for example, President Obama committed the U.S. for the very first time to support India’s candidacy for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council. Like many others who wish to see India become a close strategic partner of the U.S., I supported the president’s announcement.

Unfortunately, India has made no corresponding gesture in return for the big vision that Obama and Bush have offered the Indian leadership. It’s time that India speaks much more clearly about the priority it places on its future with the United States. Most importantly, India must begin to provide the kind of visible leadership on difficult issues such as Iran that its many friends in the United States and around the world had expected to see by now.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of R. Nicholas Burns.

Topics: India • Iran • Oil • United States

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Reginald Dipwipple

    I'm worried about Iran. When a colleague of mine was sent there, he came back glowing.

    February 21, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  2. Joseph McCarthy

    Here I strongly congradulate India for doing the right thing about Iran. If only other countries would follow suit, this would be a great thing indeed!!!

    February 21, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
    • krm1007

      Indians are mere backstabbers and Americans need to open their eyes and withdraw all nuclear and technical support they are providing Indians at the american taxpayer expense. Indians are not trustworhty. Dont forget Indians were communist Soviet allies during the cold war and have not shed their skin.

      February 22, 2012 at 9:10 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Indians are known for being shrewd and enterprising business people. In fact bargain hunting seems to be their sport, a quality that proved Germany's Christian Wulff's undoing. He had to step down last week as the country's president. Indeed India's focus on regional affairs shows it's only interested in parochial realpolitik and isn't prepared to become a world-class player, like its arch-enemy Pakistan. Islamabad might not be amused that Delhi ingratiates itself with Tehran. Ahmadinejad had promised his host cheap energy during the trilateral summit held between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in Islamabad last week.

    February 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Reply
    • krm1007

      From an americam standpoint there is nothing shrewd about this. It is a downright stab in the American back which the Indians are well known for. Shame on the Indians.

      February 22, 2012 at 8:59 am | Reply
    • Vikram Rao

      Just because India does not see things your way does not mean it isnt a world player, On the contrary you will see exactly how much a player India actually is when it starts to derail sanctions that we in the west put up.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  4. Travis

    All I can say here is, kudos to India! I strongly admire a country that's not a pushover for the will of the right-wing politicians in Washington.

    February 21, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Reply
    • krm1007

      India is not a trustworthy partner or ally to the Americans. India's utility value is doing the dirty and cleanup work for the Americans in that region and providing R&R to the american soldiers from Afghanistan similar to what Bangkok was during the Vietnam war.

      February 22, 2012 at 9:17 am | Reply
  5. realist

    " President Obama committed the U.S. for the very first time to support India’s candidacy for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council"

    Let that happen first.

    February 21, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Reply
    • krm1007

      That is a joke. Humorous.

      February 22, 2012 at 9:19 am | Reply
  6. Sane Mind

    Mr Burn u are nothing but F**** M****ron. Go F***** yourself

    February 21, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Although I fully agree with you about this Burns dude here, Sane Mind, could you please not use that Tea Party lingo? It has no place here. Yes, Mr. Burns is another right-wing fanatic angered at India for not carrying out orders from Washington D.C. over Iran. It would be great if only more countries would do the same!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 8:54 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      I agree with you, Sane Mind. Mr. Burns is just another mouth-piece for the right-wing thugs in Washington seeking to become dominant everywhere!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 8:59 am | Reply
  7. Jigar

    I don't agree with author here. He is analyzing issue from the US point of view. You can truly understand the policy of a country only if you live in one. Analysis based on TV news or some visible actions is no good at all. I can say that because I am from India and I have been in US for a long time and I have experienced both political system and culture very closely.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Reply
  8. S.V.P.YADAV

    Respected, Mr.R.Nicholas Burns, About Indian cncerns to IRAN, Indias relationship with gulf is exellent since past 100years and at the same time Indo-US relations are also good since 15years.But about Indias concern,It s a very big country with 120crore population and we need fuel and gas pipe lines from gulf in mean while IRAN supported us excellently and bilateral matter negotiations good.so INDIA will support to IRAN on democracy policy basis.Please do nat ignore.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:12 am | Reply
  9. krm1007

    India poses a clear and present danger to the regional security of the world. ...to USA...NATO...Pakistan and Afghanistan people and armed forces. Hindu cult extremism is on the rise and fanning all terrorism worldwide. Indians are the bankers to and financing terrorism and supporting Talibans and Al Qaeda and harboring them in India. These terrorists are being entertained in the Indian parliament building in New Delhi where they are residing and then smuggled over to Pakistan in Indian Army helicopters. Shame on these Indians.

    February 22, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
    • Vrij

      krm1007, You are a nothing but a 'Paki', aren't you? every second post from you spills hate for India.

      Regarding the post, I agree India cannot jeopardize its ties with Iran or US and prefer to remain stoic regarding the ongoing conflict. This is something that US must understand. India has a huge need for oil and gas to feed its population.
      If US wants to play the world police, they can, but India is strong willed democratic country and she knows how to play safe when it comes to her international relations. Talking about being the fav US ally, I think pakistan is the strongest ally to US...hahaha! That is why we see all US flags being burned in Paki land, hate and revenge in every paki's blood.

      krm 1007, go wash your face in Mecca and Medina's water...it will open your eyes!!

      February 23, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Reply
    • S.V.P.YADAV

      Dear Krm1007, We are liberal people and we are innocents, Please do not hesitate.

      February 24, 2012 at 11:51 am | Reply
  10. Toppolina

    More power to you India, go for it. You always advocated the rights of the oppressed. Glad you are not part of this dirty game.

    February 22, 2012 at 9:21 am | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Thank you, Toppolina. I couldn't agree more! It's great to see another country not taking orders from Washington D.C. which is only too rare these days!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  11. HP

    Yeah right, If India refuses to blindly follow America it becomes backstabber. Isn't this same America that imposed sanctions on India too?
    India gives a flying F*** to American sanctions. Don't we all know how Barack Obama came to India begging for 50000 job opportunities through Indian business orders.
    India is independent country and will decide its own actions and not blindly follow any other country.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Reply
  12. arun

    US and its so called allies have no problem with Pakistan having nuclear weapons , they never put pressure on Israel to come clean , but are whining over dubious reports of Iran trying to develop them, HYPOCRITES
    They are warning Iran to be punished of sin Israel has already committed.
    If they seriously want nuclear weapon free world why haven't they made any progress towards nuclear disarmament .
    India's position on Iran is truly justified , not only it imports 12% of its oil from Iran but many of its refineries are made to operate for Iranian crude oil,
    and even if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons sanctions cant stop it from doing so , its the common people of Iran that will suffer not the elite politicians

    February 25, 2012 at 9:11 am | Reply
  13. Vikram Rao

    Mr Burns, exactly what world opinion are you talking about ? Lets do some basic math China, India, Russia, Pakistan, Indonesia themselves contain almost 60% of the worlds population and do not want any sanctions or attacks on Iran. The West sits in a closed room decides and comes out and says sanctions have to be followed ? And then you act surprised when there is resistance ? You talk of a slap in the face, America has armed Pakistan both financially and militarily against Indian concerns for more than a decade and then you call us allies. America has never treated India as a tier 1 ally, now India is doing the same and its so dramatic. India will put its own security first and all else next, I would not expect America to be any different if the shoe was on the other foot. Im no fan of the President of Iran, but what we in America are trying to tell the world is all wrong, if America wants to build walls, it should do it with Canada and Mexico, not go to Asia and try building one between India and Iran.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Reply
  14. Pattriot49

    Why should India, a nation with 1.25 Billion people yield to US pressure against National interest? India will do what is right for them. Look India and Pakistan are war since 1947, did USA ever supported India against Pakistan? Even today US is blackmailed by Pakistan and get what they want from USA, did ever US thought that weapons given to Pakistan are only to use against India? So please give up that talk of blind loyalty, even Israel does not go US way with billions in aid!

    March 14, 2012 at 7:47 am | Reply

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