P.R. Kumaraswamy is Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • November 2012

    In the two decades since the end of the Cold War, the Islamic Republic of Iran has emerged as one of the two most debated, contested and commented upon foreign policy issues in India. The other has been the US. The US has remained the pre-eminent global player, following the disintegration and demise of the USSR. Despite its preference for multi-polarity, India, like many other countries, had to recognise the new US-dominated world order and calibrate a policy that was radically different from the one it followed during the Cold War era. Through a host of well-publicised political and strategic initiatives, it moved closer to Washington. This was cemented through the civil nuclear cooperation agreement (negotiated between 2005 and 2008), whereby the US was prepared to facilitate India's enhanced pursuit of nuclear energy for power generation despite India's Pokhran-II tests of 1998 that went against the stringent non-proliferation laws in the US. While calling its relations with the US an ‘alliance’ would be a misnomer and inaccurate, India has moved a significant distance since the heyday of the Cold War when anti-Americanism was the hallmark of Indian foreign policy and a staple for the ruling Congress party. Indeed, during an election rally in 1989, Prime Minister and Congress President Rajiv Gandhi uttered the words ‘naani yaad kara doonga’ (a heartland expression that literally means making someone remember his grandmother, but effectively conveys the act of humbling an opponent) against the US.

    This policy shift was made possible by the two principal parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which have been at the helm of affairs for much of the period since 1991. Despite their rhetorical interventions, as opposition, accusing the other of foreign policy U-turns, both have recognised the importance and value of the US in India's economic growth and international progress. This is accompanied by India abandoning some of its earlier positions and policies. Economically, it has embraced a market-oriented system towards globalisation; politically, it has normalised relations with Israel. The resultant economic growth, though skewed in favour of the middle class, has made India the fourth largest economy in the world. Only two decades earlier it was one of the major recipients of international aid and assistance.

    The policy shift in favour of the US did not go down well with certain segments of society. For strong ideological as well as political considerations, a number of groups and parties saw it as an abandonment of the traditional non-aligned policy in favour of alignment with the US. American policy misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan made things worse and contributed to the growing unpopularity of the US the world over. Much of the domestic criticism of the government's US policy, however, has been driven by ideology, nostalgia over a bygone era and a sense of abandonment by the disappeared Soviet empire.
    Therefore, if one excludes India's relations with the US, Iran has emerged as the most talked about and contested foreign policy issue in India. While the strategic importance of Iran was never in doubt, the policy options of the government have come under closer scrutiny, criticism and at times vilification. Some of the criticisms have been genuine while others have been disingenuous and partisan. For some, Iran policy has become the cornerstone of India's commitment to non-alignment and independent foreign policy. For others, it is a sign of national consensus and pride. There are those who have used the official stand on Iran to consolidate their political base and leverage. Then there are coalition compulsions, where Iran policy has tended to become the whipping boy of the opposition. When some of the critical decisions were taken by the union government, the Left parties were doing the back seat driving; that is, supporting the government from outside while playing the role of the opposition.

    The present volume addresses some of the complexities revolving around India's Iran policy and its ramifications. It is a collection that privileges Indian perspectives and hence does not seek outside views, including those from Iran. It primarily examines various factors and issues that have shaped, influenced and at times determined India's Iran policy, especially since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, there are a number of players who have influenced the official positions on Iran. Some are recognised and commented upon; others are carefully obscured from public scrutiny and debate.