Since the end of the Cold War, Iran has been an important element of India’s foreign policy. Apart from growing bilateral energy trade, the two countries share converging economic and commercial interests in Central Asia, as well as similar strategic challenges, especially in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the growing relation with Iran is problematic in light of warming relations between India and the US. In particular the Iranian nuclear issue raises question about India’s ability to defend its strategic autonomy.

After the visit of the Iranian trade delegation to India in May 2012, the Indian Minister of External Affairs S.M. Krishna condemned the US economic sanctions against Iran. In spite of its close relationship with both Washington and Tel Aviv, and regardless of growing international tensions caused by the Iranian nuclear issue, India has maintained its ‘strategic partnership’ with Iran. The two countries share a common history, illustrated by the extensive commercial and cultural exchanges that took place between them from Classical Antiquity to the nineteenth century. While the establishment of the British Empire led the two countries to break off close ties, their relationship has been reconfigured once again in the changing strategic context of the post-Cold War era. It has become a constituent element of India’s ambition for great-power status.

Indeed, the end of the Cold War marked an important shift in India’s policies, both at the domestic and international levels. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, India lost its main economic and military partner. Encouraged by a growth rate of about 6% per year, Delhi abandoned its Soviet-style command economy in favour of liberal economic policies. Despite becoming integrated into the global economy and the post-Cold War order denominated by the United States, India aspired to play a more influential role in world affairs and thus has come to contest the hierarchy of the unipolar system.1 Along with other emerging powers, such as China, Brazil, and South Africa, India’s distinctive foreign policy differentiates from the common behaviour of classical middle powers, which have supported the existing world order.2 Remaining on the margin of US-led institutional structures and military alliances, India resorts to an original diplomatic model based on a wide range of techniques and strategies. The promotion of its ‘strategic autonomy’3 has thus become a central determinant of India’s foreign policy.

This recent concept of ‘strategic autonomy’ lacks a clear definition and, as a result, has raised diverging interpretations among the Indian political and strategic community.4 Nevertheless, its main principles can be summarized as follows. The quest for strategic autonomy shares similar goals with India’s traditional policy of non-alignment, such as the pursuit of an independent foreign policy, the rejection of any alliance, the defence of India’s sovereignty and the acquisition of an influential role in the international order. Yet, their means are different. The non-aligned policy inherited from Nehru was based on the promotion of Southern moral values and principles, and on the idea that India could conquer the world through the power of ideas.5 By contrast, the strategic autonomy policy brought forward by India’s current leadership seeks to overcome the dilemma between ‘competing strands of realism and idealism’.6 It is a very pragmatic policy based on the establishment of many strategic partnerships with a number of countries in order to maximize India’s national power. As demonstrated by India’s ‘Look East Policy’ launched in the early 1990s towards Southeast Asia and the ‘Look West Policy’ initiated some years later towards the Middle East, India is willing to break with its traditional focus on South Asia and engage with its ‘extended neighbourhood’. Furthermore, with regard to the Middle East, these shifts have translated into the adoption of an active policy which goes beyond India’s historical moral support of the Palestinian cause and seeks to establish ties with the three diverging poles of the region: Iran, Israel and the Arab states.

In this context, India began to forge a strategic partnership with Iran based on common economic, energy and security interests. The visit of the Congress Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to Teheran in 1993, followed by President Hachemi Rafsanjani’s visit to Delhi in 1995, marked the beginning of their alliance. A general consensus emerged in India wherein both the Congress party and the Hindu nationalist party sought to establish closer ties with Iran. Tehran emerged as a critical oil-partner for India, also providing unique access to Central Asia. Converging security interests in war-torn Afghanistan also reinforced the strategic partnership between the two countries. Nevertheless, energy and security cooperation declined between 2005 and 2008, mainly due to Indian votes at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in favour of economic sanctions to deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear program. In parallel to these votes, the signature of a civilian nuclear deal with the United States in 2005 established India as a legitimate nuclear power, despite its constant refusal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Although these events have led to a weakening of Indo-Iranian relations, Iran remains a pillar of India’s ‘Look West Policy’. In April 2008, President Ahmadinejad’s visit to India illustrated the renewal of high-level diplomatic exchanges between the two countries.

In order to understand the evolution of India’s policy towards Iran, this paper questions the extent to which the rise of India in the international order shapes its foreign policy. Indeed, a bilateral relationship takes place within the framework of the international system, in particular its inherent interdependence.7 Three types of contexts, as identified by Gary Goertz,8 are analysed in this paper: the historical, the structural and the normative contexts. Goertz’s notion of context as a ‘barrier to change’ is of particular interest to this analysis.9 While emerging powers like India are driven by their willingness to grow in the international order, barriers are created by the conservative behaviours of the most powerful states, which try to maintain the established international structures and norms, as defined by the English school of international relations theory.10 On the one hand, the notion of structure relates to the international system, which is composed of interstate, hierarchical relations that shape a particular balance of power. On the other hand, the notion of norm relates to the international society, defined as the international institutions that are ‘needed to deal with the ever more complex dilemmas of collective actions’, and that explain ‘how state interests change and evolve’.11

In the same vein, Dario Battistella explains that the post-Cold War era is characterised by a ‘unipolar system’ dominated by the American power and a ‘unifying international society’12 influenced by liberal norms. Similarly, Andrew Hurrell describes the post-bipolar world in terms of ‘American hegemonic power’, and the ‘gradual but progressive diffusion of liberal values’.13 The notion of ‘responsible power’, a constructed normative concept shaped by the United States, can be considered as the determining social criteria for the acquisition of the great-power status in an international society that is evolving ‘from pluralism to greater solidarism’.14 Against this theoretical background, this paper analyses India’s foreign policy towards Iran since the end of the Cold War as an ideal case to interpret India’s adaptation to these dramatic changes in the structural and normative international contexts, while taking into account the impacts of history, as well as domestic considerations, on its foreign policy.

Based on an analysis of official discourses and interviews carried out in Delhi in 2010, this paper argues that India’s foreign policy towards Iran embodies the difficult balance of interests and ideas that India has been trying to establish in order to secure its ‘strategic autonomy’. This paper first examines the factors that have shaped the interdependent relationship between India and Iran and demonstrates that Iran has been, since the end of the Cold War, considered as a natural partner to India’s accumulation of material resources. The second part argues that as Delhi gets closer to the United States and is considered by the Americans as a ‘responsible’ power, the Iranian nuclear issue epitomizes India’s need to demonstrate its autonomy from the hegemonic power in order to retain enough strategic space to manoeuvre with Iran. Finally, the paper focuses on the adjustments of India’s foreign policy towards Iran since 2005 and the way it deals with its dilemma between ‘international responsibility’ and ‘strategic autonomy’.

Iran, India’s Natural Partner

For both historical and geographic reasons, the relation with Iran is a central element to India’s expensive agenda. Since India and Iran began to strengthen their cooperation in September 1993, relations between the two countries have increased considerably, especially in regard to energy trade. Apart from hydrocarbons, India and Iran share converging economic and strategic interests in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

A Historical Context that Privileges Iran 

When studying Indo-Iranian relations, one quickly encounters abundant rhetoric about ancient civilizations and cultural interactions. Indeed, although little known, the history shared between India and Iran is extremely dense, in such a way that India has been described as the ‘closest Asian country to Iran’.15 This history, which dates back to the beginnings of the Indo-Aryan civilisation in the seventh century B.C., displays cultural, linguistics, religious, commercial and diplomatic characteristics.

In the period of Antiquity, the two countries established good diplomatic relations, characterized by several exchanges of emissaries between the two regions. Starting from the foundation of the Achemenide Empire in Iran by Cyrus the Great in 550 B.C and pursued even after the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C, these contacts were intensified throughout history. The travels of numerous intellectuals, artists and scientists between the Persian and the Indian courts further contributed to the diversity of their relations.16 The Indian principalities of the North-West of India were especially affected by these exchanges.

The medieval period can be described as the ‘Golden Age’ of Indo-Iranian history.17 Indeed, the Safavid dynasty of Persia (1502-1722) constituted an important element of the foreign policy and cultural identity of the Mughal Empire, which was founded after the conquest of Delhi in 1526. The Taj Mahal, in Agra, testifies to this shared history. The expansion of Islam towards Iran in the seventeenth century, and then to India, contributed to the reinforcement of cultural links between the two civilisations. Today, India hosts the second largest Shi’a community in the world. Of originally Persian descent, this religious community has maintained strong religious and cultural ties with Iran.18 In addition, India never cut its cultural and intellectual ties with Tehran. The Persian language used to be the language of the Indian elites and has influenced the construction of modern Indian languages, such as Urdu in the north of India and the Dravidian dialects in the south.

The eighteenth century was marked by the decline of the Safavid and Mughal dynasties in parallel with the expansion of the British presence in India, which led to the end of diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, Persia remained an important strategic issue for the British until the Second World War, acting as the theatre in which the European powers confronted each other’s interests in the region. Apart from strategic considerations, this period also saw the development of intensive commercial transfers and equally the formation of economically and politically powerful transnational networks of Hindu, Arab and Persian merchant families, which dispersed throughout the ports of the Indian Ocean.19

Despite India’s independence in 1947, the signing of a Friendship Treaty in 1950, and minimal trade in the energy sector, the bipolar structure of the Cold War prevented significant cooperation between the two countries. India collaborated with the Soviet Union economically and militarily, and also established friendly ties with Arab nationalists in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Libya.20 India’s post-independence diplomacy was based on the promotion of decolonization, non-alignment and Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. Conversely, the Iranian Shah was a key ally for the United States in the region and established a defensive relationship with Pakistan. The Shah provided Islamabad with military support during the Indo-Pakistani wars in 1965 and 1971. In 1979, India officially described the Iranian Islamic revolution as a ‘positive development’. Yet, Delhi was concerned about Khomeini’s vituperative rhetoric and his support for Pakistan on the question of Kashmir. Besides, during the Iran-Iraq War, from 1980 and 1988, India favoured its traditional oil-partner Saddam Hussein.21

The fall of the Soviet Union led to a complete change in the Indo-Iranian relationship. In 1989, the election of the Iranian President Hachemi Rafsandjani shifted Iranian foreign policy towards pragmatism. In order to offset its economic and political isolation in the region, Iran pursued a pro-active regional policy and sought to improve ties with its Asian neighbours. At the same time, rising sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’as in Pakistan, combined with a growing convergence of interests between the US and Pakistan in South Asia, led to a deterioration of the Iranian relationship with Islamabad.22 Under such circumstances, Iran appeared as a potential partner to back India’s effort to reach the Islamic world and bypass unceasing Pakistani opposition. This new involvement between India and Iran clearly manifested at the United Nations Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva in 1994, during which the Iranian representative persuaded Pakistan to withdraw its resolution condemning Indian policy in Kashmir.23

The numerous high-level political visits that have taken place between India and Iran since 1993 have allowed for many opportunities by which to display the goodwill and mutual admiration between the two sides. In order to promote their interconnectedness, the Indian and Iranian representatives often stress their shared history and Shi’a culture. The two countries cooperate in the preservation of this common culture, as illustrated by the numerous universities, research centres and institutes dedicated to their shared history. In 2001, the official visit of the former Indian Prime Minister A.B Vajpayee was described as a ‘turning point’ in Indian and Iranian relations and an encouragement for ‘dialogue among civilizations.’24 This rhetoric, widely exploited by decision-makers on both sides, creates symbols reflecting shared cultural and historical beliefs while feeding a growing convergence of interests on the part of both actors in economic as well as strategic sectors.

Although Iran holds the second largest gas reserves in the world (15% of global reserves), it is only the 25th largest producer of gas.25 The government of India has shown a keen interest in purchasing Iranian natural gas, but refinement and transportation of gas from Iran have raised a number of issues. In particular, gas could be transported via an overland pipeline from Iran’s South Pars field through Pakistan. In negotiation since 1993, this project would serve to increase Iran’s gas exports and meet high-energy demands in India and Pakistan. Strongly supported by Iran and Pakistan, this pipeline has also been presented as an opportunity for peace and stability in the region. In May 2010, Iran and Pakistan signed an agreement to launch the project with a provision for India to join later.26 However, the possibility of another Indo-Pakistani conflict, the insecurity caused by the Baluchistan insurgency in Pakistan, and the US opposition to the pipeline have delayed its implementation. Despite its declared interest to take part in the project, India has stopped attending trilateral meetings since 2007. India has also shown greater enthusiasm and interest in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. The Gas Sales and Purchase Agreement relating to this pipeline was signed on May 23, 2012.There is great potential for cooperation between India and Iran in the energy sector. Indeed, since the early 1990s, energy security has become one of the main priorities of India’s foreign policy. After the first Gulf War, India lost its two main suppliers of oil, Iraq and Kuwait. Being the world’s second largest producer of oil, Iran offered India cheap resources and rapidly became its second source of oil imports after Saudi Arabia. In 2011, India imported approximately 12% of its oil from Iran.27 India received 13% of Iranian crude oil exports, which made it the third largest buyer of Iranian crude oil after China (22%) and Japan (14%).28

Total bilateral trade has increased significantly, from $6.011 billion in 2005-2006 to $13.670 billion in 2010-2011.29 Yet, apart from oil, commercial trade based mainly on agricultural goods, information technologies and petrochemical products, remains moderate. Still, the strategic position of Iran offers great commercial opportunity to India. The former constitutes a gateway and a transportation route for its trade within the region and the latter seeks to increase its influence in Central Asia. In February 1997, Indians and Iranians signed a trilateral agreement on the international transit of goods with Turkmenistan. India and Iran are also signatories to the International North-South Transport Corridor agreement, which aims to facilitate trade through Iran to Russia and Northern Europe. Shorter and economical, these transit routes allow India to bypass Pakistan by exporting goods via the sea, transferring them through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, and then onwards by land to European markets. Nevertheless, lack of infrastructures and political instability limit the full exploitation of the corridor by the committed partners, hindering trade between India and the Central Asian Republics.30

Beyond Energy: Common Security Interests

Indian and Iranian interests converge in Afghanistan. Both have interests in the stabilisation and economic development of Afghanistan while equally sharing common concerns about Pakistani influence in the country. When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, India and Iran, along with Russia, had been active supporters of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance since the early 1990s. After the US intervention in 2001, they supported the US-backed Karzai regime, and pledged to assist the new government financially and commercially. Since 2001, India has donated $750 million and promised another $450 million to Afghanistan.31 Iranian aid is estimated at over $600 million.32 In addition, India relies on Iran to enhance its future economic presence in Afghanistan. In 2009, Indian companies completed the route from Zaranj to Delaram and India has proposed linking it with a railway line to the Iranian city of Bam at the Afghan border. Goods can thus be transported from the Iranian port of Chahbahar to Delaram, providing India with an alternative route for trade and commerce with Afghanistan and Central Asia.

India’s cooperation with Iran has to be analysed in the broader context of regional rivalries with Pakistan and China. Pakistan has accused India of pursuing intelligence operations from its consulates in Afghanistan and Iran, as well as supporting insurgents in Pakistani Baluchistan. According to Christine Fair, ‘India’s access to Iran affords New Delhi an enhanced ability to monitor Pakistan and even launch sub conventional operations against Pakistan.’33 In fact, India is also investing in the Chahbahar Container Terminal Project in order to expand the capacity of the Iranian port. While India claims that Chahbahar will be a commercial port, Pakistan and China are afraid that Delhi will use it to station its naval vessels. Conversely, India has been worried about China’s involvement in the development of the deep-sea Gwadar port in Pakistan as part of Pekin’s ‘Strings of Pearl’ strategy to extend its influence over the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the location of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea coast in South-western Baluchistan, is strategically significant as it is located on the opposite end of the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz.34 Working in competition, the two ports provide strategic alternative trade routes for the transit of goods between Central Asia and the Middle East and fuel rivalry between the regional powers.

Lastly, de facto cooperation in Afghanistan has led to the establishment of a strategic dialogue between India and Iran. President Muhammad Khatami’s visit to Delhi in January 2003 led to the signature of a ‘Memorandum of Understanding on the Road Map to Strategic Cooperation’ and the establishment of mechanisms to institutionalize contacts between the two National Security Councils. They also set up joint working groups on counterterrorism and drug trafficking in order to mainly address narcotics trafficking from Pakistan and Afghanistan.35

In the military sector, maritime cooperation is particularly significant. India has an expertise in using and maintaining Russian-built military equipment and is helping Iran to develop submarine batteries adapted to warm Persian Gulf waters. The two countries also conducted their first joint naval manoeuvre in the Arabian Sea in March 2003.36 That same year, the press reported that Iran had agreed to allow India to use its military bases in the event of a conflict between India and Pakistan though the two governments have always denied such an agreement. Following these developments the RAND Corporation defined the Indo-Iranian cooperation as a ‘strategic axis’.37 Nevertheless, the extent of Indo-Iranian cooperation in the defence sector is difficult to assess. In March 2006, a second significant bilateral naval exercise took place during President Bush’s visit to the region, generating US protestations. This example illustrates the fact that ‘defence ties are perhaps the best example of a relationship India wants to maintain for reasons of both symbolism and strategy, without giving it a great deal of substance.’38

Therefore, since the end of the Cold War, Iran has been considered a critical partner for the promotion of India’s interests. Nevertheless, the growing relation with Iran is problematic in light of warming relations between the US and India. Additionally, India has had to face international pressures that limit its ability to manoeuvre around the Iranian nuclear issue.

Between Washington and Tehran: Does India Act as a ‘Responsible Stakeholder’39 Against Iran?

In view of Western-led efforts to isolate Iran and block the development of its nuclear program, India’s position towards Iran encompasses the ambiguities deriving from India’s shift from a developing nation to a great power. Indeed, since India began to initiate closer relations with the United States in the twenty-first century, its strategic partnership attests to India’s quest for a more dominant position within the international system.40 At the same time, it has raised the issue of whether India has now enough strategic space to maintain its balance of interests between Washington and Tehran.41 Apart from power relations, it is also interesting to look at the impact of the American definition of a ‘responsible power’ on the definition of India’s foreign policy. As explained by Andrew Hurrell, the notion of ‘great power’ does not only refer to the possession of crude material power but also to notions of legitimacy and authority that are conferred, among other criteria, by the attribution of a ‘responsible’ status, by the hegemonic power as well as smaller countries.42

Embracing the values of market-oriented democracies and committed to the reinforcement of the non-proliferation regime, India has been described by the US as the ideal ‘norm-setting partner.’43 India has therefore been expected to become a responsible ‘burden-sharing partner’ of the US when dealing with the Iranian issue. However, the Iranian nuclear issue demonstrates that India has shaped its own definition of international responsibility, in an effort to strike a balance between its improving ties with the US and its strategic engagement with Iran.

Indo-US strategic rapprochement

The formalization of a strategic agreement between India and the United States in 2004 marked an important change in India’s foreign policy. This event contrasted with the unanimous condemnation expressed by the UN Security Council of India’s nuclear tests carried out in 1998.44 India, as well as Pakistan, were asked to sign the NPT without delay while putting an end to their ballistic and military nuclear programmes. In addition, until September 2001, the US adopted unilateral sanctions against the two countries, suspending foreign aid and restraining access to American technologies.

Determined to establish a partnership with the US, Indian representatives launched a series of successful diplomatic initiatives.45 Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000 was the first visit from an American President since 1978. During George W. Bush’s mandate, regular meetings between Condoleezza Rice and her counterpart Brajesh Mishra led to the adoption of the ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’ in January 2004.46 On July 18, 2005, India and the US signed the Civilian Nuclear Deal, which opened the way for the integration of India into the international nuclear regime. In fact, in September 2008, the Nuclear Supplier Groups (NSG) levied the embargo on India to engage in nuclear trade that was put in place following its first nuclear test in 1974. The last step of this strategic connection was the signature of the 123 Agreement in 2008, in which the US committed to supply nuclear technology to India.47 This agreement sealed the singular status now enjoyed by India as the only country allowed to be part of the Global Civilian Nuclear Trade without having signed the NPT.

Having become a nuclear power and strenghtened ties with the hegemonic power, India has thus acquired the means necessary to be considered a great power in the international system. Interestingly, cooperation between India and the US was framed within a normative rhetoric that contrasted sharply with the condemnation of Iran as a ‘rogue state’.

The ‘Axis of Democracy’ vs. the ‘Axis of Evil’

Since 1998, normative arguments put forward by American and Indian representatives to justify their increased cooperation have been two-fold. First, India is defined as a member of the Democratic States Community, and therefore shares common values with the US. In September 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared: ‘India and the United States are often described as the world’s largest and biggest democracies bound together by our commitment to the values and principles of pluralism and liberalism. These phrases may sound hackneyed and worn out, but today they have acquired a new resonance. Both President Bush and I agreed when we met earlier this week that our mutual commitment to democracy remains an important bridge linking our two countries.’ 48 Second, due to its ‘impeccable record on non-proliferation and despite its decision to acquire nuclear weapons’49, India is described as a de facto legitimate nuclear power.

Therefore, the belief in India’s capacity to fulfil its duties in the international society has played a key role in American rhetoric to justify its tightening rapport with Delhi. In sharp contrast, Iran has been defined as the prototype of the ‘deviant’ state.50 Designated as a member of the ‘axis of evil’ in January 2002, Iran is considered by the US as a grave threat to the international community. Manichaeism thus pervaded the American foreign policy during George Bush’s presidency.51 The visit of the Under Secretary of State Richard Armitage to India in May 2001 illustrates this trend very well. His objective was indeed to encourage the establishment of a global strategic security framework to fight against rogue states, namely Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea.52 In this context, Iran became a test for India to demonstrate its ability to behave as a ‘responsible’ power, i.e. to act as a ‘burden-sharing partner’53 of the United States.

This was recently illustrated by a speech given by President Barack Obama at the Indian Parliament on November 8, 2010. The American President criticised India for its unwillingness to condemn human rights violations committed in countries like Myanmar and Iran: ‘Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community – especially leaders like the United States and India – to condemn it.  And if I can be frank, in international fora, India has often shied away from some of these issues.’54 A few days later, for the first time New Delhi abstained from voting on a resolution condemning Iran at the United Nations Committee on Human Rights. Justified as an answer to Iran’s position in favour of Kashmiri militants, this vote demonstrated a strong disaccord between the two countries due to India’s siding with democratic values and Iran’s with Islamic ones, which could eventually lead to the deterioration of their relationship.

Against this background, it has been argued that Indian representatives brought the idea of liberal democracy ‘to the heart of India’s self-definition,’55 particularly in the case of the War on Terrorism.56 Yet, it remains unclear whether India will fully embrace the Western rhetoric that employs democracy and human rights as the principal values guiding its foreign policy.

India’s Particular Definition of ‘Responsibility’ Towards Iran

Undoubtedly, the ratification of the Civil Nuclear Agreement with the United States compelled India to vote against Iran at the IAEA. At the American Congress, the US representatives clearly linked the success of the agreement to Indian policy towards Iran. WikiLeaks cables released in 2010 also revealed the pressure that was being put on India. On September 6, 2005, after a meeting with the Indian Secretary of External Affairs Shyam Saran, the American Ambassador wrote: ‘We pushed Saran pretty hard, and although he pushed back with equal vigour we may have gotten our message through: it is time for India to make some hard decisions. We are approaching the moment when fence sitting will not be an option. We will keep pressing to see if India’s position on Iran shifts as we head into the September 19 IAEA BOG meeting in Vienna.’57

Asked to prove its loyalty to the United States, India adopted an ambiguous position on the Iranian nuclear issue. On the one hand, Delhi cast three votes against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency: September 24, 2005; February 4, 2006; and November 27, 2009. To justify these votes, New Delhi has constantly claimed that Iran is a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and therefore must honour its obligations. On the other hand, India has also argued that Iran has the legal right to develop a peaceful nuclear program, as permitted under Article IV of the NPT.

Even apart from American pressures, the Indian leadership is opposed to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. India does not want a new nuclear power in its proximity. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed: ‘This is a matter of concern for us as tensions in this region where our vital political, economic and security interests are involved affects us directly.’58 The nuclear cooperation established between the Iranians and the Pakistanis, especially the Abdul Qadir Khan network, also provoked India’s hostility against Iran’s nuclear program.59

Nevertheless, India has not embraced the American normative and strategic views of Iran. If the Iranian nuclear program remains a matter of concern for Delhi, India has been strongly opposed to the notion of the ‘axis of evil’, and does not consider Iran as a hotbed for terrorism.60 Moreover, the Indian Republic has sustained a high level of diplomatic engagement with Iran, as illustrated by the visit to Delhi by the Iranian President Ahmadinejad on April 29, 2008. Recently, India has expressed its willingness to pursue its strategic cooperation with Iran. In a meeting between the Indian National Security Advisor and the Iranian Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council in May 2012, both sides stressed the need to expand levels of cooperation in specific fields, such as energy, defence and naval security; and to fight against common threats such as terrorism, piracy and narcotics.61 India has thus successfully managed to soften the normative notion of ‘responsibility’ and to shape it in accordance with its own interests.

Iran, a Challenge to India’s Strategic Autonomy

India’s engagement with Iran challenges its ability to manage its conflicting interests at both the domestic, international and regional levels. It exemplifies the difficult balance of interests that India has been to establish in order to sustain its growth in the international order, which constitutes the core of its policy of ‘strategic autonomy’.

From an International Issue to a Domestic Affair

India’s policy towards Iran has been largely influenced by a domestic political culture that has been traditionally attached to the policy of non-alignment. Although India’s foreign policy used to be characterized by a high degree of domestic consensus, allying with the United States and the incessant votes against Iran at the IAEA generated controversy within India.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA, 1998-2004) led by the Hindu Nationalist Party, the BJP, as well as the Congress-led coalition that succeeded it shared similar principles of foreign policy. In fact, they mainly represent the Indian middle class, which are generally pro-American and do not favour Iran. However, the civilian nuclear deal initiated by the BJP and signed by the Congress raised strong protests among the Left parties, which accused the government of living under the shadow of the United States.62 In particular, the Hyde Act signed by President Bush in December 2006 contained a ‘Statement of Policy’ in which India was required to ‘dissuade, isolate, and if necessary, sanction and contain Iran for its efforts to acquire Weapons of Mass Destruction.’ Despite the fact that it was merely an advisory, non-binding statement, it became the illustration of Indian subservience to the United States. Conversely, Iran was drawn as a symbol of India’s strategic autonomy by the Indian left as well as by some members of the Congress and BJP attached to Indian traditional non-aligned policy.

According to Andrew Cooper, ‘despite high international expectations with respect to its role on an issue, for example, a given middle power may pull back from doing something because that action may cause pain to interest groups at home.’63 In fact, for the first time in India’s history, a foreign policy issue became a matter of domestic tensions. Raja Mohan thus mentioned the ‘boldness’ of the External Affairs Minister, Natwar Singh, who took the responsibility to vote against Iran at the IAEA and then faced domestic contestations. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to justify his actions at the Parliament many times and to reiterate his obligation to preserve Indian independence vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear issue. 64 On July 22, 2008, the government coalition was almost toppled due to the defection of the left front parties who were opposed to the nuclear deal with the United States. 65

Lastly, some analysts, like Professor Kumaraswamy, explain that the Muslim minority, representing 13% of the India’s population, has been a determining factor in defining Indian foreign policy in West Asia.66 In the case of Iran, Raja Mohan points out that the Congress was worried not to alienate the Muslim population, which has traditionally been considered a ‘vote bank’: ‘The political members in the Indian delegation, were privately telling the press that the Shi’a question was the key in deciding which way India would turn at the IAEA.67 Harsh Pant further argue that India’s confused reaction towards Iran in 2006 was in part caused by the coming elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is constituted of 18.5% Muslims.68 Nevertheless, the effect of diplomacy on Muslim Indians’ opinion, and vice-versa, is still open to research and question.

Central in the national definition of Indian identity, India’s Iranian policy revealed the political costs of its recognition as a great power and raised questions about the role that India is seeking to play in the institutions of the global ‘South’.

In Pursuit of Multilateralism

India’s international mediatory efforts in the Iranian issue have thus appeared extremely limited. Indian votes against Iran contrasted with its own traditional non-aligned posture, and with the positions adopted by its counterparts. Brazil and Turkey, in particular, made bolder contributions towards the resolution of the issue, proposing in May 2010 a nuclear swap deal with Iran, which was later rejected by the US.

In order to enhance its own leverage towards Iran, India has pursued a multilateral diplomacy. Discussions at the IAEA and Security Council, but also at collectives like Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC), India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA), the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Group of 77 (G77), have been essential elements of India’s policy. Along with Southern countries, New Delhi has denounced international sanctions, considering them as interference to the sacrosanct principle of sovereignty. This point demonstrates that even if the Non-Aligned Movement lost its raison d’être after the Cold War, it remains an important ideological tool for action through the symbolic demonstration of India’s solidarity with the ‘South’. In the end of August 2012, the sixteenth Non-Aligned Movement Summit held in Tehran was another occasion for the 120 members of the NAM to demonstrate their consensus on Iran’s right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme.69 Nevertheless, India’s votes against Iran at the IAEA have demonstrated that its national decision has not necessarily been in favour of Tehran. Fluctuating between realism and idealism, its diplomatic tactics might often seem unpredictable and contradictory to Western countries as the ‘conduct line is to have no strategy that could be discernable before acting’.70 For example, in April 2010, New Delhi participated in both the Summit on Nuclear Security organized by Washington and the Disarmament Conference organized by Tehran. While the former dealt with the Iranian nuclear issue, the latter was led by the Iranian President, who denounced American disengagement towards nuclear disarmament. However, when considering India’s quest for strategic autonomy in the analysis, these elements actually appear to be rather predictable and logical.

Furthermore, in contrast with India’s non-alignment policy of the Cold War period, India has now acquired a new influence and privileges cooperation with other emerging powers on international security issues. During the last Brazil-Russia-Indian-China-South Africa (BRICS) Summit held in Delhi in April 2012, the five emerging powers expressed a strong consensual position on the Iranian issue. They reiterated their support for the development of a peaceful Iranian nuclear program and their opposition to unilateral sanctions imposed outside the UN framework.71 This diplomatic posture relates to what Alden and Vieira define as a policy of ‘constructing engagement’, as opposed to the ‘megaphone diplomacy’ pursued by Western powers.72 India, Brazil and South Africa have recently demonstrated their ability to collectively exploit this ‘niche diplomacy.’73 Elected as non-permanent members at the Security Council as of January 2011, the three countries agreed at the IBSA summit in September 2010 to take similar positions on international issues: ‘With our shared values and ideologies and common priorities, the IBSA countries should be in a position to collaborate closely on major issues before the agenda of the Security Council. I would propose that our PRs remain in close contact to exchange ideas and coordinate positions. (…) The Iran nuclear issue is another important matter that our three countries would have to deal with.’74

This suggests that India’s defence of its strategic autonomy is a contemporary manifestation of India’s traditional policy of non-alignment, based primarily on the promotion of multilateralism. The search for dialogue with Tehran is an integral part of this policy and allows India to deal with the issue on its own terms.

A Difficult ‘Look West Policy’

Since the end of the Cold War, India has been pursuing an active policy to develop a presence and to pursue its interests in Western Asia, officially described by Manmohan Singh in 2005 as India’s ‘Look West Policy’. Contrasting with India’s Middle East policy of the Cold War, which was mainly driven by its support for the Palestinian cause, this policy is based on pragmatic engagement with all sides, i.e. Iran, Israel, and the Arab States. However, Iran is a complex foreign policy decision and India has to find a way to balance this relationship with its desire to enhance its ties with other important actors in the Middle East.

First, it is important to underline that despite its interest in strengthening relations with the US, India’s foreign policy in Western Asia remains largely independent from American influence. India has been uncomfortable with the US presence in the Middle East, and especially with its policy in Afghanistan. The US alliance with Pakistan, its policy to discourage India from extending its influence in Afghanistan, as well as its attempt to negotiate with the Taliban have raised consternation among Indian policy makers. In the prospect of NATO’s withdrawal in 2014 and given the limited leverage that India possesses regarding the deteriorating situation of the country, India has a strong interest in cooperating with Iran to prevent the Taliban from coming back to power in Kabul. Delhi and Tehran are pursuing regular consultations on the Afghan issue. WikiLeaks cables have even revealed that India has asked the US many times to include the Iranians in the Afghan peace process.75 However, Iran’s hostility to the US military presence in Afghanistan weakens the possibility to find a regional solution to the conflict. Iran has been reported to be providing the Taliban with military support in order to weaken NATO forces.76 If the US is planning to keep a long-term presence in Afghanistan, Indian and Iranian interests might diverge in the future.

Second, New Delhi will be confronted with difficult choices if confrontation between the US and Iran intensifies. In particular, US economic sanctions against Iran hinder India’s energy policy, which is one of the main drivers of its ‘Look West Policy’.

Being a net consumer of oil, the imposition of sanction against Iran directly impacts India as the price of oil has increased. India has been unable to invest in the Iranian gas and oil sectors, upgrade infrastructures or increase supply. By way of the 1996 Iran-Libyan Sanctions Act, the US can penalise companies from third countries that invest more than $20 million in Iran’s hydrocarbon sector. In March 2010, the US Government Accountability Office published a report listing five Indian companies, among a total of forty-five, contributing to the development of Iran’s oil and gas sector.77 Private companies such as Reliance Industries quickly left the country after the first round of sanctions and managed to diversify their activities elsewhere. By contrast, public refineries continue to depend on the processing of crude oil imported from Iran. In the gas sector, current sanctions limit Iranian capacity to acquire the technology needed to convert natural gas into LNG, weakening the prospects for Indian investments.

In May 2012, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged India to scale down its oil trade with Iran. Yet, India has expressed its determination to continue to pursue its energy cooperation with Tehran.78 The recent initiation of a settlement mechanism through which India can pay up to 45% of import costs in rupees has allowed India and Iran to circumvent restrictions on US Dollar denominated trade. To go around US sanctions on oil purchases, the two countries are also seeking to strengthen bilateral trade in sectors other than energy. Following the visit of an Iranian trade delegation to India in May 2012, Iran signed a deal to import Indian sugar, rice and soybeans.79 However, despite India’s official opposition to US sanctions, oil purchases from Iran are declining. In the aftermath of the visit from Hillary Clinton, the Indian government declared that it has cut crude supplies from Iran by 11% for this financial year.80 Total crude oil imported from Iran will fall from 18.50 million tons during 2010-2011 to about 15.50 million tons for 2012-2013.81 As a result, the Obama administration granted India, along with six other countries, a waiver on sanctions for 180 days from June 11, 2012. 82 The European Union sanctions imposed beginning July 1, 2012 also place restrictions on foreign trade, financial services, the energy sector and forbid Europe’s insurance companies from insuring shipments of crude oil from Iran.83 Apart from international pressures, Iran has been a difficult partner to deal with. Harsh Pant argues that ‘there is little evidence so far that Iran would be a reliable partner in India’s search for energy security’.84 For example, in 2005, India signed an agreement to purchase $5 million of Iranian Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) for 25 years beginning 2009. This agreement, however, could not be implemented due to dispute over prices.

Therefore, Iran has not emerged as India’s most important energy partner, especially in comparison to the Gulf States. Saudi Arabia is in fact India’s main supplier of crude oil, with 27 million tons of crude oil imported in 2011-2012, and Qatar is its main provider of LNG (India imported 7,5 million tons of LNG from Qatar in 2011-2012).85 India is also seeking to strengthen its energy and security relationship with the other Arab states. However, the Arab states are hostile towards Iran’s growing influence in the region and a nuclear Iran could have negative implications on regional stability, as well as on the Indian economy. In fact, 4.5 million Indian migrants are employed in the Persian Gulf and represent an important source of foreign exchange earnings.

Apart from Iran and the Arab States, the third pillar of India’s ‘Look West Policy’ is Israel. The Jewish State has become India’s second largest source of imported weaponry since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992. However, Israel is concerned that India might divert some of this military technology to Iran. With growing tensions between Israel and Iran, India is facing difficult policy dilemmas. On February 13, 2012, the Delhi police sought and secured open arrest warrants for three Iranian citizens for their suspected involvement in the attacks against the Israeli embassy vehicle in New Delhi, provoking anger in Tehran.86 Yet, at the same time, India has expressed its opposition to the pre-emptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities by either the US or Israel.87

India’s foreign policy towards West Asia is probably one of its most complex challenges in regards to the promotion of its ‘strategic autonomy’. India cannot ignore the importance of Arab states and Israel when formulating its policy towards Iran. The future of its relationship with Iran will thus depend on how India manages to balance its strategic and energy interests between its conflicting partners.


India’s foreign policy towards Iran has been characterized by a constant indecisiveness between proximity and distance. The two countries share many economic, commercial and security interests that have encouraged the establishment of a strategic partnership in the early twenty-first century. The insecure situation in Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism are the main security issues that are likely to lead to enhanced strategic cooperation between the two countries. Nevertheless, India’s alliance with the US, the acquisition of the status of a ‘responsible’ power and the pursuit of a pragmatic policy in West Asia have contributed to the weakening of ties between Delhi and Tehran. There is indeed a perception in both India and Iran that the two countries have not realised the full potential of their relations. More broadly, Indian foreign policy towards Iran reveals the challenges that the country is facing in its quest for power and strategic autonomy.

Domestically, important economic growth has created deep socio-economic cleavages, which India’s foreign policy reflects. While the middle class favours increased collaboration with the US, conservative forces remain attached to India’s traditional identity of a non-aligned power and consider its foreign policy towards Iran as a symbol of its independence.

Internationally, India has been facing diplomatic dilemmas and has tried to find a balance between answering to the pressures of the US while simultaneously supporting its traditional partners of the South. India has found a compromise through the promotion of multilateralism and the opposition, along with the other emerging powers, to unilateral sanctions.

Lastly, the multiple balancing acts that define India’s ‘Look West’ policy raise questions about the role that it could play in the Middle East. It has been argued in India that the government could be more active in the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue and could serve as an important interlocutor between the Iranians and other powers. Nevertheless, the limited leverage that Delhi has in Tehran and Washington illustrates the limitations of its ‘strategic autonomy’ policy. So far, India has not yet been able to combine the pursuit of its own interests alongside strong leadership on regional security issues. [90]

[29] The proposed TAPI project is strongly supported by the US. It is likely to be 1680km and is worth $7,6 billion.
[31] SINGH ROY (2010), p. 95.


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  1. HURRELL (2006), p. 2.
  2. COOPER (1999), p. 6.
  3. Strategic autonomy can be defined as ‘independence of action in the foreign policy domain which is to be solely dictated by considerations of national interest.’ cf. RAJIV (2011), p. 822.
  4. MONSONIS (2012), p. 611. MITRA (2007), p. 19.  KHANNA and MOHAN (2006). See also TELLIS, Ashley. “Can India Revive Nonalignment?” Yale Global Online, August 28, 2012.
  5. JAFFRELOT (2008), p. 8.
  6. TELLIS (2012).
  7. GOERTZ (1994).
  8. ibid. p. 2
  9. idem.
  10. For a deep analysis of the English School theories, see LINKLATER and SUGANAMI (2006), The English school of International relations: a contemporary reassessment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  11. HURRELL (2006), p. 6.
  12. BATTISTELLA (2009), p. 25.
  13. HURRELL (2005), p. 7.
  14. HURRELL (2006), p. 4
  15. DJALILI and KELLNER (2006), p. 73.
  16. AMIR JORFI (1994), pp. 65-92.
  17. AMIR JORFI (1994), p. 74.
  18. MATRINGE (2005), p. 35.
  19. ONLEY (2007), p. 37; MARKOVITS (2000), p. 10.
  20. JAFFRELOT (2008), p. 15.
  21. KUMARASWAMY (2008).
  22. ABOU ZAHAB (2010).
  23. KHAN (1999), p. 176.
  24. The Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Iran, ‘Tehran Declaration’, April 10, 2001.
  25. KEMP (2010), p. 6.
  26. SINGH ROY (2010).
  27. Department of Commerce, India, Export Import Data Bank.
  28. ‘Iran’s oil exports’, The New York Times, January 13, 2012.
  29. Department of Commerce, India, Export Import Data Bank
  30. In 2009-2010, India exports to Central Asia constituted only 0,14% of its global exports, and its imports 0,07%.
  31. FAIR (2011), p. 183.
  32. Moj News Agency, Novembre 13, 2011.
  33. FAIR (2007), p. 151.
  34. ZEB (2003).
  35. The Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Iran, ‘The New Delhi Declaration’, January 25, 2003.
  36. DJALILI (2006), p. 81.
  37. PANT (2004).
  38. SCHAFFER (2009), p. 164.
  39. DORMANDY (2007).
  40. DODH (2012).
  41. MONSONIS (2012), p. 611.
  42. HURRELL (2006), p. 4.
  43. DORMANDY (2007).
  44. UN SECURITY COUNCIL, Resolution 1172, June 11, 1998.
  45. MOHAN (2006), p. 17.
  46. Joint Press Statement on Next Steps in Strategic Partnership Between India and the United States, September 17, 2004, New York.
  47. Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation, PL 110-369, October 2008.
  48. Speech by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to the Council on Foreign Relations, ‘India and the US: Towards a New Partnership’, New York September 24, 2004.
  49. Lecture by Foreign Secretary Shri Shyam Saran at India Habitat Centre, ‘Nuclear Non-Proliferation and International Security’, New Delhi.  October 24, 2005.
  50. GELDENHUYS (2004), p. 22.
  51. BADIE (2004), p. 159.
  52. Visit of MR. Richard Armitage, the US Deputy Secretary of State, May 11, 2001.
  53. DORMANDY (2007).
  54. The White House, ‘Remarks by the President to the Joint Session of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, India’, Novembre 8, 2010, press-office/2010/11/08/remarks-president-joint-session-indian-parliament-new-delhi-india
  55. MOHAN (2006), p. 89.
  56. For example, Manmohan Singh declared in 2004: ‘India and the United States are on the same side of history in this battle against terrorism. It is in the nature of our democracies that we expose ourselves to such threats. (…). We will take every measure that is necessary and lawful to wipe out terrorism, but we will remain equally committed to the fundamental principles of democracy’. Address by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to Indian Overseas Congress and Other Indian Organisations, New York September 24, 2004.
  57. Cable 39910, June 9, 2005.
  58. Prime Minister’s Suo Motu Statement on Iran, New Delhi, February 17, 2006,’s-suo-motu-statement-on-iran
  59. DELPECH (2006), p. 63.
  60. ‘Iran not harbouring al-Qaeda, says India’, The Hindu, May 31, 2003
  61. ‘Iran, India security officials call for strategic cooperation’, Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Network, May 9, 2012
  62. ‘The UPA mismanagement of our Foreign Policy’, The Hindu, December 26, 2005.
  63. COOPER (1997), p.7.
  64. Excerpts from PM’s reply to discussion in Rajya Sabha on Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation with the United States, August 17, 2006.–%09–excerpts-from-prime-minister’s-reply-to-discussion-in-rajya-sabha-on-civil-nuclear-energy-cooperation-with-the-united-states.
  65. ‘CPI(M) plans massive campaign’, The Hindu, August 6, 2008.
  66. KUMARASWAMI (2008).
  67. MOHAN (2006), p. 180.
  68. PANT (2011).
  69. RIJIV (2012).
  70. JAFFRELOT (2008), p. 14.
  71. SHARAN, ‘The BRICS view on Iran India’s motivations’, ORF online, April 20, 2012.
  72. ALDEN (2005).
  73. COOPER (1997).
  74. ‘Remarks by EAM at IBSA Ministerial Meeting’, September 25, 2010.
  75. Diplomatic Cable, February 17, 2009.
  76. ROSHANDEL (2010), pp. 51-56.
  77. The Indian companies concerned are IOC, ONGC, OVL, Oil India Ltd, Petronet LNG and Hinduja group.
  78. ‘India snubs US sanctions on Iran’,The Times of India, 1st June 2012.
  79. MAINI and VAID, ‘Why New Delhi should not ignore Tehran’, Observer Research Foundation Analysis, June 2, 2012.
  80. ‘India making progress in reducing its imports from Iran : US official’, The Times of India, May 17, 2012.
  81. ‘India cuts crude oil imports from Iran’, The Hindu, May 16, 2012.
  82. DADWAL (2012), p. 2.
  83. Idem.
  84. PANT (2011), p. 63.
  85. Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India.
  86. KUMARASWAMY, ‘India’s Iran defiance’, IDSA Comment, March 19, 2012.
  87. ‘In Response to Questions About Reports that Suggest the Imminent Use of Military Force 
Against Iran’, July 14, 2008.