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Iran sanctions: Why India is in a tight spot

India is Iran's largest customer of crude oil, so it cannot cut off ties with the Iranian regime quickly. Yet it shares US concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions. 

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / February 16, 2012

In this file photo, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a ceremony in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 186 miles south of capital Tehran, Iran. Major Asian importers of Iranian oil are thumbing their noses at American attempts to get them to rein in their purchases, dealing a blow to Washington's efforts to force the Middle Eastern country to curtail its nuclear program.

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP/File


As the world’s largest importer of Iranian crude oil, and as a close strategic ally of the United States, India is in a tight spot.

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The US wants to put pressure on the Iranian regime to give up any ambitions it may have toward developing nuclear weapons. For the Indian government and Indian companies, this presents a quandary. How to satisfy Western allies – and abide by US-led sanctions against companies that do business with Iran – while also securing the energy needs of its large, high-growth economy?

Iran says its nuclear program – which has made strides despite heavy international sanctions and a mysterious spate of assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists – is purely for civilian energy use. Just this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran was now capable of building its own centrifuges for enriching uranium for nuclear fuel rods.

 “The arrogant powers cannot monopolize nuclear technology,” Mr. Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying on Iranian state television. “They tried to prevent us by issuing sanctions and resolutions but failed.”

Nobody expects India’s neutrality – or its unwillingness to finger Iran in a series of recent bombing attacks against Israeli diplomats on Indian, Thai, and Georgian soil – to seriously disrupt the US-Indian relationship. That relationship was hard won over the past decade, after years of frigid ties during the cold war, and has now developed into one of Washington’s more reliable alliances in Asia. Both Washington and New Delhi share common goals on increasing trade ties, combating international terror groups, and in balancing the growing economic and military ambitions of China.

So in the present environment, India is keeping the conversation going with both the US and Iran. India reassures the US that it is firmly opposed to the emergence of Iran as a new nuclear weapons state. And last month, India became Iran’s biggest customer of crude oil, purchasing 2.2 million tons of it for its refineries.

India has serious energy needs: India is trying to get power to the nearly 300 million Indians who currently have no access to electricity; in the meantime, many of these people rely on kerosene for lighting. 


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