Nowhere are old habits of mind more evident than in India's Middle East policy. Last March, with Qaddafi's forces besieging rebel strongholds, India joined China, Russia, Brazil, and Germany in abstaining from the Security Council resolution that authorized a no-fly zone to protect civilians. Indian foreign policy pundits spoke of Qaddafi's firm grip on power, his special affection for former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the economic benefits that would flow to India when its steadfast friendship was rewarded. India broke with fellow BRICS on Syria, backing a resolution calling for Assad to step down, but it shares Beijing and Moscow's reluctance to force the Syrian strongman to step down as a precursor to ending violence in his country. As a post-colonial nation, India almost always privileges state sovereignty over human rights. For many Indians, the divide between the West and the East is more palpable than the one between democracies and dictatorships.
One could argue that U.S. leadership in the region has been disappointing: Libya is a mess and Islamist forces are stronger than ever in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. Nonetheless, India's opposition to the United States has been gratuitous. Wedded to the status quo, India missed an opportunity to be on the right side of history. Moreover, with no vital interests at stake in either Libya or Syria -- unlike in the Gulf with its large population of Indian migrant workers -- New Delhi should have gone along with the Western democratic consensus, saving its battles with Washington for when it has real skin in the game.
Iran poses a more serious conundrum. It supplies 11 percent of India's oil imports, its second largest supplier after Saudi Arabia. Iran also looms large in India's conception of its own neighborhood. India relies on Iran for land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia denied to it by Pakistan. New Delhi helped upgrade Chabahar, a minor port in Iranian Baluchistan and has begun to link it with Afghanistan through a web of roads and railways. And, as the United States withdraws troops from Afghanistan, India, and Iran share fears of a Taliban comeback.
Lawmakers in Washington, however, don't see Iran as merely another issue where friends can agree to disagree. An Indian policy that privileges ties with Iran ahead of the U.S.-India relationship misses the forest for the trees, damaging India's long-term global aspirations in the pursuit of short-term regional ones. American lawmakers may have grudgingly seen India's point when it preferred new European fighter jets over older American ones last year, or overlooked the unfairness of India's Parliament passing a nuclear liability bill two years ago that effectively shut out American companies, even though the U.S. had done the heavy lifting to make international nuclear commerce with India possible.
But Iran's apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons is America's most pressing security concern. India could cut back dependence on Iranian oil and demand a greater say in Afghanistan's future in exchange for supporting the United States. Instead, it has so far preferred public posturing over quiet pragmatism. In January, Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna declared India's support for Iran's nuclear power ambitions, albeit not for its alleged nuclear weapons program. The Indian trade delegation hands the mullahs in Tehran a propaganda coup to counter the narrative of their growing economic isolation. Meanwhile, much of the debate in India consists of simply repeating all the reasons Iran remains vital to India's regional calculations. (Though, to be fair, the emergence of Israel as a key security and intelligence partner for India means it has its share of backers as well.)
Opposing U.S. policy strengthens the hand of those in America who argue that India is an unreliable friend. It undercuts those making the case that shared democratic values and common concerns about the rise of an authoritarian China and the dangers of jihadist terrorism bind the two countries together. Japan and Italy, both large consumers of Iranian oil, have grasped the seriousness of the Iran issue. They have cut back on imports and refrained from making provocative statements. Only India appears to believe that it can undermine a core U.S. security concern and still be seen as a benign power worthy of backing at the head table of global affairs.
Despite all this, it's too early for believers in the U.S.-India relationship to despair. Outside the strongholds of New Delhi's leftist intelligentsia and the ruling Congress Party, India has changed dramatically since the advent of economic reforms in 1991. Today's young urban Indians are more likely to recall visits to their city by George W. Bush or Barack Obama than Yasser Arafat or Fidel Castro. Once a heresy, arguments for closer ties between New Delhi and Washington are now commonplace in public discourse. As C. Raja Mohan, India's most prominent strategic thinker, puts it: "As it rises, India has the potential to become a leading member of the ‘political West' and to play a key role in the great political struggles of the next decades."