Today’s bombing of an Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi is sure to raise international scrutiny on India’s problematic ties with Iran. According to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran was behind the bombing outside the heavily guarded Israeli embassy—a stone’s throw from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s house—that injured the Israeli defense attache’s wife. If proven, the attack will cast a shadow on U.S.-India relations as well.
Even before the most recent incident, U.S.-India relations appeared to be heading toward a train wreck. At any rate, the odds ratcheted up last week as New Delhi signaled its determination to offer Tehran a lifeline as it battles U.S. and European sanctions. India intends to sidestep the sanctions by using a combination of rupees and barter to pay for Iranian oil imports. And on Thursday, adding insult to Western injury, India’s commerce secretary announced that a trade delegation would soon head to Iran to explore fresh opportunities as other countries retreat from its toxic economy.
While India lacks the capacity to single-handedly prop up Iran, its actions nonetheless send exactly the wrong message at a delicate moment in the international community’s effort to thwart Tehran’s rogue nuclear program. India recently overtook China as the world’s largest importer of Iranian oil. And the mullahs’ propaganda machine has quickly exploited supportive noises emanating from New Delhi to argue that they are not as isolated as they seem.
To be fair, as I pointed out in my most recent WSJ column, India has genuine reasons to seek friendly relations with Iran—chiefly oil, access to Central Asia, and a common stake in preventing a Pakistan-backed Taliban comeback in Afghanistan.
But by thumbing their noses at Washington in the face of its most pressing security challenge, the mandarins who run Indian foreign policy risk destroying goodwill painstakingly built over a decade by well-wishers of the relationship in both countries. The long term costs for India of a West that’s suspicious rather than enthusiastic about its rise are inestimably greater than the short term benefits of playing footsie with Iran.
Some well regarded Indian strategic thinkers argue that India should act as a bridge between the United States and Iran. But if this hasn’t happened over the past 10 years, it’s hardly realistic to pursue it in the midst of the current crisis. Instead of mistakenly believing that it can paper over differences with Washington, or (somewhat fantastically) get the entire Western world to suddenly see the revolutionary regime in Tehran in a kinder light, India should arrange for alternative oil supplies and join the international community in putting the squeeze on Iran. For its part, the Obama administration needs to make it clear that this—unlike disagreements over fighter aircraft purchases or commercial access for U.S. firms to India’s nuclear market—is much more serious than a mere spat between friends.
For India, the Iranian threat doesn’t rise to the level of Pakistan. Nonetheless, a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East, and one less country in the world bankrolling revolutionary Islamist terrorism, are both self-evidently in India’s interest. Reviving an old image of itself as a nation invariably at odds with the West despite ostensibly professing the same values is decidedly not. This is true regardless of who turns out to be behind today’s attack in New Delhi.