India has voted in favor of a resolution in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) criticizing Iran and threatening to refer it to the UN Security Council (UNSC) later. The resolution is considerably weaker than what Western countries had initially sought. The European promoters of the resolution have said they have no intention of seeking sanctions against Iran since that would harm Russia and China. Nonetheless, India supported the resolution while Russia, China, and 10 developing countries abstained. The vote reflects India’s fear of America more than its fear of Iran. Further, the vote is only a step in a longer struggle over Iran’s nuclear program.
America and India have been quarreling over Iran. Events since the American invasion of Iraq have conspired to weaken American and Western influence worldwide. The prospect of an American ground invasion of Iran has receded due to difficulties encountered in Iraq. An air attack alone has a good chance of leaving the United States worse off. That means the United States and the European Union must rely on diplomacy alone if they wish to isolate Iran. Ultimately, that is also impossible, given Russian and Chinese veto rights. Nonetheless, the Western effort has pulled India into the picture.
America is much more hostile toward Iran than is any other state, except Israel. Iran threatens American superpower interests in the Middle East. Iran has a long record of anti-American rhetoric since its revolution of 1979, and did take U.S. embassy staff hostage in that year. That was a reaction to U.S. promotion of the 1953 coup in Iran against a democratic government, and long American support for the Shah’s dictatorship. Nonetheless, Americans at large have not taken kindly to America being repeatedly called “The Great Satan.”
Second, Iran has maintained strong rhetoric against Israel. Iran has also given material support to Hezbollah, a Shia political and guerilla organization in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah fought Israeli forces that had invaded Lebanon in 1982. They inflicted sufficient casualties on the Israelis that they withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Despite Iranian-Israeli hostility, Israel secretly sold weapons to Iran in the early 1980s to use against Iraq.
Further, a Shia suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. personnel in Lebanon in 1983 during a brief American intervention to cover the partial withdrawal of Israelis. Iran’s support for Hezbollah is the principal cause of America’s designation of Iran as a terrorist state. Finally, Iran’s nuclear program clearly includes pursuit of a weapons option. Iran is largely within its Non-proliferation Treaty obligations at this time, but could change its mind later. Iran has developed missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads to Israel.
Iran has had friendly relations with India. Iran is a major energy exporter to India and has the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, after Russia. India has given low-level military assistance to Iran. In 1994 Iran played a key role in the UN to thwart a Pakistani campaign against India over Kashmir. Iran consistently opposed the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 1998, Iran and the Taliban came close to war. Iran has been a bulwark against Sunni fundamentalism, which is threatening to India. Iran is the citadel of Shia fundamentalism. That is a great threat to religious, social, and political tolerance in Iran, and soon in southern Iraq, but it will not be a direct threat to India.
Iran’s record since 1979 is not highly aggressive, with some exceptions. Its agents have murdered a number of Iranian dissidents in Europe. After the Iraqi aggression in 1980, Iran fought back fanatically, and did not try to conclude the fighting when its position was favorable. And it did support Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. A 1994 suicide bombing of a Jewish organization in Argentina was blamed on Iran by the United States and Israel. The hard evidence is mixed, however. That region does have a concentration of Shia Lebanese immigrants, with ties to Hezbollah. One of the accused conspirators was the former Iranian ambassador to Argentina who had become a university lecturer in Britain. That an Iranian state terrorist would go to work openly in Britain seems unlikely. All other evidence put forward is questionable. Israel has accused Iran of secretly sending arms to the Palestinian Authority. But most of the world would not consider this terrorism.
There was a revival of liberal mass sentiment in Iran in the late 1990s. The overwhelming election victories of President Khatami were the result. Iran is not a democracy, though, and the winner of the election does not rule. Unelected clerics rule. Under more favorable international conditions, the tolerant majority of Iranians might have made headway against theocratic oppression. George Bush sabotaged their position. He declared Iran to be in the “Axis of Evil” during Khatami’s presidency. Then he invaded neighboring Iraq. While Iranians welcomed the end of Sunni dominance over the Shia majority in Iraq, they knew Bush intended them no favor. The Europeans and Americans have worked to restrict Iranian nuclear technology. The Iranian response is similar to the Indian response to such efforts. Just before the last election America mounted a radio propaganda campaign toward Iran encouraging people to boycott the election. The result was that the most anti-American candidate—Ahmedinejad—won with a huge turnout.
The global power structure has changed significantly in even the last two years. During 1990-2003 Russia and China voted to renew the sanctions on Iraq every six months despite their intense opposition to the sanctions. Now Russia is again strong with booming oil and gas revenues—strong enough to dare veto Western efforts to sanction Iran through the UNSC. China has major energy and commercial interests in Iran and has gained enough confidence to exercise its UNSC veto against Western interests. India has become strong enough to be considered a factor in Iran. The weak IAEA resolution against Iran is evidence that the world order is indeed changing from unipolar to multipolar.
India and America disagree about the desirability of post-colonial sovereignty. The question in Iran is how mucch latitude it has within its own boundaries. America argues that state sovereignty has been abused in some cases, should not be upheld as a universal principle, and Western interventions promote modernity. India considers post-colonial sovereignty a precious achievement and argues that aggressive Western interventions have done more harm than good for democracy and human rights. Washington and Delhi agree on Afghanistan, where the Taliban rejected the sovereignty of others, but not on Iraq. The United States has enabled elections in Iraq, but does not allow the winners to control even the Iraqi army, to say nothing of U.S. forces. Further, the intervention has generated new threats to human rights. Guerilla wars force armies to make a trade-off between the lives of soldiers and of civilians in their choice of tactics. The U.S. military in Iraq, using heavy firepower in urban areas, has made this choice unfavorably for Iraqi civilians. The jihadi atrocities in Iraq would not have occurred without the U.S. attack.
The difficulties encountered in Iraq, combined with the revelations of Katrina, have now led the great majority of Americans to question the wisdom of the occupation. The questioning should and likely will extend to wider issues. America will have to learn to respect sovereignty as a universal principle. There have been very few interventions with lasting humanitarian benefits in the post-colonial era. Situations like Rwanda can be handled multilaterally, without unilateral aggression. If America does return to the fold of universal state sovereignty, U.S.-Indian concord will increase.
U.S.-Indian relations are unfolding within a larger historical process. Over the last five centuries of capitalist history, there has been a tendency for the most advanced economies to pull up some other economies, even while suppressing many others. These rising powers have sometimes challenged and at other times supported the established powers. For example, Britain enabled the rise of America and Germany in the second half of the 19th century. Germany then challenged Britain, while America supported it, but later displaced it from the top position. That dynamic will not be repeated precisely. Nonetheless, India is trying, like America before, to rise with the political support of the established power. America might be willing to go along, but certainly wishes to avoid Britain’s fate.
America’s current diplomacy against Iran is predicated on a unipolar strategy. A nuclear Iran would be threatening to American hegemony. Nuclear Pakistan is not, and hence has not attracted the same degree of opprobrium. Iran’s neighbors are not nearly as worried as America. Israel is worried, but has a nuclear deterrent itself. India has put up some resistance to this unipolar strategy and then compromised. But unipolarity itself is breaking down. If the United States recognizes this trend and embraces a graceful transition, there will be great cooperation from India in building a new institutional order. America has already taken some steps in this direction. That it has not attacked Iran yet is a good sign. But right now American foreign policy is caught in a limbo between clinging to a fading hegemony and playing the first among equals in a multilateral order.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches international relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.