A tale of two votes – India’s Iran policy has come a long way

By abstaining on a resolution against Tehran at the IAEA, New Delhi signaled a more independent foreign policy. He must walk longer on this road.

By abstaining on a resolution against Tehran at the IAEA, New Delhi signaled a more independent foreign policy. He must walk longer on this road.

India’s boundless regard for American concerns has been a hallmark of its foreign policy over the decades, particularly after the May 1998 nuclear tests. But that hasn’t stopped the Narendra Modi government from refraining during a vote on Iran’s nuclear activities at the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna on June 8. Two other countries (Pakistan and Libya) also abstained, while China and Russia voted against the resolution. There are 35 countries on the board, and the others, including the United States, which brought the resolution, the United Kingdom and France, voted in favor.


Coming as it does in the wake of India standing to Europe and the United States On the issue of oil purchases from Russia, the caution shown by the Modi government vis-à-vis Iran stands in stark contrast to the dramatic vote by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s officials against Iran on the nuclear issue in September 2005. Two more pro-Western votes followed in what became a litmus test of how far India would go in its tilt towards the United States.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian’s visit to New Delhi coincided with India’s abstention from the IAEA vote and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit tweeted on June 8, “Our relationship has mutually benefited both countries and promoted regional security and prosperity.”

It is one thing to meet a minister from a “difficult” country, but it is quite another to say that Iran has promoted regional security. An analysis of Mr. Modi’s remarks would have been attempted in Western capitals, particularly in Washington, DC, which is racing against Russia after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

In the current international climate and given the Western media narrative, to sound a slightly different deal on what is happening in Ukraine, or to point out the lack of channels for dialogue between Russia and Europe/US, is tantamount to “support” for the Russian invasion.

Space for an independent perspective

Although India is an integral part of US-led alliances on its eastern and western flanks – ties that have become full-fledged under Prime Minister Modi – the vote on Iran, like the approach of taking a non-condemning path on Ukraine has shown that a certain strategic independence is possible.

Thinking back to India’s September 24, 2005 vote against Iran, the stakes were much higher back then. This cost india a 25-year agreement for the purchase from Iran of 5.5 million tonnes of LNG per year, then valued at 21 billion dollars.

Domestically, Prime Minister Singh alienated his leftist allies, who had been made to understand, unlike the newsthat India would not abandon Iran to the IAEA, and ultimately led to their withdrawal of support for its government on the India-US nuclear deal.

In a meeting with a US congressional delegation in February 2010, then-national security adviser Shivshankar Menon said, “Iran was ‘enraged’ at India’s votes and Iranian Foreign Minister Motakki “blew up” former national security adviser Narayanan during his last visit to Delhi.

According to the words of Mr. Menon, contained in a American Cable on the meeting published on the Wikileaks site, “the last thing we (India) want is another nuclear power (Iran) in our vicinity”. Such comments are in considerable contradiction to what Mr. Modi had to say about Iran (and India) promoting regional security and prosperity.

The Wikileaks cable is a rare insight into what is really being said behind closed doors. These remarks, it must be said, were only intended for American ears and not for wider dissemination. That said, they are fine in the public domain.

The domestic angle

India today has its own constraints, particularly on the energy front, given the global polarization of positions around the war in Ukraine. The Modi government is also facing criticism from Gulf countries, including Iran, over insulting remarks made by ruling party spokespersons against the Prophet Muhammad. If such behavior within the BJP and remarks by government ministers go unchecked, India’s relations with the Gulf countries could be in jeopardy.

In today’s uncertain world, India has the opportunity and the power to pursue an independent foreign policy for the benefit of its people. The departure from the default position to follow the leader on Ukraine and the vote on Iran are welcome, but there is a long way to go on this road.

Energy security must be one of the guiding principles of this independent foreign policy, just like food security. These goals are non-negotiable and should not be sacrificed for any alignment with the West.

If India has to walk a tightrope on foreign policy, so be it. You simply cannot afford to falter.

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