Bloomberg News

India Goes Its Own Way on Iran’s Nuclear Program: Pankaj Mishra

February 26, 2012

India, the Wall Street Journal claimed recently, is the Iranian mullahs’ “last best friend” for continuing to buy oil from, and trade with, Iran. Questioning why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “hasn’t already curtailed dealings with the Islamic Republic,” the Journal wondered if it has to do with the Indian fear of “pushy Westerners.” Accusing India of carrying some “mental baggage from the days of the Non- Aligned Movement,” the paper castigated the country for having failed to grow out of its “adolescent neurosis.”

Certainly, American policy- and opinion-makers are right to wonder why the Bush administration’s generous 2005 gift of a civil nuclear agreement to India -- gratefully accepted by Singh, who told a departing George W. Bush in 2008 that the “people of India love you deeply " -- has not made India a more eager enabler of the U.S. strategy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Still, some fact-checking seems in order: Iran under its Islamic regime joined the Non-Aligned Movement when the movement was almost defunct, and when India itself was beginning to move toward a stronger relationship with the U.S. and Israel.

Pushy Westerners

In any case, India, now with almost 200 million restless Muslims, didn’t welcome an Islamic Revolution on its doorstep -- as recently as 2010, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, alarmed and angered many Indians by listing India- ruled Kashmir as among the Muslim countries awaiting “liberation.”

As for the pushy Westerners, lately they have gotten their way in India more often than not. India, as the Journal admits, voted against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005. During a Cabinet reshuffle in 2006, Singh ejected his energy minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was an outspoken advocate of a gas pipeline to Iran, and replaced him with Murli Deora, a pro-American businessman-cum-politician from Mumbai.

American pressure was widely suspected to be behind this move. Confirmation came last year in the form of a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks. It shows the U.S. ambassador to India in a self-congratulatory mood over the “undeniable pro-American tilt of the Cabinet shuffle,” whose net effect was “likely to be excellent for US goals in India (and Iran).”

During the parliamentary uproar caused by the cable, even Jaswant Singh, the former foreign minister who together with Strobe Talbott crafted the new U.S.-Indian strategic partnership, was moved to wonder if Indian policy was now drafted in the U.S.

So why is India now refusing to augment American pressure tactics on Iran? One clear answer is that Iran is India’s second-biggest oil supplier. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. asserts that a $10 increase in India’s oil price would probably shave 0.2 percentage point from India’s gross-domestic-product growth -- a setback India can ill afford as it looks at already reduced targets for this year. Given the blow it may inflict on the economy, war in the Middle East looms over Indian horizons as a terrible prospect.

There are also less tangible reasons for India’s reluctance to join another “coalition of the willing” against a Muslim country. Relations between India and Israel have developed fast since the countries established full diplomatic relations in 1992; Israel is India’s second-biggest arms supplier and a close adviser on security issues. But India’s links with Iran are much older, grounded in a shared religion and history.

The Persian Connection

Shiites from Persia once ruled large parts of India. The Safavid Empire represented the apex of cultural sophistication for the Mughal dynasty that held sway for centuries. Persian was the language of administration in large parts of India and remained so late into the British colonial era. (My own grandfather read Persian more easily than Hindi.) India’s anti- colonial leaders, “Mahatma” Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, in turn, were heroes for a whole generation of Iranian intellectuals and activists fighting against foreign domination of their country.

That history of political and cultural partnership might seem very remote today. But it doesn’t lack for recent examples. India and Iran worked together to back the Northern Alliance, specifically Ahmed Shah Massoud, against the Taliban in the 1990s.

India switched to supporting the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks, hoping to extend its influence within Afghanistan under a U.S. security umbrella. But that policy, predicated on a long U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and opposition to the Taliban, now lies in tatters as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its troops from the country.

Afghanistan, for better or worse, will again have regional arbiters. Trying to regain its influence there, India would, of course, find Iran a safer interlocutor and partner than Pakistan. Could India turn its unavoidable proximity to Iran into a diplomatic advantage? A recent contributor to a hawkish Indian website proposed that India bring about a “grand rapprochement” between the U.S. and Iran since the latter’s nuclearization is now inevitable.

This is not as absurd as it may seem to laptop bombers itching to bring Iran into their sights. Few things are more desirable than a nuclear-free South Asia and Middle East. But whether we like it or not, this worthy ideal has to reckon with the enduring appeal of Asian nationalism -- especially, the widespread sentiment that still upholds nuclear capability as the gold standard of scientific achievement and national strength.

Responding to India’s nuclear tests in 1974, Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously vowed that his country would achieve parity with its rival even if it had to eat grass for 1,000 years. Bhutto provoked U.S. hostility for refusing to stop his nuclear program. But his executioner, Muhammad Zia-ul- Haq, though lavishly subsidized by the U.S., also never took his eyes off this national goal.

Rite of Passage

Support for Iran’s nuclear program also cuts across the country’s great political divisions today. Indeed, the Green Movement leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has been known to attack Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue -- for, believe it or not, “betraying” Iranian interests to the West.

There is no doubt that, short of a catastrophic war that turns much of the Middle East into a wasteland, Iran’s nuclear program, which was started by the Shah, will be completed -- either by the present regime in Tehran, or the one that replaces it.

If many Indians feel this to be inevitable, it is because India itself defied intense international pressure to build its nuclear capacity. India refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban treaties, insisting that they discriminated against countries that had not achieved nuclear status before 1968. As late as 2005, when the Bush administration decided to change tack and seek a strong strategic partner in Asia, the U.S. kept up sanctions imposed on India after the latter’s nuclear tests in 1998.

In at least one evolutionary narrative of international relations developed during the Cold War, countries attain adulthood when, after outgrowing adolescent neuroses, they align their interests with U.S. objectives. The example of India (and its attitude toward Iran) points at a newer and more widespread model of individuation: one in which nation states reach maturity when they grow aware of their own needs and interests, and define their foreign policies through the interplay of geopolitical imperatives, domestic politics, regional histories, and national pride.

To ignore this dawning reality of the multipolar world is to risk regressing beyond adolescent neuroses; it is to lapse into child-like narcissism.

(Pankaj Mishra, whose new book, “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” will be published in August, is a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at pmashobra@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net


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