By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
India is America's friend, Israel's friend and Iran's friend. Amid all the talk of an Israeli strike on Iran, how is India managing to stay friends with everyone? What in the world is going on?
India is being criticized here in America for continuing to trade with Iran despite coordinated sanctions on Tehran. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a staff editorial calling New Delhi "the mullahs' last best friend." It also criticized India for casting its lot with Moscow and Beijing "for a handful of rupees."
Let's get some perspective.
New Delhi's defense is this: Iran is the world's 4th largest oil producer. It's biggest customer is India, which happens to be among the world's largest oil consumers and importers. The type of crude best suited to India's needs happens to be Iranian oil.
So there's an economic argument here - India needs Iran's oil as much as Iran needs to sell it. There have been reports the two countries reached a trade agreement to circumvent sanctions. Iran can't trade in dollars, so it is selling oil to India for rupees and bartered goods instead.
But there are also geopolitical concerns. India lives in a rough neighborhood, with an intense rivalry with Pakistan. Pakistan has for decades believed that it needed to limit India's influence in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. Islamabad has supported the Taliban against the Indian-backed Northern Alliance. And who helped India by siding with the Northern Alliance as well? Iran. The Iranians have always been hostile to the Pakistan-Taliban axis.
Outside of what it views as core interests, India is nowadays inactive on foreign policy. It has rarely been a force for good in the region or around the world. When the Maldives recently had a coup, New Delhi remained passive. During years of unrest in Myanmar, India rarely took a firm stance against the country's brutal military junta. And so on with other crises in the region in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and more. Compared to the clout it wants to have, New Delhi has paid only mild attention to its foreign policy. The Economist recently pointed out that India, with its population of 1.2 billion, has fewer diplomats than New Zealand, with a population of just 4 million!
Americans tend to believe that all good things go together. They befriend India, another democracy, so they will have identical views of foreign policy - the same friends and enemies. But India has different economic and geographic interests. Indians, for their part, think they can be free-riders on the international system, exploit the stability and security of the current set up and narrowly pursue their own interests. But for the world's largest democracy, that's an unworthy mission. India does have a tryst with destiny - and it isn't to buy cheap oil from whomever and damn the consequences.