Don't Forget India

If Washington wants sanctions against Tehran, it needs to pay attention to New Delhi—and quickly, before the BRIC countries devise their own Iran policy.

India is following Brazil in throwing cold water on U.S. plans for strengthening sanctions on Iran. Speaking yesterday in Washington, India's Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao was quite clear: "It continues to be our view that sanctions that target Iranian people and cause difficulties to the ordinary man, woman and child would not be conducive to a resolution of this question." She then explained why New Delhi has a different perception of Iran than Washington: "We do not want more instability in that region. Iran is very much a part of our region. Iran for instance has a very important role to play in the developing situation in Afghanistan and we of course have strong bilateral ties with Iran." And while the Indian government maintains that Indian firms are not supplying refined-petroleum products to Tehran-the subject of proposed new unilateral U.S. sanctions being considered by Congress-Jatin Prasada, the junior minister for petroleum and natural gas, told the Lok Sabha that the government "has conveyed to the US government that sanctions on Iran have proved to be counter-productive and that all differences with Iran should be resolved peacefully through dialogue and negotiation."

India's foreign-policy establishment has a different set of calculations when considering Iran. Washington still sees Tehran largely through the lens of its activities westward from the Persian Gulf: a threat to Gulf security, a supporter of anti-American movements in Iraq and Lebanon, a spoiler in the Arab-Israeli peace process. New Delhi views Iran as a critical regional partner, and with growing concerns about the future of Afghanistan, an essential component to preserve India's influence in Central Asia. Former-Foreign Secretary Lilit Mansingh was quite blunt in his appraisal last week: "Unless India prepares for the time when the Americans pull out [of Afghanistan], we will not be in a position to face the political crisis that it will trigger." His solution: revive the India-Russia-Iran "axis" which supported the Northern Alliance during the 1990s, to ensure against the revival of the Taliban. If that is the case, then India is not likely to be putting coercive pressure on Tehran anytime soon.

Some Americans believe that the prospect of lucrative commercial and technological deals with the United States will swing things Washington's way. But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's visit to India last week dampens some of those expectations, with the number of new Russian-Indian contracts that were penciled in. Would India prefer more involvement from U.S. firms? Certainly. But at present, as Martin Walker noted yesterday: "American hopes of winning a major slice of these contracts have been stalled over an elusive agreement on reprocessing nuclear fuel. . . . Two far-reaching agreements on U.S.-Indian military cooperation have stalled, as have other projects for hi-tech and space research cooperation."

The Obama administration has only a few weeks left before Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives in Washington. The United States needs to be clear about what it is prepared to offer to secure a strategic partnership with India, and be able to clearly determine what its red lines are. The coverage in the Indian press over reaction to special envoy Richard Holbrooke's statements about India not being targeted by terrorist activity in Kabul-whether those remarks have been clarified or not-are being interpreted as a sign that the U.S. government is not on the same page when it comes to India policy. After conferring with President Obama, Singh will be meeting with his fellow BRIC members (and with the South Africans in the IBSA format as well)-and if the BRIC emerges with a common position on Iran that opposes Washington's, then I believe the current drive for a new round of stringent sanctions will fail. The interagency process needs to guarantee that Singh gets a clear message-because when he leaves Washington, his next stop will be Brasilia.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.