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Home > News > Columnists > Swapan Dasgupta

The politics of reciprocity

September 15, 2003

In an age of acronyms, emoticons and colourful spelling, diplomacy stands out as a rarefied island. Words, any South Block mandarin will tell you, are at the heart of international relations. When the lights went out all over Europe in 1914 it was, as the German foreign minister was to rue, in defence of a nebulous word, "neutrality".

It was the nitpicking over Tibet's "sovereignty" and "suzerainty" that first permitted Jawaharlal Nehru to turn a blind eye to Chinese expansionism. And it was the novel interpretation of non-alignment that drove India to slavishly endorse the shenanigans of the evil empire and end up on the losing side of the Cold War.

Last week, even as the unlikely coalition of clerics and commissars turned apoplectic, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confronted India with another troubling term.

"Reciprocity", he insisted, must constitute the basis of Indo-Israeli ties. In return for the Phalcon radar system and sensitive intelligence reports on terrorism, Israel has asked India to disavow anti-Israel resolutions in the UN and other multilateral bodies. More important, it has requested India to be mindful of Israel's security concerns before excessively cosying up to Iran.

At one level, these parameters of reciprocity should be unexceptionable. Apart from repudiating an obnoxious anti-Semitism, it makes little sense for India to blindly kow-tow to those Arab countries that don't even consider the terrorist attack on Parliament in December 2001 as being worthy of condemnation.

As an island of grit, enterprise and democracy in West Asia, Israel may not be comparable to the oil-rich sheikhdoms that employ lakhs of Indians. But don't be blinded by the volume of remittances to Kerala and Hyderabad alone. It is fairly common knowledge that the bumpy road to Washington runs through Jerusalem.

In purely strategic terms, the friendship of Sharon is worth more than the mindless deification of Hamas suicide bombers.

However, when it comes to the Israeli distaste for Iran, reciprocity runs into problems. From the US-Israeli perspective, Iran is an almighty nuisance. It has nurtured and sustained the terrorist Hizbollah in Lebanon. It is stealthily acquiring a nuclear capability with discreet assistance from Pakistan and North Korea. The prospect of Ayatollah Khomeini's heirs blessed with N-weapons leaves the US alliance absolutely petrified.

Should it worry New Delhi as well? For India, Iran, however, is a comforting factor in an otherwise troubled region. We have old civilisational links, despite folk memories of Nadir Shah's pogrom, which are supplemented by economic and strategic considerations.

Apart from being a major energy source, Iran is India's access to parts of Central Asia and, most important, Afghanistan. On top of that, Iran also borders Pakistan. It is an indispensable link in the encirclement of a hostile neighbour.

Consequently, as Indian officials have told both the US and Israel, our relationship with Iran is non-negotiable. It is grounded in the same pragmatic considerations as the US's benign indulgence of Pakistan.

Yet, the worries persist. In theory, Iran serves as a perfect counterweight to Pakistan, with the Shia-Sunni conflict injecting an additional dimension. But Iran has its own radical agenda which was put in cold storage by the protracted Iran-Iraq war.

Now, with the guerrilla war in Iraq presenting a wonderful opportunity to derail the internationalist fantasies of the Bush administration, a nuclear Iran can play havoc with geopolitics. Its ripple effects will even be felt in Kashmir. Already there are sections of the Hurriyat Conference that wants Iran to play a mediatory role in Kashmir.

India is not in a position to influence Iran's N-programme one way or another. Nor does it make sense for New Delhi to add its voice to the US-led chorus, not as long as Iran serves an important strategic role and there are no visible alternatives.

For India, the greatest security threat is a Pakistan well versed in the art of manipulating Washington. Till this epicentre of terrorism is neutralised, India cannot endorse all of Israel's concerns, however legitimate.

The key to Sharon's reciprocity lies neither in Delhi nor Jerusalem but in Washington. Imaginative diplomacy calls for nudging the feisty Jewish leader into conveying that message where it really matters, where Israel counts more than India.

The future of the US-Israel-India axis depends on whether or not Washington's war on terror is universally applicable. At present, it excludes Pakistan.

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Number of User Comments: 9

Sub: The politics of reciprocity

Swapan Dasgupta has put things very succintly. My complements, Swapanda! But then there have been things left unstated. Dasgupta's take on Indo-Iranian relations and our ...

Posted by Jaganniwas Iyer


Indian Leadership perpetually lacked any sense of future and nevr had any forign policy for the welfare and interests of the people of India. Sometimes ...

Posted by AAG

Sub: good article

The point is surely this: Can India be all things to all men at all times? Clearly not, but isn't diplomacy the art of the ...

Posted by P K Rao

Sub: relations with Israel

I think it is very justified to strengthen relationships with Israel since they are very advanced in Intelligence and surveylence activities. How cannot we compare ...

Posted by R.K.Mallik

Sub: The politics of reciprocity

Once again we have managed to give more importance to a country, which does not for once demand the kind of attention we are showering ...

Posted by N Chandra Shekar



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