Playing a difficult diplomatic hand

Feb 20, 2012, 07:44 IST | Sushant Singh

The scene seemed straight out of a spy thriller. Barely half a kilometre away from the Indian Prime Minister's residence in Delhi, a motorcyclist stuck a bomb on to a car carrying an Israeli defence official's wife.

The scene seemed straight out of a spy thriller. Barely half a kilometre away from the Indian Prime Minister's residence in Delhi, a motorcyclist stuck a bomb on to a car carrying an Israeli defence official's wife. The car went up in flames, injuring all the passengers and the motorcyclist scooted away.

The bombing in Delhi coincided with an explosive device being defused beneath an Israeli diplomat's car in Georgia's capital Tbilisi. Within hours, Israeli Prime Minister publicly blamed Iran and its proxy Hezbollah for the two incidents.

Three-way diplomacy: After the blast outside the Israel embassy in
Delhi, the Indian government has not held Iran accountable even though
all others held the country responsible. However, at the same time,
it has refused to succumb to US pressures when it comes to Iran. File pics

Iranian officials immediately denied their involvement but retracted the next day to "neither confirm nor deny" their role in the terror strikes. Another failed bombing strike in Bangkok a day later however strengthened Israel's claim that the Iranian government was behind these plots.

Thailand's police chief said the culprits were targeting Israeli diplomatic staff, and that the homemade "sticky" bombs they planned to use matched the devices used in the attacks in India and Georgia. In response, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman accused Israel of carrying out the attacks, saying that its goal was to "conceal its real essence in carrying out terrorist acts, particularly assassinating Iran's scientists".

The spokesman was referring to deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, presumably being carried out by Israel's secret service with the help of an Iranian dissident group to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

The attacks, which have killed five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007 and may have destroyed a missile development site, have been carried out in dramatic fashion, with motorcycle-borne assailants often attaching small magnetic bombs to the exterior of the victims' cars. To maintain credibility with its allies and the Iranian public, Tehran needs to retaliate for the attacks on its scientists it blames on Israel. Although India has refused to blame Iran pending police investigations, the finger of suspicion in Delhi bombing does point towards Iran.

Indian government needs to complete the investigation quickly, reinforce its internal security procedures and simultaneously warn Iran and Israel to refrain from using India as a battlefield in their shadow war. This week's events have put India in a very difficult diplomatic situation. With 11 per cent of its oil needs (about $11 billion worth in 2011) being met by Iran, India has refused to go along with US-led stringent financial sanctions against Tehran. In fact, India last month surpassed China to become the biggest importer of crude oil from Iran. Even though, the Saudis seem keen to bridge any shortfall should India reduce its oil imports from Iran, Delhi is intent on maintaining its relations with Tehran.

With China, Japan and Korea reducing their oil imports from Iran, India is likely to get crude at discounted prices from Tehran. International banking sanctions mean that India will now pay for 45 per cent of its crude oil imports from Iran in rupees rather than in dollars. A trade delegation will visit Iran later this month to identify Indian products that Tehran can buy in rupees. In any case, India is not violating any UN sanctions by maintaining its trade relationship with Iran.

India's reasons for engaging Iran go beyond the commercial. Pakistan has denied India access to Afghanistan and Iran is the only viable alternative available. At a high human and material cost, India's Border Roads Organization has constructed the Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan, which connects Chabahar port in Iran to Kabul. Chabahar-Kabul route has become even more important for India in view of its planned investments of more than $6 billion in the Hajigak iron ore project in Afghanistan. Besides energy security and access to Afghanistan, India's relations with Iran are posited to counter a Pakistan-backed Taliban takeover of Afghanistan by leveraging contradictions in Iran-Pakistan relations, and focused on maintaining a balanced posture on the Iran-Saudi Arabia and Shia-Sunni divide in West Asia.

India's relationship with Israel has flourished over the last two decades without being affected by Indian policies towards Iran or other Arab countries. Mutual trade, which was less than $200 million in 1992, reached $5 billion in 2011. Every year, more than 40,000 Israelis travel to India or do business here.

Cooperation in the fields of agriculture, science, culture, pharmaceuticals and high-tech is constantly increasing, as are security and intelligence relations: Israel is currently the second-largest supplier, after Russia, of military hardware to India. During the Kargil war, Israel dug deep into its reserves to supply India with high-end ordnance, unmanned aerial vehicles and laser-guided bombs.

In 2002, Israel supplied hardware through special aeroplanes during India's military mobilisation following the attack on Parliament by Pakistani terrorists. Indian intelligence agencies have benefited from the Israeli expertise during investigations into the 26/11 terror strikes in Mumbai.

India though has a bigger challenge on its hands in countering US pressure over Iran. India's rising global role does not mean compromising its own strategic interests or blindingly endorsing US policies. India has supported the four UN Security Council resolutions passed on Iran since 2006 and voted against Tehran in the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Moreover, Delhi has unequivocally stated that Iran should give up its nuclear ambitions. India also did not sign a memorandum in June 2010 between Iran and Pakistan finalising the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline deal. The Indian government needs to convince the US that the answer to Iran's nuclear defiance does not lie in undermining India's energy security and its broader regional interests. The US must take cognisance of India's legitimate equities in Iran and eschew any action that damages India-US relationship.

The room for manoeuvre is limited and India has to play a difficult hand well. It must simultaneously nurture close ties with the US and strengthen relations with Israel, while maintaining valuable ties with Iran in the face of US-led sanctions. If that sounds impossible, well isn't that what diplomacy is all about?

The amount of India's oil supply provided by Iran

$5 bn

The amount of trade India has done with Israel in 2011.

The number of Israelis that come to India every year

Israel is ranked second to Russia in terms of military hardware supplies to India

-- Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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