On February 13 a ‘sticky’ bomb placed in a car went off in New Delhi, grievously injuring an Israeli diplomat’s wife. While many were tempted to point fingers at India’s neighbour on the west, the choice of target and prevailing circumstances put Iran on the spot, though there was little evidence to back what till now appears to be a convenient guess. The same day an attempt to kill an Israeli diplomat in Georgia failed and on February 14 three Iranians were arrested in Bangkok for attempting to target Israelis. The Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, was quick to conclude that Iran was behind the brazen attack. Not going into the similarities of these attacks to the mysterious deaths of top Iranian nuclear scientists in the recent past (alleged by Iran to be the work of Israel) or Israel’s claim that these were the work of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (which begs the question why it would send its men for an attack with documents identifying them), India’s response to the attack and the composure it has maintained is praiseworthy.
Since the attacks there has been more pressure on India to cut ties, mainly its oil trade, with Iran. New Delhi has maintained that it will not support any unilateral sanctions imposed by any bloc but will abide by a resolution adopted at the United Nations. It goes without saying that India has a selfish interest in maintaining ties with Iran.
India’s ties with Iran date back decades. Delhi-Tehran ties are on an economic, cultural and strategic level. Indian refineries are tuned to Iran crude standards and close to 12 per cent of our oil comes from Iran. If India were to stop getting oil from Iran there would be two fallouts. Our refineries would have to be re-tuned to the standards of oil from another supplier country and India would have to turn to other countries, most likely Saudi Arabia. India definitely has better ties with Iran than with Saudi Arabia. Iran’s oil loss, in this case, would mean a gain for the desert kingdom but New Delhi will be on tenterhooks doing business with Riyadh.
India’s ties with Israel have been growing stronger in the past decade or so, especially in the fields of defence and intelligence sharing. Intelligence sharing has been active especially after the 26/11 attacks in which the Lakshar-e-Toiba had specifically targeted Jews and Chabad house in Mumbai.
Investigation is being conducted into the February 13 attack and if it becomes clear that Iran has used Indian soil to settle scores with Israel, New Delhi should condemn Tehran in the strongest of terms and take necessary action which it deems fit — not what Washington or Tel Aviv dictate.
Capitol Hill Race
The nuclear tension brewing in the Persian Gulf, as many of the problems in the region, has multiple layers to it. While on one hand it is a nuclear proliferation problem, on another it is the tension between Israel and Iran representing a Zionist-Muslim conflict hovering around the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the present Palestine crisis. The United States, by virtue of being Israel’s eternal best man and by dutifully performing its role as global super cop, is ‘concerned’ about the developments in the region and working towards ensuring that Iran does not gain nuclear weapons. The US, like many other countries, has not bought Iran’s argument that it is working towards nuclear power and not nuclear weapons and in the process enriching uranium to fulfil its power needs.
However, the call for action on Iran will be decided in Washington depending on the climate in the country. President Barack Obama came to office in 2008 with the promise of opening diplomatic doors with Iran. His letter to Iran’s religious head Ali Khamenei and the Persian New Year message that year were clear signs of an openness towards realising better relations. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not impressed because while extending a hand to Iran the US was also covertly operating in Tehran. Obama’s belief in reaching out to Iran through diplomacy has not gone down well with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel body in Washington.
Israel wants to halt Iran — at any cost — and this is not an option for the US. It has just got itself out of two decade-long bloody wars that have lightened the state coffers considerably and earned more bad blood in West Asia than the goodwill it hoped to earn while going on its ‘democracy’ highway. Obama’s approach towards tackling Iran is cause for rebuke by the Republicans and in an election year Obama finds himself in a fix. Acting against Iran would further drain the country’s coffers, until recently on life-support, and men and women will be again sent out for war, but if he were to not act, it would be projected as weakness and give the Republicans a much-needed stick to beat the President with.
An attack on Iran will skyrocket oil prices and this will put pressure on the world’s economy. Iran, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, is populous and, unlike Israel, is a bigger country.
The present crisis at first reading gives the impression that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are developed mainly keeping in mind Israel. While a nuclear Iran is definitely a concern for Israel, what is forgotten is that as much as Israel fears such a scenario, countries in West Asia also dread it. A re-reading of the scenario will give more credibility to the fear of other Muslim countries in the region than to the paranoia exhibited by Israel. In other words, an Iran with nuclear power or nuclear weapons (there is no credible evidence to suggest Tehran is weaponising its nuclear programme) is worse news for Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait than for Israel.
This distinction is missed by the western eye that fails to appreciate the myriad intricacies within the Muslim world. Iran, which credits itself as the first to overthrow a western regime in the region, is vying for prominence in the region. Also Tehran detests Riyadh, which it claims takes orders from Washington. Further, when taken into consideration that religious clerics and heads wield much power in both countries, it will not be wrong to argue that a Shia Iran is trying to project itself as the big player in the region by eclipsing a Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Glimmer of Hope
Another question to be considered before condemning Iran is how much truth there is in Tehran’s tall claims. It is a fact that Iran has nuclear ambitions and that a middle level team of the International Atomic Energy Agency had an unsuccessful visit to the country. But Iran, in the past, has made tall claims that were proved hollow. Hyperbole is part of Tehran’s discourse.
James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence in the US, in a February report is of the opinion that Iran is more likely to look at the option of nuclear weapons based on ‘cost-benefit analyses’. This means that while it is not clear if Tehran will stop short of developing a nuclear weapon, it is premature for doomsday alarmists to cry mayday.
Whether Israel will attack Iran or not is a scenario that is best avoided. Even the US has been kept guessing by Israel. Every step taken towards tackling this situation is a tightrope walk. The questions are: Will the US succumb to pressure and toe Israel’s line in attacking Iran? Will Israel attack Iran without informing the US and pull Washington into a war it will have to reluctantly be part of? How will Iran react? How will world nations see an unprovoked attack by Israel (and the US) on Iran? Will Iran’s nuclear programme go deeper underground? Will India cut ties with Iran; will it use its leverage with Tehran to open diplomatic channels, and; how will the world avoid a catastrophe?