India could show the US some spine on Iran, but it would rather flaunt muscle at home

You cannot make up in muscle what you lack in spine. Last week, the Narendra Modi government tried to do just that. It flaunted its strength by handing news outlets video footage of its 2016 action across the Line of Control. Though the footage wasn’t particularly impressive, breathless commentary from friendly television channels accompanying an endless loop of aerial and ground level images built the operation into a monumental military triumph. Even as it showed off a muscular defence of India’s boundaries, our government mortgaged the nation’s sovereignty and allowed itself to be bullied by a visiting mid-ranking American cabinet member.
Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, told Prime Minister Modi that the US expected India to end oil purchases from Iran, a nation with which India has strong economic ties and no serious differences. She then went on Indian television and made the American demand public. In the past, ruling party politicians would have responded by asking the United States to mind its own business, but this time no retort was forthcoming.
The government’s silence was deafening in light of the declaration made by India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj at the end of May, after a meeting with her Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, that “India follows only UN sanctions, and not unilateral sanctions by any country.” Just before Swaraj’s statement, I had written a column about the Iran issue, outlining why secondary sanctions were unjust, and concluding, “It will be interesting to see whether Narendra Modi asserts India’s independence or gives in to US demands.”
In late May it seemed like India was showing spine, but a month later, Modi appears to have caved. The head of the Indian Oil Corporation is speaking about replacing Iranian crude with petroleum sources from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The oil markets are factoring in sharp cuts to Indian purchases of Iranian crude. Meanwhile, in the face of rising pump prices, the Trump administration has walked back its demand that nations cut Iran purchases to zero by November 4. Its willingness to adjust policy in response to domestic pressures contrasts with its refusal to respect the compulsions of other nations.
Three countries crucial to the US squeeze on Iran are China, Turkey and India. China, which is negotiating with the erratic Trump on a series of issues, is holding the Iran card close to its chest, waiting for the best moment to play it. Turkey, a NATO member that is on the opposite side of Iran in the Syrian war, would seem to have compelling reasons to obey Trump’s diktat. Yet, it has come out in strong support of its West Asian neighbour, saying it is determined to ensure its “friend and brother Iran will not face unfair treatment”. India stands out as the one important nation to seem spineless in the face of a US policy that is frankly crazy.
Here is why it is mad. In 2015, five nations came to an understanding with Iran that ensured it would not develop nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two great enemies of Iran, were opposed to any deal from the get go. Both nations pressed the US to take military action against Iran, with Saudi Arabia repeatedly exhorting the Bush and Obama administrations to, “cut off the head of the snake”.