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Rediff.com  » News » Iran or Israel: India must make the choice

Iran or Israel: India must make the choice

February 20, 2012 08:55 IST

India must reduce its dependence on Iran and demonstrate its friendship with Israel more forecefully, argues Harsh V Pant.

The battle between Iran and Israel had now landed on Indian shores. New Delhi, which so likes to sit on a fence, will now have to take a strong stand one way or another.

On February 13, just when an explosive device that had been placed under an Israeli embassy vehicle in Tbilisi was being defused, a 'sticky bomb' attached to a vehicle carrying an employee of the Israeli embassy in New Delhi exploded. The attacks happened almost simultaneously and were clearly targeting the employees of the Israeli embassies in Tbilisi and New Delhi.

A day later, an Iranian man carrying grenades blew off his legs and wounded four others after an earlier blast shook his house in Bangkok. In response, Israel has increased the state of alert in the country, emphasising public places, foreign embassies and offices, as well as the Ben-Gurion international airport.

Though no one has claimed responsibility for the incidents, the Israeli government has made it clear that they believe Iran and its proxy Hezbollah is behind the attacks. Tel Aviv has used these attacks to underline its concerns about Iran getting nuclear capability, arguing that if the Islamic republic becomes a nuclear power, it could provide greater protection for militant groups that would be emboldened by its support.

Tel Aviv has now sought Indian support for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran for last week's attack in New Delhi on its diplomat as well as the incidents in Tbilisi and Bangkok, putting India in a diplomatic logjam. Iran, of course, has denied responsibility for the bombing attempts and has called them an Israeli provocation.

The Iranian foreign ministry has suggested that the blasts were the work of Israel to defame Iran internationally, arguing that 'these suspicious incidents are designed by the Zionist regime and carried out with the aim of harming Iran's reputation.'

A covert war is raging between Iran on one side and the West, the Arab Gulf states and Israel on the other. There have been a series of assassinations of Iranian scientists associated with the country's nuclear programme as well as the use of Stuxnet computer worm that targeted Siemens industrial software important to Iran's uranium enrichment efforts.

On the other hand, there have been arrests in Azerbaijan and Thailand that purportedly disrupted terrorist plots aimed at Israeli diplomatic targets and an apparent threat to Israeli interests in Bulgaria.

Much like its predecessor, the Obama administration has also vowed that it would not allow Iran to go nuclear. Israel is already fretting and debating its pre-emptive options.

Tel Aviv has made it clear, time and again, that it would not hesitate to act unilaterally, overruling American objections, if they judge that Iran is getting too close to nuclear capability.

Meanwhile tensions are rising in the capitals of Arab Gulf states. It was the Saudi king, after all, who had famously advised the American diplomats that the only Iran strategy that would work was one that 'cut off the head of the snake.'

From India's perspective, the latest incidents signfy a very disturbing trend and a dangerous escalation. If Iran or its proxies are behind the attack, it merely shows how little it values its ties with India. New Delhi claims a 'civilisational partnership' with Tehran, but its so-called 'partner' had had no compunction in using Indian territory to attacks Israelis.

Tehran has often expressed its displeasure when India has in the past taken a position similar to that of the West on issues of interest to Iran.

How this step will enhance Indo-Iranian tries remains a mystery at a time when the isolation of Tehran is growing by the day. Iran's position on several other issues crucial to India has run counter to Indian interests. Tehran continues to be hyper-critical of the Indian government on Kashmir, even forcing New Delhi to issue a demarche last year as a protest against Iranian interference in Indian domestic issues.

Iranian interference in Indian domestic politics has been going on for a long time with sections of the Indian government suggesting that Iran 'has been buying off journalists, clerics and editors in Shia-populated areas of Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir, doling out large sums to stoke anti-Americanism.'

India has made itself vulnerable by repeatedly suggesting that there is no alternative to Iranian oil. It should move fast now and reduce its dependence on Iran. There is no need to be apologetic about Indian interests. A clear message needs to go out to Tehran that Indian territory is not for use by external actors for their proxy wars.

Israel has been a good friend of India, but New Delhi continues to be shy of demonstrating its friendship. At crucial times, when India needed Israeli help, it got it unreservedly. The terrorism that both India and Israel face comes not only from disaffected groups within their territories; it is also aided and abetted by neighbouring States, mostly under non-democratic regimes increasingly capable of transferring weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organisations.

States like Pakistan, Iran and Syria have long used terror as an instrument of their foreign policies. There are, therefore, distinct structural similarities in the kind of threat that India and Israel face from terrorism. It is also important to note that when the extremist mullahs call upon their followers to take up arms in support of an Islamic jihad, their foremost exhortations have always been the 'liberation' of Palestine, Kashmir, and the annihilation of the United States.

There is a reason why countries like India, Georgia and Thailand have been chosen to attack Israeli targets. India's woeful internal security apparatus is incapable of preventing attacks on Indian interests on Indian soil. So it is a bit much to expect protection for third parties. The rabid politicisation of the security services has not helped.

The Batla House episode has become a political football with the Congress using it shamefully to score a few electoral points in the UP election. Unless India is able to get a grip on its own internal security situation, external actors will continue to use these chinks in its armour.

Dr Harsh V Pant is an Associate at the India Institute at King's College, London. He has been a Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore and a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania. His current research is focused on Asian-security issues.

Harsh V Pant in London