'Morality in international affairs usually takes a backseat," geopolitics expert Lt General Kamal Davar (retd) said on India's abstention from voting Iran out of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
The resolution, which was sponsored by Iran's arch-rival, the United States (US), on 14 December over the former's brutal crackdown on anti-hijab protesters was passed after 29 countries voted for it.
This comes at a time when the Ebrahim Raisi-led Iranian government is in the eye of a global storm, as widespread agitations have gripped the country over the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September, allegedly by the draconian morality police.
India – which is known for espousing a moral high ground on most international matters – was, however, among the 16 countries that abstained from voting on the resolution, despite knowing fully well of the criticism that it may face from human rights bodies and feminist groups across the world.
The abstention may also draw the ire of the US, which has already given India several concessions over the latter's decision to continue importing Russian oil despite the global fallout of the war in Ukraine.
So why did India abstain from voting? Why is Iran so important in India's foreign policy calculus?
One of the most important reasons behind India's decision is the strategic importance of its neighbour to the the west.
Iran is located between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea – two major trade routes, and serves as a gateway for India to Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
If relations were to turn sour with Iran, India would have to depend overwhelmingly on Pakistan for trade with Central Asia – a compromise New Delhi is simply not willing to make.
Reviving the Chabahar Port
Efforts are also ongoing to revive the Chabahar Port, which is key to India's trade with Central Asia. In fact, Chabahar is seen as a counter to the Gwadar Port in Pakistan.
"What the Gwadar Port is for China and Pakistan, Chabahar is for India and Iran," General Davar told The Quint.
India's Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra had also held discussions with the Iranian delegation in New Delhi in November on cooperation regarding the port's development.
"I think the Indian side is quite interested in reviving the Chabahar Port. Since the port will give us access to Central Asia, it is strategically extremely important," professor AK Mohapatra of the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies told The Quint.
Pursuance of Independent Foreign Policy
Further, through its decision to abstain, India aims to maintain an independent foreign policy, free from the influences of major global players.
This multi-aligned posture by India was most prominently seen in the months following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war in February. India abstained from resolutions against Russia at least half a dozen times, in line with its own national interest.
In the case of Iran as well, this seems to have been the case.
"Sheer national interest has overridden India's moralistic orientation and its concern for human rights," General Davar said.
However, he added that the decision must have been an extremely hard one to make.
"While the Indian government has taken a diplomatic decision over the matter, I’m sure they would have pondered over it for quite some time, and may not have been very happy with it," he added.
Policy of Non-Interference In Domestic Matters
India's decision was also driven by its desire to repel interventionist attempts by other countries in its own domestic sphere in the future.
If India would have voted to oust Iran, the move may have been seen as a condemnation of the events taking place in the country. This may have opened the gates to similar attempts by other countries against India.
"India has to balance its relationship. The country cannot be seen actively interfering in the domestic affairs of any country because if it does so, other countries will also justify their intervention in the domestic affairs of India; for example, the position of some West Asian countries on Jammu and Kashmir."AK Mohapatra
Furthermore, at a time when the global oil market remains volatile over the war in Ukraine, India needs to maintain good relations with its major oil exporting partners.
Iran has been a significant oil exporter to India, and accounted for almost 11 percent of India's total oil import bill before 2019. However, India stopped importing Iranian oil after being pressured by the Donald Trump-led US government to do so over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The agreement had been signed by Iran and the Barack Obama-led US administration in 2015, and led to sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for the country giving up its nuclear ambitions. When Trump came to power in the US, he decided to pull out of the agreement unilaterally in 2019.
However, after the matter blew over, India continued its import of Iranian oil, albeit in reduced quantities.
Explaining the importance of Iranian oil for India, General Davar said:
"When it comes to oil, Iran’s proximity to India, Tehran's allowance of payment in rupees, and the cheap rates at which it sells oil are important factors that we can’t wish away. Nearly 80 percent of our oil is imported. So we can’t be seen to be taking any stern decisions against our major oil exporters, whether it’s Russia, Saudi Arabia, the US or Iran."Lt General Kamal Davar (retd)
Iran also has one of the largest deposits of natural gas and crude oil, and the enhancement of oil-centred cooperation will only help India satisfy its rising energy requirements.
Traditionally, Iran has been one of India's closest partners in West Asia, and in different multilateral forums that the two countries are a part of.
Iran has also supported New Delhi on a number of contentions issues. For instance, despite the anti-India stance taken by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) regarding the sovereign status of Jammu and Kashmir, Iran is one of the few Islamic countries which has consistently supported India's policies in the erstwhile state, barring a few instances.
Tehran has, on several occasions, also objected to Pakistan-sponsored attempts to pass resolutions against India at the OIC and the UN Human Rights Commission.
India and Iran are also partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Bilateral and multilateral discussions through this forum can be used to promote common interests between the two countries, particularly with regard to trade and connectivity.
As a gesture of goodwill, India had also welcomed Iran's inclusion as an observer in the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Will India's Position On Iran Anger the US?
India's abstention is sure to cause reverberations among its major trading partners in the west, particularly the US.
India is one of the few countries that was given sanctions relief under the US's CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) over its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system.
India was also not reprimanded by the US over its continued import of Russian oil and increased trade with Moscow throughout the Ukraine war.
Now that India has, once again, indirectly sided with an arch-rival of the US, will Washington feel that New Delhi is pushing its limits?
Experts say no.
"India is a very powerful emerging global player, apart from a regional leader. The US is our strategic partner in many facets; however, the country won't be overly annoyed with India. Some people may criticise us for a while and then everything will cool down," General Davar told The Quint.