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India disappoints U.S. friends with its Iran policy

Nicholas Burns

By Nicholas Burns

The Indian government’s ill-advised statement last week that it will continue to purchase oil from Iran is a major setback for the U.S. attempt to isolate the Iranian government over the nuclear issue.  The New York Times reported Sunday that Indian authorities are actively aiding Indian firms to avoid current sanctions by advising them to pay for Iranian oil in Indian rupees.  It may go even further by agreeing to barter deals with Iran—all to circumvent the sanctions regime carefully constructed by the U.S. and its friends and allies.  According to the Times, India now has the dubious distinction of being the leading importer of Iranian oil.

This is bitterly disappointing news for those of us who have championed a close relationship with India.  And, it represents a real setback in the attempt by the last three American Presidents to establish a close and strategic partnership with successive Indian governments.

The Indian government’s defense is that it relies on Iran for twelve percent of its oil imports and cannot afford to break those trade ties.  But, India has had years to adjust and make alternative arrangements.  Ironically, the U.S. has had considerable success on the sanctions front in recent months.  The EU has decided to implement an oil embargo on Iran, the U.S. is introducing Central Bank sanctions and even the East Asian countries, such as China, have imported less Iranian oil in recent months.  That makes India’s recent pronouncements seem so out of step and out of touch with the new global determination to isolate and pressure Iran to negotiate in order to avoid a catastrophic war.

Indians protesting rising fuel prices in Hyderabad on Nov. 4, 2011. (AP Photo)

There is a larger point here about India’s role in the world.  For all the talk about India rising to become a global power, its government doesn’t always act like one.  It is all too often focused on its own region but not much beyond it.  And, it very seldom provides the kind of concrete leadership on tough issues that is necessary for the smooth functioning of the international system.

The Indian government has supported the four UN Security Council resolutions passed since 2006.  It says Iran should give up its nuclear ambitions.  But, India has not stepped up to a leadership role in the negotiations and has resisted the option of being a bridge between the Iranian government and the West.  It has, instead, been largely passive and even invisible on this critical issue.

I wrote a Boston Globe column ten days ago arguing that the U.S. should commit to an ambitious, long-term strategic partnership with India.  I remain convinced of its value to both countries and to the new global balance of power being created in this century.

With its unhelpfulness on Iran and stonewalling on implementation of the landmark U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, however, the Indian government is now actively impeding the construction of the strategic relationship it says it wants with the U.S.

Presidents Obama and Bush have met India more than halfway in offering concrete and highly visible commitments on issues India cares about.  On his State Visit to India in November 2010, for example, President Obama committed the U.S. for the very first time to support India’s candidacy for permanent membership on the UN Security Council.  Like many others who wish to see India become a close strategic partner of the U.S., I supported the President’s announcement.

Unfortunately, India has made no corresponding gesture in return for the big vision that Obama and Bush have offered the Indian leadership.  It is time that India speak much more clearly about the priority it places on its future with the United States.  Most importantly, India must begin to provide the kind of visible leadership on difficult issues such as Iran that its many friends in the U.S. and around the world had expected to see by now.

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  1. Victor #

    The problem is that the US-EU sanctions do not have any bite without the support of Russia and China. The Russians,and more importantly, the Chinese are not on-board with the US’ Iran policy.

    While to the Western world, Iran is a distant rogue threat, to India, Iran is a next door neighbor, and a vital one too. India voted against Iran in the International Atomic Commission. But it only resulted in the loss of strategic influence in the region, while the Chinese played both sides and built stronger bridges with the Iranians. India can not afford to make the same mistake again.

    The US policy in Afghanistan is in shambles, with the US trying to cut deals with the same public enemy #1, Taleban, she sought out to overthrow. It is not lost to India that the Iran will be her only access to Afghanistan, once the US cuts and runs.

    The US expects every other country to put her interest on the back-burner and pursue whatever the US deems in her interest. From the Indian perspective, the US and the West have offered very little in return to India for her decade long support on the War on Terror.

    India has shown tremendous restrain while dealing with Pakistan, while in return the US has done little to deter terrorism against India emanating from Pakistan.
    Further the US behavior in protecting the mastermind of the Mumbai attack, the Pakistani born US citizen David Hadley, has left little in doubt about where US loyalties lie.

    Over the past decade, Pakistan has been rewarded tens of billions in US Aid, including upgrades to her decades old F-16s, an entire squadron of Block 52 F-16s, AAMRAMs, more than 100 artillery pieces, or Harpoon Anti Ship Missiles.

    It is very clear to anyone, that the US weapons are gifted to Pakistan to allow it the capability to resist any Indian retaliation after the next terrorist attack under the nuclear umbrella. The AAMRAMs were not designed to take out the Taleban Air Force or the Harpoons the Taleban Navy. This is consistent with US behavior over the past six decades, where the US spends Billions of her tax-payer money to arm Pakistan against India.

    Over the past two decades, US Foreign Policy has been an unmitigated disaster; it is not clear whose interests it serves. India can serve as a valuable interlocutor in dealing with Iran. But the US needs to get her blinkers off first.

    February 20, 2012

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