`India won’t act tough even if Iran’s hand proven`

Updated: Feb 16, 2012, 14:49 PM IST

On February 13, an Israeli diplomat`s car was bombed in New Delhi, just metres away from the Prime Minister`s residence. Not only did the blast add to the shadow war being fought by Israel and Iran, but also raised concerns over India’s readiness to handle the new threat.

In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, counter-terrorism expert Dr Ajai Sahni discusses the Israeli embassy car blast and its repercussions on India’s ties with the US, Israel and Iran.

Dr Ajai Sahni is founding member and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management.

Kamna: Israel has blamed Iran for attacks in India, Georgia and now Thailand. Do you think Israel just jumped the gun, or has it logic to back up its accusation?

Dr Sahni: Israeli intelligence is usually very good, and they have a strong reputation on this, which they are unlikely to jeopardise by completely fabricated claims. The circumstantial evidence around this case, particularly including the nature of the explosive device and the near simultaneous developments in Tbilisi and Bangkok, is also fairly compelling. In Bangkok, particularly, Iranians have been arrested in connection with the incidents, and there were also antecedent intelligence warnings regarding the threat of Iran-linked terrorist incidents. Despite the very obvious difficulties of understanding why Iran would go for such an operation on Indian soil at this juncture, the Israeli allegations will have to be taken very seriously. It is not possible to say more than this, at present, and investigations will hopefully provide a more accurate picture of what actually happened, and the conspiracy and linkages that underpinned the incident.

Kamna: If Iran is to be blamed for this attack, why did it choose Indian soil? Anyways, why would Iran want to antagonise one of its last-standing major trading partners? And if it is not Iran, which did other agencies carry out such an attack?

Dr Sahni: This is the real imponderable here. There is no rational strategic or tactical calculus apparent in this attack, if it emanates from any state entity in Iran. On the other hand, Iran-linked non-state actors, most prominently the Hezbollah, could have acted within a more comprehensible calculus. Such operations could have been undertaken without specific state sanction by such non-state groups, under the wider and ongoing mandate that such agencies enjoy. It is significant that, just days before the attack at New Delhi, on February 3, 2012, Ayatollah Khamanei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the country’s highest authority, had described Israel’s “Zionist regime” as a “cancerous tumour that should be cut and will be cut”, and had declared, further, “we will support and help everyone who opposes the Zionist regime”. Such broad exhortations may have been the provocation for the actions undertaken in Tbilisi, New Delhi and Bangkok.

Virtually every Islamist terrorist grouping operating on Indian soil, including all the Pakistan-backed groups, moreover, is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic in its ideological stance and pronouncements. Thus almost any one of these groups would also have the motives for such an attack, or may be tempted to cooperate with others who provoke such attacks. Of course, there is a wide gulf between these groups – all of whom are fundamentalist Sunni in orientation – and the Iranian regime or Hezbollah, who are fundamentalist Shia, and willing collaboration here is unlikely. A purely mercenary local actor could also have been recruited to execute the attack, creating another ‘circuit breaker’ that will make it difficult to trace the link back to the primary conspirators.

The problem with the discourse in India is that we are quick to judge, even without sufficient evidence, but very ambivalent in our condemnation and response. I think we should be very slow in our judgements and relentless in our condemnation and our response, once responsibility has been clearly established. Even if an Iranian hand is eventually proven by the investigations, it is unlikely that the Government will take any strong line. After decades of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism on Indian soil, our leaders still continue to spout rubbish about a ‘strong, stable and prosperous Pakistan’ being in our best interests, and constantly pursue conciliatory policies towards what is essentially a deeply criminalized rogue state.

Kamna: A number of reports claim that Israel did warn Indian authorities of a possible attack in New Delhi. Why did India fail to avert the attack despite such warnings and that too near the PM`s residence?

Dr Sahni: First, there are claims of precedent intelligence warning after every terrorist attack. Unless we know the character and content of such warnings – especially how general or specific they were – no judgement can be made on whether there is any failure to respond appropriately.

Second, and more significantly, preventing soft target attacks is very difficult, and there is no reason to believe that no miscreant can approach the public roads around the Prime Minister’s residence. Tens of thousands of vehicles pass the Prime Minister’s residence on a daily basis without let or hindrance, and unless some one of these demonstrates a suspicious pattern of activity, or attempts to breach the security perimeter around PM House, the Police have no reason to intervene.

A broader issue is crucial here. Just days ago, a young woman was abducted and raped in a moving vehicle for three continuous hours, while the car was being driven around the city. No one detected this protracted crime and intervened. This was only the latest in a long series of such incidents. And yet, we expect that the Police will have the capacities and the capability to prevent a terrorist attack that could have taken no more than a few seconds in its execution. This is absurd. You cannot have a police force that acts like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, all rolled into one, when it comes to counter-terrorism; but it is inept and incompetent in dealing with all other crimes as well. Unless the capacity, quality and character of general policing and intelligence improve exponentially, our counter-terrorism responses will remain as poor as they presently are.

Kamna: What does the attack mean for India, Iran, Israel, and the US?

Dr Sahni: The implications of this attack, in itself, on India’s relations with the US, Israel and Iran, will be marginal, if this proves to be a ‘one off’ incident. However, if this is the beginning of a new trend, the impact will, obviously, amplify with each new incident. It is far too early, at this stage, to get into the business of prediction of the precise content of such an impact.

Kamna: India is in a catch-22 situation as it has diverse interests with Iran and Israel. What strategy should New Delhi adopt now to come out of this quagmire?

Dr Sahni: Whatever the outcome of investigations, this single, relatively minor, incident will have no decisive impact on relations with either country. There is, at present, no quagmire here. There are certainly some tensions, and India has been managing these in the past. Unless there are extraordinary future developments, such as a rising wave of similar incidents, there is no reason to believe that India will be confronted with an intractable crisis.

Kamna: Why does India seem to be wary of taking the US help in the probe into the Israeli car blast?

Dr Sahni: If we want to strut around claiming to be an emerging great power, we can’t go running to Uncle Sam every time we have a little problem. We would be saying we don’t have the capability to investigate this incident on our own soil, but want to sit on the table as permanent members of the UN Security Council?