U.S., India at Odds Over Iran Sanctions

The Obama administration’s attempts to punish Iran for its nuclear activities have had the unintended effect of causing strains in the US-India relationship. India, an increasingly important US partner, has proved reluctant to get on board with the campaign to isolate Tehran.

This is an unwelcome turn of events for Washington, which has gone to considerable lengths over the past decade to ingratiate itself with New Delhi. Major advances in bilateral ties occurred on President Bush’s watch, notably the signing of a 10-year defense pact and a highly controversial agreement on civil nuclear cooperation, which effectively rewarded India for developing a nuclear capability outside the framework of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In 2010 President Obama publicly supported India’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a move which infuriated India’s mortal enemy Pakistan.

India’s rise to prominence in US foreign policy calculations is in some ways surprising. First, the two nations have not enjoyed close relations historically. During the Cold War India was viewed as having an overly cooperative relationship with the Soviet Union, with Henry Kissinger (very inaccurately) deriding the country as ‘a Soviet stooge’. Second, India has undeniably engaged in the type of behavior that has seen the likes of Syria, North Korea and Iran being labeled ‘rogue’ states. It is, for example, a declared nuclear weapons state which tested five atomic devices in 1998, and, as noted above, it is not a signatory to the NPT.

Third, it’s no secret that India has a deplorable human rights record, especially in the disputed and restive state of Jammu and Kashmir. As noted in the State Department’s 2010 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, there were in India ‘reported extrajudicial killings of persons in custody, killings of protesters, and torture and rape by police and other security forces’. In the summer of 2010 protests in Kashmir were met with extreme violence, with more than 100 people reported killed. People can be held without charge for up to two years in Kashmir under a draconian public safety law. According to Amnesty International, an estimated 8,000 to 20,000 individuals have been detained under this law over a twenty-year period.

However, over the last ten years or so, officials in Washington have evidently determined that the perceived convergence of US-Indian strategic interests outweighs other considerations. The bilateral relationship has bloomed because the two nations face similar challenges, one of which is the ‘common threat’ of ‘international terrorism’. In India’s case, this refers to Islamist separatists, allegedly assisted by Pakistan, in Jammu and Kashmir, who have been waging war against the state for twenty years. From Washington’s perspective, then, India is on the right side of the United States’ war on terror.

The other shared challenge is the growing power of China, which looms large on India’s northern border. There is a sense among some US officials, lawmakers and foreign policy specialists, especially conservatives, that India could serve as a potential pro-US counterweight to China in Asia. To quote Republican Senator John McCain, ‘While India and the United States each continue to encourage a peaceful rise for China, we must recognize that one of the greatest factors for shaping this outcome and making it more likely is a robust U.S.-India strategic partnership’.

There is a third factor that needs to be considered here, and which relates to the point about China. India is a democracy, and is therefore viewed as a more reliable international actor than the ostensibly communist regime in Beijing. A common refrain from US officials is that India and the United States have ‘common ideals and shared values’.

Nonetheless, cracks have begun to appear in the bilateral relationship, not least over Iran. The government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has found itself in an increasingly awkward position as Washington, the UK and other European nations have sought to tighten the screws on the regime in Tehran. Washington’s efforts to convince other nations to reduce or shut off imports of Iranian oil have met with success in some countries, but have been rebuffed by India, which has boldly declared that it has no intention of cutting the quantity of oil it imports from Iran. India relies on Iran for about 12% of its oil, and it is Tehran’s second-biggest customer in this regard, after China. According to a report in the Financial Times, ‘The US believes India will be the only major Asian buyer of Iranian crude to maintain its imports in the first half of this year’.

India’s refusal to play ball when it comes to Iran has raised eyebrows among senior figures in the US foreign policy establishment. For instance, Nicholas Burns, who served in the State Department during George W. Bush’s presidency, recently wrote an op-ed criticizing New Delhi, in which he accused the Indian government of ‘actively impeding the construction of the strategic relationship it says it wants with the United States’.

Other recent events have also served to strain the India-US relationship. As Burns observed in his op-ed, India has been ‘stonewalling’ on implementation of the civil nuclear agreement signed by Bush. Furthermore, the Obama administration was irked by the Indian government’s decision in 2011 not to shortlist US defense giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin for a highly lucrative contract to supply the Indian air force with 126 new warplanes. (The eventual awarding of the contract to the French company Rafale did not go down well in the UK, either.)

It remains to be seen if the dispute over Iranian oil will result in a ‘back to the future’ scenario in US-India relations. The tensions that are developing between the two countries do, however, clearly demonstrate that Washington’s strategy of putting the squeeze on Tehran is having an unwelcome ripple effect. There could well be further repercussions elsewhere in the world.

Michael Walker has a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.