For once, the top line in the agenda for Hillary Clinton's just-concluded visit to India wasn't Pakistan or Afghanistan or even terrorism but the Obama administration's obsessive compulsive desire to turn the screws on Iran and all those who do not back its confrontational approach to resolving the Iranian nuclear question. Put simply, New Delhi is being asked to undermine its own economic and strategic interests by cutting back on oil imports and other commercial transactions with Tehran in order to comply with extra-territorial sanctions that have no basis in international law. As things stand, India is fully in compliance with trading restrictions imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Iran following the latter's refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. But the U.N. sanctions do not cover Iranian crude exports, something the U.S. has now tried to target by threatening Tehran's biggest customers. India has resisted, but the government has not done enough to solve the financial, transportation and insurance problems that the American threats have created for Indian refiners. The Prime Minister can have the satisfaction of telling Ms Clinton that India's energy ties are guided by its national interest. The emerging numbers on Indian oil imports from Iran, however, tell another story.
Apart from its need for oil, there are two reasons why New Delhi must not take the American pressure lying down. India's only reliable land-route into Afghanistan and Central Asia runs through Iran. Second, the current U.S. approach is likely to make the Iranian — and regional — security situation worse, not better. Saudi Arabia and Israel, which is already nuclear-armed, worry that a nuclear-capable Iran would tilt the regional balance and want the squeeze put on Tehran. But too much financial or military pressure could backfire, goading the regime to commit to acquiring a strategic weapon — something it has not done so far. Like others in the wider region, India too would not like to see Iran acquire nuclear weapons. Nor does it want to see a confrontation or war over the issue. As a result, India now has to balance complex, competing interests: the cost of alternative sources of oil against its economic relationship with the U.S.; the potential long-term risks of having another nuclear power in the neighbourhood against the repercussions of another conflict over ‘WMD' in the region. The reason India faces these choices is because everything the U.S. has done since 2005 has made the Persian puzzle more complicated and intractable than it initially was. As friends, we owe it to the Americans — and ourselves — to tell them that the path they are going down now can only produce greater instability and insecurity.