India and Iran: Similar experiences, converging interests
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a meeting at the Prime Minister's office in New Delhi on April 29, 2008. (Getty Images)
February 21st, 2012
01:15 PM ET

India and Iran: Similar experiences, converging interests

Editor’s Note: Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Michigan State University and Adjunct Scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

By Mohammed Ayoob - Special to CNN

Recent reports coming out of New Delhi indicate that India does not intend to comply with the unilateral economic sanctions imposed upon Iran by the United States and the European Union.  In fact, the opposite may be true.  India may attempt to take advantage of new opportunities in Iran created by the sanctions imposed on oil sales and financial transactions by Western powers.

The Indian Commerce Secretary announced a few days ago, “We will be mounting a mission to Iran at the end of the month to promote our own exports. A huge delegation will be going.” While acknowledging that India was honoring the four rounds of sanctions imposed upon Iran by the United Nations, the Indian official made clear that India was not willing to go along with the American-European sanctions. He asked rhetorically, “Tell me why I should follow suit? Why shouldn’t I take up that business opportunity?”

At the same time, the state-run Hindustan Petroleum Corporation signed a deal to import three million tons of crude oil in 2012-13 from Iran, almost half of which will be paid for in Indian rupees. And according to The Hindu newspaper, India and Iran are negotiating a barter deal to trade Iranian oil for Indian goods in order to get around U.S. sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank.

Converging economic interests

Iran is India’s second largest source of crude and provides about 12 percent of India’s oil imports. Last month, India surpassed China to become the largest importer of crude from Iran. India perceives Iran to be an important economic partner and one that is crucial for India to meet its growing energy needs.  India also sees Iran as a lucrative foreign market for its manufactured goods and services.

Additionally, with Iran’s proven natural gas reserves amounting to about 15 percent of the world’s total reserves, India is interested in developing relations with Tehran both to import explore Iranian natural gas. In January 2005, the Indian government signed a $40 billion dollar gas deal with Iran that would guarantee India 7.5 million tons of liquefied natural gas over a 25-year period as well as allow India to develop two Iranian oil fields and a gas field. So far, none of these plans have come to fruition.

However, in early February 2012, Iran gave India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation a one-month deadline to sign the contract for the development of Iran's offshore Farzad-B gas field in the Persian Gulf. New Delhi had been dragging its feet on this issue because American sanctions on Iran have complicated attempts at economic cooperation. The latest Iranian ultimatum is likely to help speed up the process.

For close to a decade now, India has also been discussing the possible construction of a transnational gas pipeline from Iran’s South Pars field to India via Pakistan. Agreement on this pipeline has been held up partially due to high costs and partially because of India’s reluctance to become dependent upon archrival Pakistan’s goodwill for the assured supply of even a part of its energy needs. The deteriorating security situation in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan through which the pipeline has to pass has added to Indian concerns about the tripartite pipeline deal. Nonetheless, negotiations on the issue continue and may eventually lead to a positive outcome despite American pressure on New Delhi to renege on the proposed arrangement.

Converging nuclear interests

In addition to these economic interests driving Indian-Iranian relations, there is also a convergence of strategic interests between New Delhi and Tehran.  Some of these strategic interests bear on the nuclear issue; others deal with broader regional considerations.

Few countries know better than India the travails of trying to acquire nuclear capability in the face of opposition from the international nuclear establishment. India suffered from sanctions on dual-use technology - a catch-all term that could cover harmless items essential for power generation and for civilian use of nuclear technology - for decades because it refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and give up its autonomy of decision making in the nuclear sphere.

It was in the context of these sanctions that the Indian strategic community invented the term “nuclear apartheid” to describe the attempt by the five permanent members of the Security Council to preserve their monopoly on nuclear weapons and shut others (with the exception, however clandestine, of Israel) out of the prestigious nuclear club.

India was too proud, too large, too self-sufficient in technological terms, and, above all, situated in what New Delhi perceived to be a threatening security environment to give up the quest for the nuclear bomb. It succeeded in making a de facto entry into the exclusive club following its nuclear tests of 1998. India did so despite the best efforts of the United States and China, in particular, both to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and, after the 1998 tests, to bar it from becoming a legitimate member of the nuclear club.

New Delhi is highly skeptical of Western allegations that Tehran is close to acquiring weapons capability. In any case, India does not feel threatened by Iran’s acquisition of rudimentary nuclear weapons capability, which most Indian strategic analysts believe is for deterrent and defensive rather than offensive purposes.

Furthermore, India believes that given its past experience, it is in a better position than most countries to understand Iran’s current painful dilemma of choosing between security and economic growth. This explains the instinctive sympathy that India’s political and intellectual elites feel toward their Iranian counterparts now faced with much the same predicament that New Delhi countenanced for three decades from 1970 to 2000.

It is true that India voted against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency Governing Body meetings in September 2005 and February 2006. The latter vote was on the crucial resolution referring the matter of Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council, thus opening the way for the imposition of sanctions on Tehran for not cooperating adequately with the international nuclear watchdog.

This vote temporarily chilled relations between India and Iran but both countries had the political wisdom soon to insulate the nuclear issue from other aspects of their bilateral relations. India also voted in November 2009 at the IAEA in favor of censuring Iran for not informing the IAEA in a timely manner about its Qom nuclear facility. This vote also did not seem to have major negative repercussions on Indian-Iranian relations.

However, these votes, especially the first two, came after intense agonizing within the Indian government. Diplomatic cables made available by Wikileaks make clear that American diplomats in New Delhi were highly uncertain in 2005-06 that India would go along with the Western powers in censuring Iran given the opposition to such a move both from within the government, including parts of the bureaucracy, and the strategic community outside the government.

Both votes were followed by strong criticism of the government in the Indian media by respected journalists and public figures. These prominent Indians claimed the government had sacrificed the future of Indo-Iranian relations at the altar of a civilian nuclear deal then under negotiation between India and the United States.

A civilian nuclear agreement was signed in October 2008 and subsequently cleared by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The deal gives India access to dual-use technology in return for placing 14 of its 22 nuclear reactors under IAEA supervision and agreeing to separate its military and civilian reactors.  While periodic hiccups keep occurring in the process of implementing the so-called “123 agreement”, the major hurdle seems to be crossed from the Indian perspective, thus restoring some of the autonomy that India has always cherished in the sphere of international nuclear politics. India’s current policy toward Iran may be an early sign that it no longer needs to coordinate its policy on nuclear issues with the United States.

Converging geopolitical interests

India-Iran relations are, however, not solely a function either of economic compatibility or of nuclear politics or a combination of the two. They are also driven by a convergence of strategic interests in and around the region referred to as southwest Asia. This region includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf in addition to India and Iran.

Indian and Iranian interests converge in particular in Afghanistan. Tehran and New Delhi were the two principal supporters of the Northern Alliance when it was engaged in conflict with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan prior to the latter’s overthrow in 2001. Both looked upon the Taliban as anathema, seeing them as surrogates of Pakistan and creations of Pakistan’s military intelligence.

While India’s concern regarding the Taliban was primarily Pakistan-centered, Shia Iran’s animus toward them was ideological and sectarian as well. Moreover, Tehran saw the Taliban as an instrument of Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian strategy in the region even if Pakistan was used as the conduit by the Saudis to prop up the viscerally anti-Shia regime in Kabul.

Both India and Iran extended aid and succor to the Northern Alliance and were relieved when the American-led invasion, which used the Northern Alliance as its spearhead, toppled the Taliban regime and expelled al Qaeda from Afghanistan.

The current state of uncertainty in Afghanistan with the impending withdrawal of NATO forces from that country and the simultaneous rise once again of the Taliban supported by elements within the Pakistani military highlights for both capitals the importance of Indian-Iranian strategic cooperation in Afghanistan.

Although Iran-Pakistan relations appear smooth superficially, Tehran harbors deep distrust of Islamabad because it perceives the latter to be a surrogate both for Saudi Arabia and for the United States - Iran’s two chief antagonists in the region and beyond.

India, on the other hand, is seen by Tehran as a benign power with ambitions that do not collide with those of Iran. In fact, it is seen as a potential partner for the construction of a durable security structure in southwest Asia that would exclude foreign powers, especially the United States, as well as keep Saudi and Pakistani “mischief making” capabilities in check. This seems to be the principal reason why Iran has turned a blind eye toward New Delhi’s growing defense relations with Israel. Similar considerations have led Tehran to insulate Indian-Iranian relations from India’s burgeoning economic relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which is the largest supplier of crude to India.

In short, India-Iran relations are multi-dimensional and of considerable strategic and economic value to both countries. New Delhi and Tehran also have similar ambitions to be recognized as pre-eminent, if not predominant, powers in their respective regions – South Asia in the case of India and the Persian Gulf in the case of Iran.

Furthermore, they are cognizant of the fact that while occasional differences and even conflicts of interest may arise in their future relations, there are no major clashes of interests visible on the horizon. In contrast, there are enough common interests, both economic and strategic, that are likely to bind the two countries together and help them reach their shared goal of regional pre-eminence in the two contiguous but clearly demarcated regions of South Asia and the Persian Gulf. India’s refusal to go along with sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and Europe highlights New Delhi’s recognition of Iran’s importance to India over the long term.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mohammed Ayoob.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • India • Iran

soundoff (31 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 1:51 pm | Reply
  2. 100% ETHIO

    Well, technically the World is divided into Two types of Mind-sets with Two political doctrines:-

    1) Western political Mind-set doctrine and

    2) Eastern or ChiRussian political Mind-set doctrine.

    Therefore, if you are neither on 1 nor 2, you could be harmed by both sides. But, for the case of India, it's different. It has much populations to take care of.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
    • dov

      you just described the situation during the cold war. well,maybe the world hasn't changed that much in the past 21 years.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • krm1007

      India has become too big to govern and to dig out of poverty. Needs to be broken up circa USSR.

      February 22, 2012 at 9:29 am | Reply
  3. Rajesh Kumar Rathod

    India wants to be a friend to both Israel & Iran. Please dont ask India to choose. Iranian oil is so crucial to India, with over 1 billion mouths to feed. Iran is vital to Indian economy. Israel should not be offended. Dialogue is the only way forward. Iran & Israel should become friends, there is no other way. India can serve as a bridge.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
    • dov

      actually,israel and iran used to be good friends, but when the islamic revolution took place iran kicked out the israeli embassy and withdrew it's own,along with it's recognition of israel. i suppose if the mullahs are overthrown,we could be like that again. i see no problem with indo-iranian relations. it is only natural,as india isn't threatened by iranian rethoric like israel and the west,and has great need of oil. i say this because i trust india: research shows that india is the most pro israeli country in the world,more so than america.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
    • krm1007

      If history is a teacher, Indians are untrustworthy and double faced backstabbers. Americans have experienced this Indian DNA once too often. Americans need to wake up.

      February 22, 2012 at 9:27 am | Reply
      • delhi_boy

        US supplies pak army F16s n other military aid worth billions of $$ knowing tht pak n india are eternal enemies. India doesn't do that with iran, just import oil that it needs for survival n exports rice n stuff....

        February 23, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  4. amir

    In the long run (more 50-100 years) Israel will fade (due to high birth rate of Arabs and its unnatural nature)while Iran will be there (as it has been for the last 3000 years.) so it is better for India and even US to choose the right side. Though I am not particularly anti Israel and I preferred a strategic relationship with them but i reality it is not going to happen

    February 21, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      I'm not sure how and why Israel will "fade". Even today there are about 80 Arabs and more than 200 Muslims for every Israeli. Is this the reason for Israel to "fade"?

      February 21, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
      • amir

        I mean Arab-Israeli they consist of 20% (citizens if we add Gaza and west bank population then they are almost 50%) of the population. With their higher birth rate and also by considering the fact that most Jews have dual citizenship (which means they might leave the country in case of any problem) I guess we can see a non-Jewish Israel before the end of 21 century. And by definition a non-Jewish Israel is not Israel at all.

        February 21, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  5. George Patton

    I say, good for India!!! With the right-wing thugs in Washington trying to run everything these days, Iran is going to need all the friends that it can get!

    February 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Reply
    • Travis

      I totally agree, George. The U.S. is trying to strongarm Iran through the politics of hunger and India just made it less possible. On the other hand, India just may be able to mediate peace talks between the U.S. and Iran if the politicians in Washington would only allow it.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  6. Thinkr23

    Iran is not and will not be a friend of India considering it's support of Islamist terrorism.

    February 21, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
    • amir

      Iran helped India several times during the recent history (last 30 years) and they knew that

      February 21, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Iranian and Indian leaders are more eager to keep Pakistan at bay, which harbours the Laskar-e-toiba that launches attacks on Indian soil and supports the Afghan Taliban, the Sunni Muslims, who terrorise and want to rule the region. The Indian-Iranian cooperation on Afghanistan – based on the fight against terrorism – is the key axis of their relations. By engaging India in its economic strategic game, Iran succeeds to enrage the U.S. and undermine the American position in the South Asia region.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        In the 1990s, India and Iran supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban regime. Two days before 11 September 2001 – Ahmad Shah Masood, leader of the main opposition to the Taliban – the Northern Alliance -was assassinated by the Al Qaeda. Masood is still revered by many today.

        February 22, 2012 at 5:03 am |
  7. Chris

    What a bunch of typically academic, leftist drivel. India is doing this purely based on its own greed– and the comfort of knowing that other countries will have to deal with Iranian nutters getting nuclear weapons while they sit comfortably on the sidelines reaping the profits from others' troubles. No mater how you try and dress it up, that makes them immoral dirtbags.

    But history has shown that efforts to feed your neighbors to the tiger in hopes he won't eat you invariably fail. If there's any justice in the world, once Iran gets the bomb, their "deterrent and defensive rather than offensive purposes" will turn to defending themselves against the Hindu infidel polytheists.

    February 21, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • Reasonable1

      I agree with you that the US should lead by example. The US should cut off ties with the Islamic regime in Saudi Arabia. Most of the 911 hijackers/terrorists were from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is not a democracy. Saudi Arabia tramples on the rights of women. We have nothing in common with Saudi Arabia in terms of ideology. However, our relations with Saudi Arabia are based on our own greed – and we reap profit from the misery of other countries who were terrorized by a Saudi called Osama Bin Laden. No matter how you try to dress it up, our support for Saudis makes us immoral dirtbags.

      February 21, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Reply
      • realist

        Apt reply!

        February 21, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  8. S.V.P.YADAV

    Respected,Mr.Mohmmed Ayoob garu ,India is the big democracy country in the World.Our ethics and customs and passin is diferent than other countrys.Our relatinship with IRAN is old and having mutual understanding.According to that,we will export so many goods and if we need import also.So we could not speak other country strategy.

    February 22, 2012 at 7:35 am | Reply
    • krm1007

      Americans need to cutoff all aid, technical assistance and fdi to India. Indians are untrustworthy and selfish. Backstabbers since the days of shivaji. Enough is enough. Let the Chinese deal with these Indians. Also, Americans should stop protecting these indians from the talibans..... let them loose.

      February 23, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Reply
      • S.V.P.YADAV

        My dear Krm1007, Please stop your way of language. when you are hitted to Talibans,that while we are protecting youir Militory , Air force and Navel. Mr.President of U S Mr.Bush was spoked with our Respected Prime Minister Mr. vajpayee about shellings in to theTalibans area at Afgan. When we agree with U S on strike on Talibans,
        after that U S hitted Talibans. Please do not ignore.

        February 24, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  9. krm1007

    We all know the dirty games India is playing in the region...financing terrorists who are killing US/NATO/Pakistani troops ....undermining democracies, paying off some factions of talibans protection money so they won't do another Mumbai attack, All this because they are scared of Al Qaeda and Talibans

    February 22, 2012 at 9:23 am | Reply
    • Reasonable1

      The Sunny majority in Pakistan is brutally terrorizing and killing the Shia minority. Iran is mostly Shia and Iranians do not like Pakistani Sunni terrorists. Indians are also terrorized by Pakistani terrorists (the Pakistani terrorist attacked Mumbai for example). So, both Iranians Shias and Indians who do like Pakistani terrorists are forming a partnership. Too bad for Pakistan. They do not have many friends left in the region. It is good for America since they can pull some troops out from Afghanistan now - Iranians and Indians alliance can work against Pakistani terrorists.

      February 22, 2012 at 10:41 am | Reply
    • S.V.P.YADAV

      Dear Sir, Alqaede and Talibans having weapons made from U S. Please remember.

      February 24, 2012 at 11:22 am | Reply

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