News that India earlier this week hosted an Iranian ministerial delegation at the same time it held a conference on US-India relations has once again highlighted New Delhi's cozy relationship with Iran and prompted familiar commentary about India's balancing act between Tehran and Washington. But as the United States continues to lead efforts against Tehran's nuclear weapons program, critics have charged that India--America's so-called "strategic partner"--has failed to support its American ally on a critically important issue. India's close, bilateral relations with Tehran, the argument goes, not only undermine international efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but also represent a bitter betrayal of U.S.-India relations. India must make clear, once and for all, the argument goes, whether it is Washington's friend or foe in opposing Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
While this narrative has increasingly garnered traction over the past few months within some circles, it is undermined by careful examination of New Delhi's record towards Iran, which reveals that India has consistently aligned itself with the United States against the theocratic state's nuclear ambitions. India, like the United States, has always officially opposed Iran's nuclear aspirations, recognizing that the prospect of a nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat to regional and global security. As a result, India has taken several steps over the past decade consistent with its official position. These steps--from reliably voting against Tehran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to significantly reducing its dependence on Iranian oil--place India squarely alongside the United States in opposing Iran's bid for nuclear weapons.
India's long record of voting against Tehran at the IAEA over the past few years is one of the clearest indicators of India's position on Iran. India's first vote against Iran came in 2005 against the backdrop of intense efforts by the Bush Administration and New Delhi to secure Congressional passage of the landmark U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal, the centerpiece of the U.S.-India strategic partnership. After heated domestic debate within the country, India ultimately voted with Washington, sending a clear message to Tehran that New Delhi expected Iran to honor its obligations under the NPT and that India stood with the rest of the international community in opposing Iran's pursuit of the bomb.
Many observers at the time suggested that India's vote against Iran was predictable and unremarkable given New Delhi's acute awareness that failing to vote with the U.S. would have likely jeopardized Congressional passage of the nuclear deal. While not entirely without merit, such a claim overlooks the extent to which New Delhi privileged passage of the nuclear deal--and by extension its relationship with the United States--over its bilateral ties with Iran and even over the stability of India's ruling coalition. India's vote with the United States ignited a firestorm of criticism against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government including from some members of its own ruling coalition who threatened to precipitate a collapse of the government itself.
More importantly, the simple fact is that India has consistently voted with the United States and against Iran in every instance a vote has been held at the IAEA regarding Tehran's nuclear program. India has voted against Iran in 2005, 2006, 2009, and 2011 for failing to comply with its NPT obligations, demonstrating its steadfast opposition to Iran's illicit nuclear plans.
India has also demonstrated a willingness to risk compromising its energy security to ensure it abides by international sanctions targeting Iran's nuclear program through its oil industry. With few energy reserves of its own, India imports nearly 80 percent of its oil from abroad, with nearly 12 percent of its oil imports traditionally coming from Iran alone. Valued at more than $10 billion dollars annually, energy cooperation is the cornerstone underlying the bilateral relationship between India and Iran. Despite this, New Delhi has taken several steps affecting its energy security in order to join international efforts targeting Iran.
In December 2010, for example, India's central bank announced that Indian companies were no longer permitted to use the Asian Clearing Union (ACU) to conduct financial transactions with their Iranian counterparts. Established by the UN in 1947, the ACU constituted the primary channel through which Iran and India completed oil sales. The US alleged, however, that the ACU permitted Tehran to circumvent sanctions targeting Iranian companies, prompting Washington to ask India to suspend payments through the clearing union. India's decision to do so tightened the web sanctions around Tehran while signaling New Delhi's readiness to adopt a tough line against its traditional ally and partner with Washington in targeting Iran's nuclear program.
Despite these moves, critics still point to India's continuing oil imports from Iran as evidence of India's unreliability in supporting efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. But the facts do not support the charge. India's imports of Iranian crude have steadily declined every year since sanctions targeting Iranian oil have been imposed. By August 2012, for example, trade data indicated that India had reduced its Iranian oil imports by 42 percent in July compared with June, and by well over 40 percent from the same point last year.
Beyond these measures, India has even demonstrated a willingness to enhance Israel's security relative to Iran's nuclear weapons program. Ties between India and Washington's most important ally in the Middle East have burgeoned rapidly over the last twenty years, with military and defense cooperation at the center of the relationship. In 2008, India launched Israel's Tescar spy satellite, capable of surveilling Iran's nuclear sites. The advanced spy satellite has purportedly proven crucial to allowing Israel to track progress of Tehran's nuclear weapons program, and illustrates New Delhi's commitment to the Jewish state's security and to larger international goals concerning Iran.
Despite such clear evidence of India's position, why does New Delhi continue to be vulnerable to accusations that the steps it has taken against Iran have been inadequate? One answer rests with New Delhi itself whose inviolable, so-called "strategic autonomy" has prompted decision makers there to downplay the various steps it has taken against Tehran out of fear of appearing too pliant in towing the American line on Iran. Such misguided fears explain why India, for example, publicly maintains that it is only obligated to abide by UN, and not U.S. sanctions on Iran, on the one hand, but has quietly but steadily cut imports of Iranian crude to secure a sanctions waiver from Washington, on the other. Such disparities between rhetoric and reality seem to suggest that officials in Washington would be wise to judge India by what it does and not necessarily by what it says.
Ultimately, India has largely proven itself a dependable ally of the United States in working to thwart Iran's nuclear designs. Although its energy demands, domestic calculations, and enduring attachment to anachronisms like non-alignment make it unlikely that New Delhi will ever completely jettison its relationship with Tehran, India is closer to the US position on Iran than its own public pronouncements may suggest. The Obama Administration has done a masterful job in working behind the scenes with New Delhi to bring the two sides into closer alignment over Iran's disputed nuclear weapons program and, India, for its part, should continue supporting US and international efforts in this realm. While differences are inevitable, in the end, the United States can count on New Delhi as a reliable partner in helping it prevent Iran from going nuclear.