Tricky waters

That the Iran-Israel fight has been brought to India’s shores by whosoever wanted to spring a surprise on the Israelis is a tragedy.

The open attack on the Israeli embassy official in highly-policed Lutyens Delhi may be the harbinger of the Israeli conflict with Iran, and the Islamic world generally, extending to Indian cities. Whether this is a like Iranian response to the plastique-killings of a couple of its nuclear scientists on Tehran streets in recent years is not germane to India’s diplomatic predicament. India is in no position to alienate Iran, even less, Israel.

Navigating around the shoals of Israeli national security sensitivities and Iran’s desire for retribution is a grave challenge for this country. The ministry of external affairs, which for years now has maintained a heads-down, low-key posture, determined to give offence to nobody, finds itself shoved rudely on to the centrestage, having to tackle a delicate problem created by two friends of India irreconcilably at odds with each other.
It is true that in the absence of prior information about this strike, the Indian authorities could have done nothing to prevent it. Being an open, free-wheeling democratic country there’s no way that tabs can be kept on every foreigner entering India or, alternatively, maintain surveillance on intelligence agencies operating from friendly country embassies in Delhi. Nor could local collaborators cultivated by these foreign agencies over time have been pre-emptively collared. Much as external affairs minister S.M. Krishna averred that India would not like to get “sucked” into third party squabbles, there may be no easy way of escaping such a denouement, in the main because of what the two countries believe is at stake.
Israel, for all its chutzpah and “two eyes for an eye” attitude, is an incredibly small country — at 22,578 square kms in size, it is 11,438 sq kms smaller than the Union Territory of Delhi. Its margin for safety being infinitesimally small, it brooks no error in assessing and anticipating threats and, once identified, in eliminating them. This is a habit of mind defined by geography and quite unlike subcontinent-sized India’s attitude to physical security of the state which is lax to the point of exasperation. Thus, to apply Indian standards of security to Israel would be to leave it exposed to extinction — which, incidentally, is what the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in high dudgeon, periodically promises. Tel Aviv, however, believes it cannot risk assuming that this is just rousing rhetoric.
In fact, time and again the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, acting on the principle of zeroing out all risks to the state, has systematically killed all those threatening Israel in any way. Hezbollah leader Imad Mugniyeh was assassinated in 2008, and leading scientists and engineers working on any long-range mass destruction weapons programmes in adversary states, have regularly been bumped off, even as the Israeli Air Force has bombed plutonium reactors (Osirak outside Baghdad in 1982, Syrian reactor under construction last year), and sabotaged the Iranian uranium centrifuges with the stuxnet computer virus. Earlier, in March 1990, the extraordinarily-gifted Canadian designer of rockets and long-range artillery, Gerald Bull, who was helping Saddam Hussein build an improbably powerful 150-metre-long gun (350 mm calibre, one metre bore) that could hit Israel or, fired vertically, place a projectile/satellite in space (“Project Babylon”) and also a multi-stage rocket cobbled together from Soviet Scud short-range missile parts, was killed in Brussels with shots to the head.
The Iranian efforts targeting Israel are evidently not as sophisticated, considering that an Israeli embassy accounts official was car-bombed in retaliation for the fatal attacks on its prized nuclear scientists. Whatever the real intent of its nuclear programme, Iran is on the cusp of attaining weapons status.
On a conducted tour of some of its nuclear facilities, along with a few other Indian visitors a couple of years back, a senior scientist at the heavy water production plant in Arak when asked by me about Iran’s nuclear intentions, casually replied: “We are following the Indian model”! My own take is that the Iranian nuclear impulses are civilisational in nature. As legatees of the great Persian empires of Darius and Xerxes, Iranians feel they cannot be denied security sufficiency. It is not a justification that washes with the Israelis, however.
The Israel-Iran tussle played out this week on Indian territory, in effect, leaves Delhi up a creek. India can no more do without Iranian oil (meeting some 16 per cent of the country’s energy needs) and, potentially, gas via the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, and land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia afforded through the Chabahar port. Neither can it afford to have Israel turn off the high-technology spigot and get the influential Jewish lobby in the US all upset. The latter, after all, helped India set up US-India Political Action Committee, a counterpart institution in Washington to the legendary America-Israel Political Action Committee as a means of shaping America’s South Asian policy. That this fight has been brought to India’s shores by whosoever wanted to spring a surprise on the Israelis, is a tragedy. If Mossad is determined covertly to take out the perpetrators and Indian collaborators, if any, there really is not much Delhi can do, but it will ramp up an unending action-reaction sequence of escalating violence that India simply cannot tolerate.
But because two friendly states are involved, India’s best bet may be to urge Tel Aviv to restrict its fight with Iran to their region and to share the names of any Iranian nationals and Indian or other country accomplices that the Israeli intelligence may have with the Delhi Police so they can be apprehended and punished as per Indian laws. That should assuage the Israelis who, hopefully, are not unaware of the serious dilemma confronting the Indian government. Tehran should be requested to refrain from any provocative actions in India against third country citizens, and given assurances that similar representations have been made to Tel Aviv.
It is imperative that India enlarge its own internal security intelligence focus, establish a special cell to monitor suspected persons, organisations and developments related to the Israel-Iran conflict, and publicly proclaim a policy that makes it clear that this country will not be made the site for a clash of strictly West Asian interests.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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