As tensions between Israel and Iran threaten to embroil the entire region, the consequences for India will be quite serious. This would pertain to not only managing its energy security, for which it depends on regional stability in West Asia. It would also be about India’s ability to navigate ties between the Arab world and Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other. Iran is an important part of India’s energy security matrix, supplying around 10% of its total oil requirement. Moreover, given the concessionary terms offered by Tehran, Iranian oil is cheap.
A bomb blast near the Embassy of Israel in New Delhi, on the January 29th, was a stark reminder of India’s, Iran-Israel dilemma.
This explosion, which took place on the 29th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel, also coincided with the Republic day function of beating the retreat being played out, not far away.
Coincidently, this blast was in the same area where Israeli embassy staff was targeted way back in 2012, using a magnetic bomb. It was on February 13, 2012, an Israeli diplomat, Tal Yehoshua and his Indian driver of an Embassy vehicle were among four people injured after a magnetic bomb stuck to the vehicle went off in the capital.
However, the blast of January 29th appears to be a low intensity bomb, which was planted in a flower pot on the road divider. A letter in an envelope addressed “to Israel Embassy ambassador” has been found at the spot. The letter contains a threat, and describes the explosion as a “trailer”, as per the officials. It also refers to two “Iranian martyrs”, Qasem Soleimani and Dr Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, thus hinting at the Iranian angle, but the alibi cannot be ruled out till the investigations are complete.
If we recall, Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated in November last year. He was Iran’s top nuclear scientist. Tehran believes he was killed by Israel using a remote-control weapon.
Since establishing full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv in 1992, India has sought to compartmentalize its relationships with Israel and Iran.
Iran accused Israel of using “electronic devices” to remotely kill a scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program in the 2000s.
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the country’s Supreme National Security Council, made the comment at the funeral for Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, where Iran’s defense minister separately vowed to continue the man’s work “with more speed and more power.”
This recent blast in Delhi comes just after an Israel’s top general’s warning. Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavisaid, the attack plans against Iran were being revised and said any US return to the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran would be “wrong”.
Israeli General made these remarks on January,26 in an address to Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. He said the move was made after Iran began restarting its nuclear programme in recent months. Some of the excerpts from his speech are produced below to help get the gravity and depth, of the churning under way in Israel, viz-a-viz US-Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action.
Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavi said, “In light of this fundamental analysis, I have instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare a number of operational plans, in addition to those already in place”.
“It will be up to the political leadership, of course, to decide on implementation but these plans need to be on the table.”
“A return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, or even if it is a similar accord with several improvements, is bad and wrong from an operational and strategic point of view”.
The General’s comments were an apparent signal to US President Joe Biden to tread cautiously in any diplomatic engagement with Iran. And also highlighted the volatile situation prevailing in the Middle-East.
Iran on the other hand would not jump on the bandwagon with US at the first call. The Shia nation will extract far more guarantees from Uncle Sam before any handshake. Let’s not forget, Maj Gen Soleimani, who was assassinated in a United States drone strike in January 2020, was Iran’s most powerful general, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran had vowed revenge and they are unlikely to let that fade away so soon, at least not without extracting a pound of flesh.
Speaking specifically about the tensions between Iran and Israel, we need to have a closer look at Syria and the conflict there. The Israeli-Iranian war over Syria continues apace. If anything, it has escalated significantly in the last two months. This element of the Syrian conflict has lasted since at least 2013. Israeli strikes, which were once a rarity, have become routine.
In an international environment where Iran faces increasing international isolation over its nuclear programme and relations with Hizbollah, Iran has emerged as a serious challenge to India’s bilateral relations with Israel.
Israeli planes recently launched one of the largest attacks in years on Iranian sites within Syria. Some 57 Syrian soldiers and foreign fighters from Iran-backed militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, were killed in more than a dozen air strikes, which hit 18 targets in eastern Syria. It was the highest number of casualties recorded from an Israeli bombardment in Syria.
One Israeli claim is that parts for the Iranian nuclear weapons program were stored there. This is intriguing but there is a lack of evidence to back it up. No details were given. Iran is more than capable of such subterfuge but, given the regular Israeli bombing of Syria, would this be the safest location for sensitive materials?
Israel has kept closely to the red lines it set out at the start of its air bombing campaign in Syria.
Many Israeli strikes are carried out close to the Syrian border with Lebanon, with the aim of preventing advanced weaponry from reaching Hezbollah. Some strikes target units responsible for the planting of explosives in the Golan Heights. Israel claims that Unit 840 of Iran’s Quds Force pays locals to plant the explosive devices. Israeli planes have even targeted areas in the north around Aleppo, showing that it can and will strike anywhere in Syria.
A year on from the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, who was the architect of Iran’s strategy in Syria, Tehran continues in the same vein despite sanctions and the efforts of its opponents. It sees Syria as a key part of its strategic defense, as well as a means to expand its typically malign influence across the region. The over arching strategy is to develop a corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean, through amassing power and influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The interests and well-being of the Syrian people do not register as an ambition.
As tensions between Israel and Iran threaten to embroil the entire region, the consequences for India will be quite serious. This would pertain to not only managing its energy security, for which it depends on regional stability in West Asia.
It would also be about India’s ability to navigate ties between the Arab world and Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other.
Iran is an important part of India’s energy security matrix, supplying around 10% of its total oil requirement. Moreover, given the concessionary terms offered by Tehran, Iranian oil is cheap. However under the Trump sanctions on Iran denial of a waiver to India on oil imports, India was forced to replace it with alternative sources, leading to pressures on the Indian exchequer. With the change of guard at the Capitol Hill, India hopes for revival of the oil trade with Iran.
Alongside, India’s investment in the Chabahar port also came under immense stress due to these imposed sanctions on Iran. Chabahar, bears testimony to India’s strategic requirements in Afghanistan. At a time when ground realities are rapidly evolving in Afghanistan, India’s ties with Iran remain an important bulwark against Pakistani shenanigans. The access that Iran provides India to Afghanistan and the larger Central Asian region is critical for the Indian strategic footprint in the region.
But Iranians are tough negotiators and New Delhi has often found it difficult to get its voice heard in Tehran. Iran felt increasingly isolated, with the European Union unable to come up with an alternative after Trump walked out on 2015 nuclear deal and China remained relatively mute. Given Iran’s own issues with the US, India will emerge as an important partner in Joe Biden era. It is an opportunity that New Delhi would do well to exploit to its own advantage. While Iran is important, India has equally significant stakes in the Arab Gulf states as well as the US. So the balancing will be a tough bet there as well.
Since establishing full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv in 1992, India has sought to compartmentalize its relationships with Israel and Iran. However, maintaining this careful balancing act has become increasingly difficult as the Israeli-Iranian rivalry has intensified in recent years. The recent blast near Israel’s embassy in New Delhi has brought forth the imminent possibility that India could be getting sucked into a conflict from which it has thus far maintained a distance from. As the drumbeat of war against Iran becomes increasingly strident, as hinted by General Aviv.
India’s strategy of equidistance from, and continuous engagement with, the two conflicting regional powers has an important corollary. Utilizing its unique position as a neutral partner to both countries, India should proactively seek to tamper down the growing animosity between Iran and Israel. This is not only the best way for India to protect its interests in these particular countries, but would also help advance New Delhi’s larger goal of becoming a prominent, independent player in global affairs.
India has important strategic interests in its bilateral relations with Iran and Israel. Energy ties form the backbone of the Indo-Iranian relationship. Despite its relatively vast domestic energy sources, India’s impressive economic growth has left it increasingly dependent on foreign energy. As the world’s fifth-largest net oil importer, India imported nearly 70% of the oil it consumed in 2020.
Furthermore, given its unique geo-strategic location, Iran is India’s most logical conduit for projecting power into Central Asia and land-locked Afghanistan. Having established regional primacy, India is eager to expand its power and influence over the smaller states in its near abroad. Maintaining a cordial relationship with Iran is essential if India is to realize its ambitions in these prized geopolitical arenas.
Moreover, India and Iran share a common strategic objective of regional stability in southwest Asia. Both countries are particularly concerned about the likelihood of prolonged instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While India is primarily concerned about Pakistan’s leverage in Afghanistan, Iran is wary of the Taliban’s sectarian animus, especially in the context of the growing anti-Shia sentiment among Saudi Arabia and the GCC. Tehran is also concerned about the anti-regime Iranian terrorist group, Jundallah, using Pakistani territory to launch attacks on the Islamic Republic. The impending withdrawal of NATO forces highlights the immediacy and importance of Indo-Iranian strategic cooperation in Afghanistan.
In sum, although Iran was the only Middle Eastern country to have criticized India for normalising relations with Israel, New Delhi and Tehran have since come a long way in developing an understanding of each other’s strategic imperatives. While Iran has assiduously avoided making references to Israel in its dealings with India, Israel from time to time has expressed concerns over some issues in New Delhi-Tehran ties.
During the first 40 years of Israel’s existence, India purposely distanced itself from Tel Aviv for a host of domestic and strategic reasons. Since the normalization of relations in 1992, however, India and Israel’s bilateral relationship has expanded rapidly. This is particularly true in the fields of defence, trade, science and technology. For example, bilateral trade grew by 500% between 1992 and 2000, when it reached $1 billion. Bilateral trade has grown manifold since, reaching $20 billion in 2020.
Defence cooperation continues to be New Delhi’s most important interest in the Indo-Israeli relationship. During the 1990’s, Israeli arms helped India fill the void that was created by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Defence Cooperation between the two countries has only broadened since, and now includes the supply of sophisticated military equipment, intelligence sharing, and joint research in missile technology. In 2008, moreover, Israel emerged as India’s largest arms supplier, surpassing Russia and crossing the $1 billion mark in defence contracts.
In the backdrop of Israel’s adversarial relations with Iran and established Indo-Iranian ties, Israel has expressed concern at times that India might transfer its military equipment or technology to Tehran. Similarly, Iran strongly protested the ISRO, India’s primary space research body, launching Israel’s sophisticated Polaris spy satellite in January 2008 under the aegis of Indo-Israeli defence cooperation.
Indo-Israeli security cooperation is also based on a shared perception of dangers from terrorism and its purveyors. At the same time, this is not as strong an impetus as is commonly believed. In fact, this factor has often put India in an awkward position when Indo-Iranian strategic ties are taken into account. Israel’s depiction of Iran as the ‘epicentre of terrorism’ carries little resonance on the Indian side. The Jewish state’s perception of Iran is rooted in the latter’s long-standing support for the virulently anti-Israeli groups Hezbollah and Hamas. These Islamist groups are products of Israeli occupation and operate in a localised context. No such fears exist in India pertaining to their motives or of those of their Iranian backers.
In an international environment where Iran faces increasing international isolation over its nuclear programme and relations with Hizbollah, Iran has emerged as a serious challenge to India’s bilateral relations with Israel. Accordingly, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, is widely believed to be behind a string of covert attacks aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear program. This campaign has included the murky assassinations of a number of Iranian nuclear scientists; mysterious explosions at Iran’s industrial and military complexes; as well as the Stuxnet computer virus that infected Iran’s nuclear installations and destroyed thousands of centrifuges. Furthermore, Israel has repeatedly warned that it will carry out air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilitates to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. From India’s perspective, these threats introduce a new factor into the equation: the question of regional stability in the near future.
It is in this context, this bomb blast near Israeli embassy in the heart of New Delhi highlights the Indian dilemma.