Opinion

Why India Will Back Iran in a Nuclear Showdown With Trump and Netanyahu

Modi hailed the Iran deal as a diplomatic triumph; he won’t back down from deepening ties with Tehran. But can his warm relations with the U.S. and Israel survive the deal blowing up?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hand with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a ceremonial reception at the Indian presidential palace, New Delhi, India. Feb. 17, 2018.
Manish Swarup/AP

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has publicly backed the deal – in Tehran, no less, when he visited the year after the deal was finalized, hailing it as a "triumph of diplomacy and sagacity." 

Can India’s stance survive the hostility of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Is there any symbolic weight to Modi having initiating and performing his famous bear-hugs with both Trump and Netanyahu – but keeping visiting Iranian President Hassan Rohani at arms-length in Delhi this February?

On the nuclear deal, India supports Iran, and Modi hasn’t equivocated about this. The Indo-Iran Joint Statement on the occasion of Rohani’s visit to India in 2018, was clear:

"The Indian side reaffirmed its support for full and effective implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has been endorsed by the UN Security Council and is a crucial contribution to the non-proliferation framework and international peace, stability and security."

That puts India on the side of the leaders of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom who are desperately making efforts to save the Iran nuclear deal.

India’s approach is a tight ropewalk, a delicate balancing act, based on pragmatic and strategic objectives. Speaking last month in London, Mr Modi reiterated this pragmatism: "I will go to Israel and I will even go to Palestine. I will further cooperation with Saudi Arabia, and for the energy needs of India I will also engage with Iran," he said.

The third biggest consumer of oil in the world, India imports oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, to meet its energy security needs. In 2017, Iran was India’s third-largest oil supplier; Saudi Arabia was the second largest.

The deck of an oil tanker as it prepares to ship crude oil from Iran’s Kharq Island oil terminal to India. March 23, 2018.
Bloomberg

Taking advantage of the post-nuclear deal removal of sanctions, India and Iran have agreed on a "Rial-Rupee" agreement, which allows Indian companies to invest directly in Iran, bypassing the dollar route. India is also considering giving licenses to Iranian banks in India. 

But critics argue that there is much more to this game than oil and energy needs alone. India’s relationship with Iran is fueled by much more than its energy needs: the real trigger is, they suggest, India’s great power aspirations and its expansive agenda for influence in Central Asia and beyond. 

India’s commitment to invest $500 million into building Iran’s Chabahar port is a point in case. The port connects India to Afghanistan, a landroute blocked by Pakistan, through which it can access Central Asia and Eurasia. For Iran it’s a new credit line for trade and cooperation; for India it’s an attempt at balancing China’s power in the region. China for its part is making extensive investments in Gwadar, a Pakistani port.

India and Iran also have deep rooted defense co-operation ties, a thorny issue of deep concern for Israel and the U.S. Excepting India’s 2009 and 2016 votes to censure Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the two nations maintained strong bilateral defense connections, particularly on the high seas.

In 2015, the Indian Navy ship the INS Beas went on a "goodwill visit" to Iran and conducted joint ‘professional exercises.’ In February this year, India and Iran issue a joint statement declaring their interest in cooperating more intensively in the maritime defense sphere. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures towards media after offering Friday prayers at the Mecca Mosque in Hyderabad, India. Feb. 16, 2018.
Mahesh Kumar A./AP

India’s engagement with Iran is also based on a concern held in common to both states: the spread of Sunni Islamist militancy by Pakistan. India also courts Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and other Muslim countries such as the UAE and Jordan to preempt Pakistan from cultivating international support for its claims to Indian-administered Kashmir.

But the relationship doesn’t run so smoothly all the time – not least with the elephant in the room: Modi’s bromance with Israel’s Netanyahu. 

In response to Modi ‘s Israel visit, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini urged Muslims in Kashmir to "express their disdain" and "repudiate oppressors and tyrants." 

That was, however, quickly pushed into the background. In 2018, as Rouhani visited India, he landed in Hyderabad, a South India city which  boasts a street named after the Ayatollah Khomeini. Rohani delivered a sermon at the Mecca Masjid calling for unity among Muslims across the world.

In Delhi, Rohani’s visit had a markedly more somber tone than the warmth shown to Netanyahu. Though some India news outlets reported that "no world leader is safe from Mr Modi’s embrace," Rohani was left out of Mr Modi’s "hugplomacy."

Indian Muslims arrive to offer Friday prayers prior to the arrival of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Mecca Mosque, Hyderabad. Feb. 16, 2018.
Mahesh Kumar A./AP

Perhaps that was to avoid an endlessly recycled visual reproach to the U.S. and Israel, to avoid embracing the leader of a country which still orchestrated mass rallies under the slogans of “Death to Israel, Death to America.” Perhaps it was also a message to Modi’s Hindu nationalist audience at home.

For Israel, there is also an open sore in terms of Iranian terrorism against an Israeli on Indian territory. In 2012, Iranian agents attacked Israeli diplomats in New Delhi; the wife of the Defense Ministry attaché in India was wounded. Despite Israel’s constant urging that India bring the suspects to trial, the Indian government has preferred to cover the issue up, hoping it will go away. That anaemic Indian response was a clear choice not to rock the boat with Iran.

Calling for total nuclear disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister and architect of its foreign policy doctrine. described the threat of the atomic age: 

"This surely is the way to madness, and the great men who control our destinies are dangerous self-centered lunatics, who are too full of their conceit and pride of power that they will rain death and destruction all over the world than give up their petty opinions and think and act right."

Fpr decades this ‘Nehruvian idealism’ guided India’s foreign policy. But now, Modi brings his "Gujarati pragmatism" into New Delhi’s diplomacy: oil from Iran and Saudi Arabia; drones and missiles from Israel; fighter jets from France and Russia; close relations with both the U.S. and Russia; and trade with anyone and everyone around the world.

A hoarding welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu featuring him along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the International Centre for Entrepreneurship and Technology. Ahmadabad, India. Jan. 16, 2018
Ajit Solanki/AP

In Modi’s diplomacy, negotiation is based on a simple give and take, according to a simple rule: my enemy’s enemy is my friend, supplemented by another rule: my friend’s enemy is also my friend - as long as they serve his purpose.  

Modi will have to wait and see if he can maintain that pragmatism after a potential reconfiguration of international relations after the May 12 Iran deal deadline, and whether his mercurial form of multilateralism can survive what will be an even more furiously polarized international system.

A Fellow at the University of Oxford's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and a graduate of the London School of Economics, Shrenik Rao is a digital entrepreneur and filmmaker. Rao revived the Madras Courier, a 232-year-old newspaper, as a digital publication of which he is the Editor-in-Chief. Twitter: @ShrenikRao 

This article has been co-published with the Madras Courier.