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India and Iran: Spotlighting a complex relationship

Now that blood has been spilled and mounting evidence points toward Tehran, New Delhi must make a pivotal decision

Last week’s attack against Israeli diplomats in New Delhi, along with the failed efforts in Bangkok and Tiblisi, has sparked an internal debate in India that will have a lasting impact on that nation’s foreign policy and, by extension, its future development. Prior to the shedding of innocent blood, India seemed prepared to weather the storm of international criticism for its refusal to sever ties with Iran. But now that blood has been spilled and mounting evidence (the type of bomb, the nationalities of those arrested, and the method of attack) points toward Tehran or its proxy, Hezbollah, India must make a pivotal decision.

Fundamentally, India does not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran, which is why it has voted with the West in the United Nations and the IAEA, nor does it want to brazenly oppose the sanctions regime. It has called for Iran to honor its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and render its nuclear program transparent to international supervision.

It is important to understand that Indians are by nature non-controversial, preferring consensus over conflict. They are proud of their democracy and its requisite values and openness. They have mourned their losses at the hands of extremist terror and are loath to aid or abet terrorists and their sponsors. Iran’s complicity in last week’s campaign of terror renders India’s continued ties with Iran tantamount to just that.

The view from Delhi is very different from the perspectives in Western capitals and in Jerusalem. The peoples of India and Iran share a historic relationship, and Tehran — rightly or wrongly — is not considered a threat. Shiite Iran serves as a counterbalance to the Saudi-led Sunni bloc that provides funds and training via Pakistan to terrorist organizations that routinely target India.

Additionally, Iranian crude accounts for 12 percent of the oil required to power an Indian economy that is being counted upon to raise more than 500 million people out of poverty. In a mere twenty years, it has done so for more than half that number and stands as the world’s fourth largest economy in terms of purchasing power. Voluntarily turning off the tap threatens the progress of the past two decades and cripples the government’s ability to meet the immediate and future needs of its 1.2 billion citizens.

Saudi Arabia has offered to make up the shortfall –- and Delhi is considering it -– but doing so gives considerable leverage to the primary source of funds for anti-Indian terrorism. The same can be said, in lesser terms, for any of the Sunni oil producing states. So India finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

By bringing its fight with the West and Israel to India’s capital, Iran may have fundamentally altered the equation to its own detriment. To be true to itself, India has no choice but to adjust its power calculus, giving greater weight to the principles on which its democracy stands. Although distancing itself from Tehran may hurt in the short term, the Indian government will understand that being faithful to its core values and closing ranks with the US, Europe and Israel is the better path to ensuring the security and prosperity of its people.

About the Author
Mark Sloman is director of the India Program at The Israel Project, an international non-profit organization that provides the press, public and policy makers with facts about Israel and the Middle East