Iran or the US? India’s delicate balancing act

May 6, 2008

The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to India on Tuesday was a slightly low-key affair. But it throws up an interesting conundrum for the Indian government.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks on during his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi April 29, 2008. REUTERS/B MathurJust how close can New Delhi afford to be to Tehran before it seriously angers Washington. In the end, will India be forced to choose — Iranian gas or American friendship?

Ahmadinejad was here to promote plans for a $7.6 billion pipeline to bring Iranian gas to Pakistan and India.

It is an ambitious project and there is still a lot of negotiation ahead to ensure it is commercially viable and secure from acts of sabotage.

But Iran and Pakistan do seem keen, and India is interested.

The problem, though, is that such a project would tie India into a long-term economic relationship with Iran, which Washington still views as part of the infamous “axis of evil”.

The India-U.S. nuclear deal is probably dead anyway, but does anyone seriously think it could be resusciated if India was piping tens of millions of cubic metres of Iranian gas every day and sending millions of dollars back in return?

In the American Congress and State Department, that would look dangerously like financing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as they have clearly underlined.

Of course, India has massive energy needs. Sources like Iranian gas will be much more important than nuclear power — with or without the U.S. nuclear deal — for decades to come. A good relationship with Tehran is also useful in helping to stabilise Afghanistan and contain Pakistan.

But is it wise to get into a permanent embrace with a state which America accuses of sponsoring terrorism and developing an illegal nuclear bomb, the first in the Muslim world?

Does India need America as it strives to develop its economy and as a counterweight to an ever more assertive China?

So far, many analysts think India has not done a bad job of juggling America and Iran. It irked the Iranians by voting against them at the IAEA but, as this week’s visit showed, has kept talking.

But can it continue to kerep both balls in the air? It may be election season in the US right now, but the next administration, Republican or Democrat, is bound to see containing Iran as a major foreign policy goal.

If push comes to shove, which way should India go? Iranian gas or America’s economic and diplomatic might?

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