The Iranian Factor In India’s Ties With US And Israel

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Context

Iran and India are at an interesting point in their relationship. The US sanctions against Iranian oil imports has forced countries to take sides, and at present, it looks like India may be deciding to side with Iran, or more to the point, with its oil-hungry economy. This is a complication for the development of India’s relationship with the US and Israel, who want to bring India closer to them as a counterbalance to China, Pakistan and ultimately Iran as well.

Analysis

The aftermath of the new round of US sanctions on Iran is taking its toll on many countries, but is being particularly felt in Asia. While China was clear from the start that it would continue to purchase oil from Iran, most countries in the region including Japan, South Korea and India, were largely expected to fall in line with the US demands and end their oil trade with Iran. India has surprised many onlookers by not only seeming to ignore the new sanctions, but to press ahead and increase its purchases from Iran. India has also reportedly reached an agreement over long-standing payment issues with Iran, with 45 percent of payments to be made in Indian Rupees.

This is an interesting move by India, given that they have been playing to the US for the past couple of years and it looked as though they were falling squarely into the US camp. This was perfect for US interests, as India provided a bulwark against China, Pakistan and to some extent Iran in the region.
US interests also suffered another setback as India decided to buy 126-French-made Rafale combat aircraft. The French aviation company Dassault snapped up the $11 billion deal. India has dropped the airplanes deals with Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin of the United States, and from Russian and Swedish makers, due to technical reasons.

Israel has publicly pleaded for India to heed to the sanctions, which it says are crucial to crippling Iran’s nuclear program. However the refusal of some of Iran’s largest oil trading partners to comply with the sanctions may have pushed Israel into commenting that “unlike in the past, there is widespread global understanding that if the sanctions don’t achieve their goal of halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program, there will arise the need of weighing an operation.” Israel’s Defense minister, Ehud Barak told said in an address to the annual Herzliya Conference at the Interdisciplinary Center academic campus just north of Tel Aviv.

This comes as Israeli Military’s intelligence head Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi stated that “Iran has over four tones of enriched materials and nearly 100 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium that’s enough for four bombs. It [nuclear bomb] will be done… within one year.”

Reports also surfaced in the US that US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had warned that Israel is getting reading to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, before they enter a so-called “immunity zone” where nuclear material and facilities are transferred to secret locations. That India has decided to buck the sanctions and continue to trade with Iran at this time, is very upsetting for the US and Israel.

India has found itself in the same position as many countries, balancing the wishes of the US against its own national interest. This balancing act is an uncomfortable one and quite an unnatural one at that, because a nation state’s first priorities must be to pursue its national interest. For India, fueling growth and keeping the economy powered has superseded the need to bandwagon with the superpower.
It is this dynamics that is also causing China and Russia to refuse to comply with the unilateral sanctions. Japan and South Korea are also unhappy about the sanctions, but are trying to work with the US to secure a waiver without having to significantly reduce oil import from Iran.

India’s position, as well as that of Pakistan’s, is looking increasingly closer to that of China and Russia, as it also tries to maintain a non-interference status on issues like Syria and the unrest in the wider Middle East. Although India and Pakistan supported the latest UN Security Council resolution condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown in Syria, it does not reflect a change in their stated position. Chinese media has picked up on the possibility of support between these countries in trying to secure their energy needs. A senior editor for the China Daily published a scathing review of the US and Western dealings with Iran, and noted that in order for countries to secure their oil imports from Iran, it would take cooperation. “China and India (and hopefully, Japan and South Korea) have to join hands and send out a clear signal to the West that they don’t want another war in the Middle East. And they can count on Russia’s support for that,” the article concluded. This illustrates a clear hope that more countries will join together, not so much to support Iran, but to support their collective national interests of ready supplies of fuel. It also highlights that China (or at least some elements in China) fully expect a US or Israeli strike on Iran if the situation deteriorates.

In all likelihood Japan and South Korea will take pains to secure an agreement or a waiver with the US over the sanctions. However even without these countries, the absence of China, Russian and now India may be enough to curtail the sanction’s effect, and may be enough to make a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities by the US or Israel that much closer.