Ajith Vijay Kumar
The attack on an Israeli Embassy car in Delhi has sent India’s security agencies in a tizzy and the least of their worries appears to be the realisation that a terror attack can be successfully attempted in the high-security zone near to Prime Minister’s residence.
But what undoubtedly is the biggest cause of alarm is Israel’s claim that the daring attack was carried out by arch-enemies Iran and its ‘proxy’ Hezbollah - a Shia Muslim militant group and political party based in Lebanon which came into prominence after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Inspired by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Hezbollah leaders have called for the destruction of Israel, which they refer to as the ‘Zionist entity’.
Tel Aviv appears to have based its assessment about perpetrators of Delhi attack on the fact that simultaneous attack was also mounted on its Embassy in Georgia and because it had come a day after the fourth anniversary of the killing of Hezbollah’s deputy leader Imad Mughniyeh. Hezbollah had vowed to avenge Mughnieyeh’s assassination in a car-bombing in Damascus.
Moreover, Israel is also locked in a wider covert war with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. There have been apparent attempts to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear ambition, including the unclaimed killings of several Iranian nuclear scientists – all blamed on Israel by Iran.
Iran has denied involvement in yesterday’s attacks and accused Israel of carrying out the attacks itself. Hezbollah made no comment.
For India, yesterday’s event brought forth the very real possibility of being big pulled into a conflict that is not of its own making.
New Delhi is surely at crossroads and risks upsetting the delicate balance it had achieved in its Middle-East policy. On one hand is its ever-growing strategic and defence relationship with Israel and on the other is the critical economic equation with Iran.
All along, India has been able to strike a middle path between the two, but after yesterday’s attack it is close to being forced to take sides – something it has avoided all along, but now may find it difficult to go further with.
So what’s at stake?
India-Iran: India’s relationship with Iran has been a long standing one. The civilisation bonds between the two nations run deep. In recent history, the ties improved after the Cold War freeze when both countries worked together in Afghanistan, in early 1990s, to provide support to the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban.
But the fulcrum around which Indo-Iranian ties revolve today is trade. Iran is India’s second biggest source of crude oil and thus plays a critical role in keeping its growth engine on track.
India can’t easily let go off Iranian crude at a time when China and Russia are aggressively making their presence felt in the region.
Pressure from the West had forced India to vote against Iran over its nuclear program at the IAEA but New Delhi has always stopped short of joining the forces looking to isolate Tehran.
India`s broader position on the issue is relatively straightforward. India believes that Iran has the right to pursue civilian nuclear energy but wants clarity on the way it goes about it.
Although reports have claimed that the West has promised New Delhi of ‘alternative sources of oil’ but it is certain that the promise comes with strings attached.
Moreover, India has world’s third largest Shia population and that too concentrated in politically important Uttar Pradesh, making it very difficult for the ruling class to take a belligerent stand against Iran.
India-Israel: Traditionally India has been pro-Arab (who can forget the bear hugs between Indira Gandhi and Yasser Arafat), but that changed in 1992 when diplomatic relationship was established with Israel. Over the years Israel has emerged as one of India’s biggest strategic partners and a dependable source of high-tech weaponry.
Owing to domestic ‘concerns’, India has been vocal on the Palestine issue but that hasn’t deterred the blossoming of relationship between the two nations.
Although India has been cautious and secretive about the depth of its relationship with Tel Aviv, both nations are believed to share intelligence in view of the growing threat of terrorism in their backyards, especially after the 26/11 incident when the Mumbai Chabad House was attacked claiming lives of a Jewish Rabbi and his pregnant wife.
More importantly, India has carefully set course to be in the good books of the US – Israel’s staunchest ally – and wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side at this critical juncture in world history.
The powerful Jewish lobby in Washington is already “deeply troubled” by India`s growing ties with Iran and those who know how things work on the shores of the Potomac know that their views matter.
It is clear the Israel need us, if not for anything but at least to win the battle of perceptions – at a time when there are murmurs of an impending attack on Iran by Israel - in a world that is getting increasingly polarised.
Israel’s Ambassador to India Alon Ushpiz puts it this way: “What I would like to stress is that we are both close friends. When you feel close to someone – whether a nation or a state or individuals – you care about his well-being. India is close to our hearts.”
The middle path
Although it is increasingly getting clear that the sands have shifted considerably since the last time India went to the drawing board over its ‘equidistance’ policy in the Middle East. The winds have been blowing with gusto for some time now; the Arab spring metamorphosed into an event - then defined history - but also ended up kicking a lot of dust.
India voted on the wrong side in Libya but has made amends with Syria, all in the hope that the region gets stabilised even if it meant going against its own assessment of the situation.
But the fountainhead of all that India worries about in the Middle East is the morbid fear that the bloody haze from there would travel eastwards to aggravate the situation in the Af-Pak region and eventually cross the Wagah border.
India’s hands are already full; India has too many of its own battles to fight.
What raise the level of concern even further are the reports that a local terror cell – a Lashkar-e-Toiba module as per some reports - had carried out the Delhi car bombing with active help from outside.
If that outside source turns out to be Hezbollah then it points to the forging of a working relationship between Shia groups and Sunni groups like the LeT. And no one for sure knows what its import would turn out to be, as Hezbollah, which fights Israeli armed forces - one of world’s most tech-savvy forces, certainly has evolved newer ways to neutralise the opposition. If Pak-based terror outfits were to acquire that know how, then?