The issues are complicated and interlocking, so let's break them into three parts.
1. Iran and the IAEA
As I read it, the IAEA's September 25 vote was a kind of warning to Iran from the UN. Here is Fox News:
The watchdog agency's 35-nation board approved the resolution, which could lead to Iran's referral to the Security Council for violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty unless Tehran eases suspicions about its atomic program.
The Security Council could impose sanctions if it determines that Iran violated the treaty, but that is unlikely since China and Russia, which wield Security Council vetoes, oppose those efforts.
The vote was 22 in favor of the resolution, 12 abstaining, and one opposed. So India's vote wasn't, strictly speaking, essential for the success of the resolution (Pakistan, China, and Russia were among the abstainers). A second resolution will likely be floored in November, at which time Iran -- unless it does something dramatic about its nuclear energy program -- is probably going to be "referred" to the UN Security Council.
That said, it seems pretty clear that no sanctions (or, for that matter, military action) will be imposed on Iran by the Security Council because of opposition from veto-wielding powers. So in some sense this vote is symbolic, though I can imagine how in Iran this might look like the beginning stages of the next U.S. invasion in the middle east. (Seymour Hersh notwithstanding, I don't think anyone is seriously talking about that now.)
One could legitimately question whether the UN should be in the business of stopping sovereign nations from developing civilian nuclear energy, which is what Iran says it is doing. But that question leads to two obvious responses. One is, if that is indeed all Iran is doing, why not invite UN inspectors in to see? Secondly, given that Iran is a net energy exporter and an oil-rich nation, why is it in fact so determined to develop nuclear energy? It seems fishy; you don't have to be Paul Wolfowitz to doubt Iran's motives here.
2. The Congress Party and the Bush Administration
Before the September 25 vote, the U.S. exerted a fair amount of pressure on India to vote against Iran on the matter of the UN Security Council referral. Early on, the government indicated that it would not vote against Iran, but at the last minute changed its mind.
There is even some talk that India allowed its vote to be bought in a quid pro quo arrangement with the U.S. It may be true -- certainly some Indian newspapers are reporting it that way (see Kuldip Nayer in the Deccan Herald) -- though at this point I haven't seen any direct reference to what specifically India hoped to gain by voting against Iran. A new arms deal? An economic package? It's not been made clear. There is some indication that the U.S. Congress is going to go forward with a bill soon (see this blog), but the contents of the bill haven't been specified yet.
One could argue that Iran might be even more important than the U.S. to India, because Iran is one of India's principal suppliers of oil and natural gas. By voting against Iran, India jeopardized that strategic relationship (fortunately, Iran has signaled that it has no intention to cut off energy supplies following India's vote.)
3. The Indian Left
I find it odd that Indian Communist leaders have registered their disappointment with the government's vote with references to the Non-Aligned Movement. Here is Gurudeb Dasgupta, a Secretary for the CPI, in an interview with the Hindustan Times:
It was the previous Congress government’s endeavour to brand India a non-aligned country. By voting at the IAEA on the Iran issue, the same Congress has now abandoned its foreign policy and had diluted its faith in NAM. In fact, all this has happened under US pressure. Like Iraq, the US wants to grab Iran’s oil wells. If China, Russia and Pakistan could abstain from voting, why could India not follow suit. We would continue with our protest on the issue.
Isn't it odd that the left is still talking about the non-aligned movement fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union? It seems to me they are using very old rhetoric, and to some extent reacting in a knee-jerk way: one shouldn't agree with the U.S., just because they are the U.S. and we don't like them. People like Dasgupta aren't considering the possibility that India's vote might have actually been a principled one: it's in everyone's best interests to discourage Iran's nuclear weapons program.
The Left parties in the UPA government are currently very powerful, but the most strident criticism of the Manmohan Singh government has come from Communist factions that did not join the current coalition. As I understand it, it was those parties outside the government who called a successful general strike to protest the anti-Iran vote on September 29. The strike shut down airports as well as many public sector industries, and hit especially hard in West Bengal (where the Communists are especially powerful). Here is the Hindustan Times article:
Industrial and commercial activities as also air services were affected in large parts of the country on Thursday as the day-long strike by Left trade unions crippled work in public sector banks and insurance companies and government undertakings to protest the UPA government's economic policies. The impact of the strike was the maximum in the Left-ruled West Bengal where life almost came to a standstill with public transport, including train services, remaining paralysed.
Only two flights - one each from Delhi and Mumbai - landed at Netaji Subhaschandra Bose international airport which was the worst-hit by the Airport Authority of India employees' protest against privatisation of Delhi and Mumbai airports.
Not a pretty picture: such events are bad for India's economy, as well as its image abroad.
The governing UPA coalition is still holding together, but with rising oil prices and extremely limited economic reforms, I think both sides are pretty frustrated with the arrangement.
We'll see whether this internal pressure will be enough to cause India to change its vote on the Iran/nuclear vote in November. I have a feeling it will.