Iran And Or Israel: India’s Interests

A very ana­lyt­i­cal and bal­anced arti­cle on the India–Iran-Israel tri­an­gu­lar rela­tion­ship. Vice Admi­ral Bharathan has cogent­ly defined the geo-polit­i­cal con­text with an empir­i­cal analy­sis of the stakes involved for each stake­hold­er. In effect, what­ev­er path India choos­es would be irrel­e­vant in the back­ground of this sim­mer­ing vol­cano of vis­cer­al dis­trust and mis­per­cep­tions. Even on this sin­gle fac­tor India would per­haps do well to main­tain sta­tus quo in its Iran and Israel rela­tion­ships.

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This arti­cle is pub­lished with the kind per­mis­sion of “Defence and Secu­ri­ty Alert (DSA) Mag­a­zine” New Del­hi-India
Defence and Security Alert (DSA

Two civil­i­sa­tions, India and Iran and a very ancient Jew­ish cul­ture that is Israel, are in an enig­mat­ic tri­an­gle. India is invol­un­tar­i­ly at the apex with inim­i­cal Iran and Israel at the two dis­tanced points of this tri­an­gle. India has man­aged rela­tions on an “Iran and Israel” approach. Iran sup­plies near­ly 12 per cent of oil; the promise of Gas though a pipeline is also a crit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion. An agree­ment on this pipeline would per­haps bring down the con­fronta­tion­ist tem­per­a­ture pre­vail­ing in the region. This may also seem a pipe dream in the present con­text of India-Pak­istan-Chi­na geo-polit­i­cal intran­si­gence. Many also believe that India and Iran enjoy a civil­i­sa­tion­al rela­tion­ship that endures peri­od­ic dif­fer­ences. Israeli and Indi­an coop­er­a­tion that began in the ear­ly 90’s has pro­gres­sive­ly evolved into a robust engage­ment across the span of defence, agri­cul­ture, sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy and research. In many ways, over the last 2 decades India has suc­cess­ful­ly respond­ed to Shalom and Salaam ale kum of both Israel and Iran. The 13th Feb­ru­ary attack on an Israeli diplomat’s car, the Amer­i­can led West­ern iso­la­tion of Iran has trig­gered off a reac­tion ask­ing for India to choose between Iran or Israel. The house is divid­ed on this as is expect­ed in our democ­ra­cy. Pres­sure from USA too is a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor. The media and infor­ma­tion high­way is full of arti­cles assum­ing polarised posi­tions. What­ev­er be the views, India’s inter­ests come first and fore­most.

Nev­er a zero sum game

Inter­na­tion­al rela­tion­ship is nev­er a zero sum game. This self-evi­dent truth shows up in all the “Geo-polit­i­cal and Mil­i­tary” hap­pen­ings in the South Asian, Cen­tral Asian, Gulf, land and ocean mass over the last two decades. Most crit­i­cal­ly, this entire swathe has been sub­ject to cross cur­rents of Inter­na­tion­al inter­ests, inter- and intra-coun­try upheavals. Arti­fi­cial divi­sions of the region by the British also spawned region­al ten­sions: Israeli-Arab ani­mos­i­ty, the Iran-Iraq war, the cold war between the super pow­ers, the then unique Iraq-Sovi­et Union engage­ment and the inces­sant quest for ener­gy has scarred this swathe into being a land of con­stant vio­lence, con­flict, rad­i­cal eth­nic­i­ty and geo-polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty. In effect, what­ev­er path India choos­es would be irrel­e­vant in the back­ground of this sim­mer­ing vol­cano of vis­cer­al dis­trust and mis­per­cep­tions. Even on this sin­gle fac­tor India would per­haps do well to main­tain sta­tus quo in its Iran and Israel rela­tion­ships.

USA and Chi­na

USA, Chi­na too are intrin­sic to this con­struct. The for­mer has bind­ing, bond­ing ties with the Jew­ish state. It is at present in the pol­i­tics of con­fronta­tion with the Per­sians on a host of well-known issues. Iran’s nuclear pos­tur­ing and anti-Amer­i­can stand-off rat­tles the West. It is also an avowed ene­my of Israel with open­ly declared inten­tions of com­plete­ly destroy­ing the lat­ter. The prob­a­bil­i­ty of a pre-emp­tive Israeli strike on Iran with atten­dant ram­i­fi­ca­tions can­not be ruled out. Its attack on Iraq, years ago can­not be for­got­ten. Chi­na has a unique Iran rela­tion­ship. It is a silent, covert sup­pli­er of nuclear and mis­sile mate­r­i­al to Iran. “Marag­ing” steel for cen­trifuges and Silk­worm mis­siles are but a few glar­ing exam­ples of Chi­nese com­plic­i­ty. This is in line with a Chi­na pol­i­cy of pur­su­ing a path of set­ting up a long term pres­ence in the Mid­dle East and Africa. An impor­tant and ignored aspect is Beijing’s plans to influ­ence affairs in Afghanistan and Cen­tral Asia. In more ways than one, the wake of an Amer­i­can led NATO with­draw­al is wait­ing to be filled in by Chi­na sup­port­ed by Pak­istan. Iran is a proxy Ocean guar­an­tor along with Pak­istan. The ports of Gwadar and Mir Qua­sim are already being read­ied for Chi­na.

Cross domi­no effects

There are also some cross domi­no effects that need to be in the cal­cu­lus of Gulf geopol­i­tics. A few of them are: Shia-Sun­ni schism: The his­toric Shia-Sun­ni schism is a silent strate­gic divider in the region. This divide con­stant­ly sim­mers between ten­sion and vio­lent con­fronta­tion. Arab Spring hap­pen­ings do involve this divide in its own dynam­ic. This Islam­ic schism is vio­lent, vis­cer­al and unre­lent­ing over the last sev­er­al cen­turies.

Sau­di Ara­bi­an-Amer­i­can appliqué: Appliqué vir­tu­al­ly means exter­nal appli­ca­tion or super­im­po­si­tion. Appliqué is indeed apt in describ­ing the Amer­i­can-Sau­di Ara­bi­an con­nec­tion in the con­text of a democ­ra­cy deal­ing with a theo­crat­ic monar­chy. The USA, the lone super pow­er, is com­mit­ted to the free world and the ide­al­ism of democ­ra­cy. Yet it has an open and also closed long last­ing rela­tion­ship with the Saud­is. In more ways than one, this bor­ders on invid­i­ous­ness. Sau­di Ara­bia is dis­tinct­ly total­i­tar­i­an. It is also a stri­dent spon­sor of Inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism. The hor­rif­ic 9/11 World Trade Cen­tre attack had many Sau­di nation­als.

Al Qae­da was spawned there and is res­i­dent in that king­dom. Sau­di Ara­bi­an rela­tion­ship with Chi­na and Pak­istan is also unique. While USA is its prime arms and mil­i­tary train­ing ally, it is pur­port­ed to have mis­siles from Chi­na. Ter­ror­ism in Pak­istan flour­ish­es with Sau­di Ara­bi­an mon­ey. Clos­er home, in India too, its efforts in engag­ing many “Madras­sas” is moti­vat­ed by a big­ot­ed obses­sion to aggres­sive­ly spread Islam at the cost of every­thing else. The porous poli­ty of India is pas­sive on this too. The USA is also imper­vi­ous to a sim­i­lar suc­cess­ful attempt in its own con­ti­nent.

Iran-India rela­tion­ship is also per­ceived by the Mid­dle East as a salu­tary influ­ence in the region. India-GCC trade stands at around US$ 120 bil­lion. Approx­i­mate­ly 6 mil­lion Indi­an nation­als work in the Gulf with year­ly remit­tances of US$ 30 bil­lion. 70 to 75 per cent of India’s ener­gy imports are from the Gulf coun­tries, includ­ing Iran

The his­toric Shia-Sun­ni schism is a silent strate­gic divider in the region. This divide con­stant­ly sim­mers between ten­sion and vio­lent con­fronta­tion. Arab Spring hap­pen­ings do involve this divide in its own dynam­ic. This Islam­ic schism is vio­lent, vis­cer­al and unre­lent­ing over the last sev­er­al cen­turies

Wahabism

In the gulf region this oil rich king­dom fol­lows Wahabi Islam along­side a closed soci­ety. Sau­di roy­al­ty with tac­it Amer­i­can sup­port has kept a stran­gle­hold on its peo­ple. There is nei­ther free­dom nor fair­ness in that soci­ety in the name of Islam. Islam­ic views on the infi­del (kafir) are per­pet­u­at­ed in Sau­di Ara­bia. Wahabi ways con­done many wrong­do­ings in the name of Allah. The Arab Spring upris­ings are only a symp­tom of the dis­ease of unrest with no real end in sight. Egypt, Libya and now Syr­ia are exam­ples of failed and fail­ing lead­er­ship. West­ern influ­ence was the gen­e­sis and is now the iron­ic, iron force behind the people’s move­ment which aspires for free­dom from auto­crat­ic regimes. It is no more a ques­tion of whether the Sau­di roy­al­ty will cave in but when? This too is bound to trig­ger a tsuna­mi of uncer­tain­ty and chaos! It would be a deja-vu repeat of the col­lapse of the Amer­i­can-Iran­ian hon­ey­moon post the over­throw of Reza Shah Pahlavi.

India enjoys a unique stature in the Arab World. In many ways, Pak­istani attempt to dis­cred­it India has not found much favour. Over the years the num­ber of Indi­ans who work in the Gulf, has gone up sig­nif­i­cant­ly across var­i­ous dis­ci­plines. This is indeed a major fac­tor that brings in valu­able for­eign exchange

Ener­gy secu­ri­ty and secu­ri­ty of ener­gy

Glob­al Ener­gy needs are on expo­nen­tial rise. Oil is black gold. It con­trols the pulse of Inter­na­tion­al trade. Keep­ing sea lanes open and pro­vid­ing secu­ri­ty to this ener­gy are oner­ous tasks. The Per­sian Gulf, Red Sea, the Indi­an Ocean and the con­cerned choke points are all vul­ner­a­ble but vital and valu­able to ensure the flow of oil and gas from the Mid­dle East to the East and Far East. Any con­flict in the region is bound to have a cat­a­stroph­ic impact on ener­gy avail­abil­i­ty. “No oil, No care” is also an Arab fatal­is­tic belief.

Arms bazaar

The region spread­ing from the Gulf to the Far East is an Arms Bazaar. There is a pletho­ra of lethal con­ven­tion­al weapons of intense con­cen­tra­tion in the Gulf. The west­ern coun­tries head­ed by USA and Chi­na along with some east­ern bloc coun­tries led by Rus­sia are part of the mil­i­tary ven­dors club. The famous book titled Arms Bazaar by Antho­ny Samp­son clear­ly illus­trates that the mil­i­tary sup­plies have been on since the last 4 decades. More telling is the sim­ple fact of back­ward and volatile nations hav­ing easy and ready access to fierce fire pow­er. Wild West syn­drome echoes in the deserts, dunes and the waters of the land. The West is futile­ly try­ing to put out the fires that it had start­ed decades ago!

Indi­an Ocean

The Indi­an Ocean is the “Life line” between West and East. Over 1,000 mil­lion tons of oil pass through close to Indi­an shores every year. India is depen­dent on the seas for 95 per cent of its trade and 80 per cent for oil. It can­not sim­ply afford to allow clo­sure of sea lanes for more than 10 days. This ocean being every one’s lake is the real­i­ty today. As the largest stake­hold­er in the region we at least ought to know what is hap­pen­ing in our waters and be able to right­ful­ly secure our­selves as a sov­er­eign democ­ra­cy. Oth­ers may sail away but we can­not. This sub­tle dif­fer­ence has gross, telling impli­ca­tions in effect, impact and con­se­quences for the sub-con­ti­nent. What hap­pens in the Per­sian Gulf will have a last­ing, long and large term impact on all Indi­an Ocean rim coun­tries. The Indi­an Ocean is a float­ing home to about 35 to 40 war­ships from dif­fer­ent nations, not to speak of the Indi­an, Pak­istani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan navies and Task Force 150 led by USA. At any giv­en time there are at least 10 to 15 sub­marines tran­sit­ing under­wa­ter. Near­ly 2,000 to 3,000 mer­chant ships rang­ing from super­tankers, gas car­ri­ers, car­go ships, con­tain­er ves­sels, tra­verse these water­ways every day. Fish­ing fleets, dhows, trawlers, explorato­ry ves­sels, big oil rigs also cross the sea lanes.

In peace time alone the Ara­bi­an Sea, the Bay of Ben­gal, the impor­tant straits from east to west are all sub­ject to threats of:

  • Mutu­al inter­fer­ence among sub­marines.
  • Envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion due to dis­charge of dirty oil by emp­ty oil tankers in vio­la­tion of UNCLOS (Unit­ed Nations Con­ven­tion on Laws of the Seas) agreed upon rules of behav­iour.
  • Major oil pol­lu­tion dis­as­ters due to col­li­sions between tankers.
  • Tsunamis and cyclones.
  • Low inten­si­ty threats of pira­cy, smug­gling and hijack­ing.
  • Stran­gu­la­tion of traf­fic, in choke points, due to any of the above.
  • In these cir­cum­stances to ask India to choose between Iran and Israel is hypo­thet­i­cal­ly and geopo­lit­i­cal­ly anath­e­ma.”

Indi­an inter­ests

Indi­an inter­ests do not need great debate and dis­cus­sion. We are a benign pow­er, a sec­u­lar sta­ble democ­ra­cy from an ancient civil­i­sa­tion. The Inter­na­tion­al are­na flocks to us, despite our many endem­ic weak­ness­es. There­in lies our intrin­sic strength. Today the World needs us. We nev­er need to be in a posi­tion to choose but let oth­ers want us. Our inter­ests can be realised by being what we are.

Iran

We need Iran for counter-bal­anc­ing the Gulf secu­ri­ty cal­cu­lus. West­ern influ­ence while being of immense use has inher­ent lim­i­ta­tions of dis­tanced and obtuse alien con­tent. India has his­toric, cul­tur­al, com­merce and trade foot­prints that are etched in the DNA of the Mediter­ranean, Maghreb, Malac­cas, Near and Far East long before the influx of the Euro­peans. We sim­ply can­not abdi­cate this even if we are tempt­ed to unwit­ting­ly attempt this exer­cise. 12 per cent of oil is also crit­i­cal. Con­struc­tive engage­ment with Iran would give India some lever­age towards res­o­lu­tion of pend­ing con­tentious issues in the region. Equal­ly impor­tant is the Chi­nese drag­on that is breath­ing fire to anneal an agen­da of its own. Coun­ter­ing this with­out con­fronta­tion requires an amal­ga­mat­ed, calm­ing, Indi­an pres­ence with tac­it sup­port of the oth­er play­ers in the region.

We need Iran for coun­ter­bal­anc­ing the gulf secu­ri­ty cal­cu­lus. West­ern influ­ence while being of immense use has inher­ent lim­i­ta­tions of dis­tanced and obtuse alien con­tent. India has his­toric, cul­tur­al, com­merce and trade foot­prints that are etched in the DNA of the Mediter­ranean, Maghreb, Malac­cas, Near and Far East long before the influx of the Euro­peans. We sim­ply can­not abdi­cate this

Israel

Many Israelis, spe­cial­ly from their polit­i­cal, mil­i­tary, diplo­mat­ic corps believe that their pop­u­la­tion is 1.2 bil­lion plus by sim­ply adding their 8 mil­lion or so to our peo­ple. They have a fer­vent belief that the Jews and Indi­ans have a des­tiny togeth­er for the com­mon good of the World. This small state adds great val­ue to India and brings sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion to our diplo­mat­ic, mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment matri­ces. India-Israel coop­er­a­tion focus­es on space, water man­age­ment, and non-con­ven­tion­al ener­gy sources. Also includ­ed are Nan­otech­nol­o­gy, biotech­nol­o­gy and mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy self-reliance. There are also agrar­i­an thrusts between both coun­tries. Israel is our sixth largest trad­ing part­ner with trade val­ue of near­ly US$ 10 bil­lion and increas­ing. A bilat­er­al free trade agree­ment (FTA) is also in the off­ing. Israelis have also learned to live with our pro-Pales­tine pos­ture. Here too India can play an effec­tive medi­a­tion facil­i­ta­tor.

Gulf coun­tries

India enjoys a unique stature in the Arab World. In many ways, Pak­istani attempt to dis­cred­it India has not found much favour. Over the years the num­ber of Indi­ans who work in the Gulf, has gone up sig­nif­i­cant­ly across var­i­ous dis­ci­plines. This is indeed a major fac­tor that brings in valu­able for­eign exchange, con­tribut­ing to our econ­o­my. The Iraqi Air Force and Navy have once, been trained by us very well on mil­i­tary basics. Oman and India have also a spe­cial rela­tion­ship that has pros­pered over the years. Sau­di Ara­bia and India too have now entered into a pos­i­tive arrange­ment, high­light­ing a tec­ton­ic shift in per­cep­tions. These have tak­en place despite our ongo­ing Israeli con­nec­tion. India’s deci­sion not to join USA in Oper­a­tion Iraqi Free­dom in 2003 was per­haps most pru­dent and strate­gi­cal­ly sen­si­ble. This has kept us in good stead and earned the appre­ci­a­tion of the region­al lead­er­ship. Iran-India rela­tion­ship is also per­ceived by the Mid­dle East as a salu­tary influ­ence in the region. India-GCC trade stands at around US$ 120 bil­lion. Approx­i­mate­ly 6 mil­lion Indi­an nation­als work in the Gulf with year­ly remit­tances of US$ 30 bil­lion. 70 to 75 per cent of India’s ener­gy imports are from the Gulf coun­tries, includ­ing Iran. These are irrev­o­ca­ble links that have to be fur­ther strength­ened.

Indi­an sov­er­eign­ty

We are a sov­er­eign sys­tem, with a track record of sound law and order in the Nation­al and Inter­na­tion­al are­na. Jus­tice and pros­e­cut­ing ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties are part of our jurispru­dence. It goes beyond con­sid­er­a­tion of our rela­tion­ships. There is need for objec­tiv­i­ty in our deal­ing with the attack on the Israeli diplo­mat with the heavy hand of the law. We also need to pre-empt any Israeli retal­i­a­tion on our soil. On no account should we be seen as a vac­il­lat­ing sys­tem that is inde­ci­sive. Our han­dling of Kasab caught red hand­ed in the 26 Novem­ber 2008 Mum­bai attack, though frus­trat­ing does vin­di­cate our full com­mit­ment to the let­ter of the law.

India’s sig­na­ture tune

India is an enig­mat­ic mir­a­cle. The last 25 years have seen us grow as one of the lead­ing economies start­ing with our lib­er­alised eco­nom­ic strat­e­gy. 1998 saw us become a mil­i­tary nuclear pow­er. We are now recog­nised by the USA through the aegis of defence coop­er­a­tion and Indo-US civ­il nuclear coop­er­a­tion agree­ments. Sev­er­al sig­nif­i­cant part­ner­ships have also emerged with a host of G‑8 and G‑20 coun­tries. Prospects of us being elect­ed into the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil also appear bright.

The prob­a­bil­i­ty of a pre-emp­tive Israeli strike on Iran with atten­dant ram­i­fi­ca­tions can­not be ruled out. It’s attack on Iraq, years ago can­not be for­got­ten. Chi­na has a unique Iran rela­tion­ship. It is a silent, covert sup­pli­er of nuclear and mis­sile mate­r­i­al to Iran. Marag­ing steel for cen­trifuges and Silk­worm mis­siles are but a few glar­ing exam­ples of Chi­nese com­plic­i­ty

India at home appears dif­fi­dent and dis­joint­ed. Nation man­age­ment, polit­i­cal lead­er­ship apa­thy and lack of account­abil­i­ty are all part of our evo­lu­tion. Nev­er­the­less the intrin­sic strength of India rest­ing with our sea­soned office estab­lish­ment has always ensured that we mud­dle through, with­out too much mud on our face. The Inter­na­tion­al Image of India is yet anoth­er pos­i­tive par­a­digm. India is pre­dictable, staid, sta­ble, sec­u­lar and restrained. Our protests are loud but our vio­lence is sub­dued. Our elec­tions are peace­ful, with our laws most­ly enforced. We have come of age with­out too much trau­ma of a colo­nial domin­ion. Our eclec­tic absorp­tion, adapt­abil­i­ty and the phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess of Indi­ans abroad are all noticed by oth­ers.

We are no more in a posi­tion of hav­ing to choose or mea­sure our march. On the way we may fal­ter at times but would not fall down. Let India con­tin­ue with an Iran and Israel tri­ad and not con­sid­er this a triage. This would be our right­ful and ratio­nal call.

About the Author
Vice Adm Bar­ry Bharathan (retd) — The writer is for­mer Vice Chief of Naval Staff. He also served as Indi­an Naval Attache in Wash­ing­ton DC, USA.

Note by the Author:
USA, the lone super pow­er, is com­mit­ted to the free world and the ide­al­ism of democ­ra­cy. Yet it has an open and also closed long last­ing rela­tion­ship with the Saud­is. In more ways than one, this bor­ders on invid­i­ous­ness. Sau­di Ara­bia is dis­tinct­ly a total­i­tar­i­an theoc­ra­cy. It is also a stri­dent spon­sor of Inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism. The hor­rif­ic 9/11 World Trade Cen­tre attack had many Sau­di nation­als. Al Qae­da was spawned there and is res­i­dent in that king­dom

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