A diplomatic tightrope between the United States and Iran

Even as India squirms, Iran needs her more than ever before.

Ronak DesaiWASHINGTON, DC: Facing mounting diplomatic and economic isolation as a result of US and UN sanctions, Iran dispatched one of its top officials to India last week to bolster ties with its longtime South Asian ally. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary and Chief Nuclear Negotiator, met with a host of top Indian officials over the course of his two-day trip to reaffirm Tehran’s close ties with New Delhi. Jalili’s high-level visit not only underscores India’s importance to Iran at a time when Tehran is confronting a growing torrent of international pressure over its disputed nuclear program but it also showcases the difficult diplomatic tightrope New Delhi must walk balancing between two of its closest strategic partners, Iran and the United States.

Under different circumstances, Jalili’s visit to India would be unremarkable. India and Iran have traditionally enjoyed strong, multi-dimensional bilateral relations and often speak of their millennia-old “civilization ties.” Given India’s voracious energy demands and Iran’s large crude oil reserves, energy cooperation between the two countries has long constituted a fundamental pillar underlying the India-Iran relationship. New Delhi remains Iran’s second-largest purchaser of oil, importing more than 10 percent of its crude from Iran alone.

Increasingly potent American sanctions aimed at pressuring Tehran to abandon its nuclear activities, however, have targeted both Iran’s lucrative energy sector as well countries doing business with the theocratic state. The crippling sanctions regime has devastated Iran’s economy and has forced the country to significantly cut its crude oil exports by more than 50 percent.  With Tehran’s oil revenues plummeting and its economy in free fall, Iran needs its major oil purchasers like India more than ever before. Viewed within this context, the success of Jalili’s trip — to shore up ties with Tehran’s most important South Asian partner — becomes even more crucial for Iran.

Beyond economic necessity, Tehran regards its close bilateral relations with India as conferring other benefits as well. By showcasing its longstanding ties with India, Iran mitigates the acute diplomatic isolation it is currently facing from large parts of the international community while simultaneously garnering legitimacy from a key US ally. From Iran’s perspective, Tehran’s relationship with New Delhi is invaluable.

The question that naturally arises is whether the feeling is indeed mutual. While New Delhi is facing pressure from Iran to maintain its purchases of Iranian crude, it is also facing immense pressure from the US to significantly reduce its imports of Iranian oil. Not unlike its relationship with Iran, New Delhi enjoys a close and substantive strategic partnership with the United States, also characterized by unprecedented cooperation between the two countries in a number of diverse areas.

As a result, India now finds itself confronted with a conundrum: significantly reduce its oil imports from Iran and potentially jeopardize ties with Tehran or risk exposing Indian financial institutions to American sanctions and compromising its strategic partnership with Washington.

Once again India seemingly finds itself between a rock and a hard place, forced to walk a delicate diplomatic tightrope between two of its closest allies.  This balancing act has become a familiar one for New Delhi by now, and Indian policymakers have proven surprisingly adept at navigating between Washington and Tehran. Although India’s relationship with one undoubtedly serves as a constraint on its relationship with the other, New Delhi has more or less been able to effectively pursue robust bilateral ties and advance its interests with both the United States and Iran.

For now, India appears to be tilting slightly towards the United States, complying with American demands to slash its imports of Iranian crude while still clinging to its mantle of “strategic autonomy.” New Delhi has slowly but steadily reduced the amount of oil it has purchased from Iran over the past year, securing two sanctions waivers from Washington for its efforts towards this end. India has also withdrawn from the widely touted Iran-Pakistan-Indian (IPI) gas pipeline project and has taken several concrete steps opposing Tehran’s purported pursuit of nuclear weapons, including voting against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and launching an Israeli spy satellite capable of monitoring Iranian nuclear sites.

At the same time, India’s foreign policy calculus at the present should not be interpreted as abandoning Tehran in favor of Washington. India’s exhaustive energy requirements, in conjunction with a host of other shared interests with Iran which include stabilizing Afghanistan and combating Wahhabism in the region, make such an outcome virtually impossible. New Delhi’s willingness to host a high-ranking Iranian official such as Jalili at a time when tensions between Iran and the United States are steadily rising serves as an important reminder of this salient fact. Ultimately, India will continue pursuing durable ties with both the United States and Iran and sees no contradiction in doing so. Washington and Tehran should expect nothing less.

(Ronak D. Desai is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He writes regularly on topics related to South Asia and the Middle East.)

 

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