Passage to India
The world’s largest democracy is now the second-largest purchaser of Iranian crude. Why is the West standing by as India exploits sanctions?
On Feb. 13, suspected Iranian agents attached a bomb to the car of Alon Yehoshua, the Israeli government’s defense attaché in New Delhi, India’s capital. When the bomb detonated, Yehoshua’s wife was nearly paralyzed as she was picking up her kids from school.
Under different circumstances, this assassination attempt might be considered an act of war against India and Israel: Whoever planned the attack surely knew that Israel has sold $10 billion in arms to India over the past decade, and that the two countries have cooperated in the development of next-generation weapons systems. But India shrugged off the brazen violation of its sovereignty and internal affairs. Just two days after the attack, Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma announced that his country still planned on sending a major trade delegation to Iran—never mind that Iran is the subject of a restrictive American, E.U., and U.N. sanctions regime.
That delegation will travel to Iran next week in a bid to upgrade economic ties between the two governments. It’s not the countries’ only recent attempt at dodging or exploiting Western sanctions. Late last month, Iranian officials met with Indian financiers to hash out a new trade arrangement that would allow India and Iran to purchase each other’s goods without technically violating E.U. and U.S. sanctions.
India sees an opportunity in the West’s isolation of Iran. At a time of diplomatic freeze and economic sanctions, the Islamic Republic needs all the friends—and all the buyers for its embargoed natural resources—that it can get. India, meanwhile, needs a regional partner that can squeeze Pakistan. And all the better if that partner happens to be sitting on deep reserves of crude oil that can help satisfy the growing energy needs of the world’s largest democracy.
India is the world’s second-largest purchaser of Iranian oil, at over half a million barrels a day—and the Indian government is now trying to bypass financial sanctions on Iran by paying for oil using agricultural staples or Indian rupees, which Iran has no choice but to reinvest in the Indian economy. Of course, these purchases would undermine the Western sanctions regime, which includes an E.U. ban on the importation of Iranian crude. It would also frustrate the attempts of the United States and Israel—countries with which India has deep, mutually beneficial ties—to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
“The economics, the geopolitics, all these things tend to reinforce New Delhi’s calculation that it can play this game in a very complicated way,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. According to Riedel, the Indo-Iranian closeness partly comes down to straightforward regional power politics. India and Pakistan are bitter, nuclear-armed enemies, and Pakistan has supported terrorist attacks inside India for decades. “If you start nuclear retaliation with Pakistan, it could result in Armageddon,” Riedel said in a recent interview. “So, India looks for other ways to squeeze Pakistan. And one of the most effective ways is to build a coalition against Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. In the big geopolitical picture from New Delhi, that’s what really matters.” Thus, a car bomb registers as a “small fish” compared to the necessity of keeping Pakistan from exerting its influence over much of central Asia.
So far, India has displayed a remarkable ability to mollify Iranian and Western fears that the rising superpower is no longer decisively on each one’s side. In 2006 and 2009, India voted to sanction Iran over its nuclear program at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. But India was careful to reassure Tehran that the votes did not threaten the countries’ bilateral relations. Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee paid a visit to Tehran in early 2007, while his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, led a high-level economic and diplomatic delegation to India in November 2009, just weeks before India endorsed sanctions at the United Nations.
India has also sought to convince Iran that it can act independently of the West, despite its close ties to the United States and Israel. Shortly after India finalized its nuclear treaty with the United States in 2008—a controversial agreement in which the United States required increased monitoring of India’s nuclear technology, while endorsing the country’s exemption from the decades-old nuclear nonproliferation regime—its navy engaged in a major joint exercise with its Iranian counterparts.
“The fact that the U.S. went through with the nuclear deal while India was doing a naval exercise with Iran shows our ability to stomach it,” according to Georgetown Professor C. Christine Fair. The annoyances of the Indo-Iranian relationship, she argues, pale in comparison to what the United States gets out of its friendship with India. As a nuclear-armed democracy with relatively benign regional and global ambitions, India is a potential counter-balance to China. Better still, it has a middle class of 300 million potential consumers of American products.
Most of the time, Larry Bazer runs a shul in Massachusetts. But for the past six months, he served in the military as the only rabbi in Afghanistan.