The ground has shifted from beneath India’s feet. On February 13, a geopolitical earthquake struck, in the form of a sophisticated bomb attack in the heart of New Delhi on an Israeli diplomatic staff vehicle. The bomb attack injured four passengers and landed India in a diplomatic soup. Israel alleges an Iranian hand in the attacks that coincided with another attempt in Tbilisi, Georgia, and were followed by a botched bombing attempt in Bangkok, Thailand. India has so far maintained a studied silence on naming any country “as investigations have yet to reveal any suspects”. While that is a careful & prudent stance to take, so as to not cause a diplomatic brouhaha by acknowledging Israeli allegations against Iran, it is only a matter of time when investigations would be completed. And then the clamor for naming the source of the attack would begin.
Indeed, it may have already started behind the scenes. It is not hard to imagine that Israel and it’s diplomats in India would be bearing down in coming out with the results of the investigations. 3 days have passed since the attack, and we haven’t yet heard anything beyond India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram enlightening the world by informing that “it was a sophisticated attack”. That kind of language is code for the likely involvement of a foreign hand. But he went no further, steadfast in denying any knowledge of who might have been behind the attack. This is a little embarrassing, given that the attack took place in the heart of New Delhi, barely 500 meters from the residence of India’s Prime Minister.
The attack itself was a new development for India in that it involved the ‘bomber’ placing a magnetic bomb on the side of the targeted vehicle, which then blew up soon after. The bomber was alleged to be a motorcyclist, who then sped away unhindered by any security. A few things come out of this. Firstly, though the bomb itself was sophisticated, the bomber was not able to utilize it effectively. He placed the bomb on the back of the vehicle, whereas the main diplomat being targeted was sitting in the front with the driver. Secondly, someone had to be doing surveillance of the target’s movements to be able to pick her out at a particular point on a given day. That someone was able to do surveillance on vehicles going in and out of the Israeli embassy in a high-security diplomatic zone doesn’t speak well of India’s security apparatus (as we commoners well know). Thirdly, the fact remains that the bomber ultimately messed up by the wrong placement of the bomb, suggesting he was a mid-level operative, definitely not an expert. An Iranian nuclear scientist was targeted & killed in a similar fashion by alleged Israeli operatives using a magnetic bomb – no mistakes that time. Fourthly, the bomber seemed to have a good knowledge of the geography of the area exemplified by his easy getaway in the heart of Delhi’s high-security zone. Fifth – India’s over-stretched security forces now have an even more daunting challenge in preventing such magnetic bomb attacks.
It is almost tempting to conclude that it was Iran that was behind the attacks. Iran, after all, might have acted in revenge for the killing of it’s scientists, and the damage done to it’s facilities by the Stuxnet cyber-worm, allegedly by Israel, and possibly even the United States. The ongoing tensions in the Middle East involving the Iranian march to achieving mastery over the full Uranium enrichment cycle is stoking Israeli fears of Iran ultimately developing a nuclear bomb. Israel considers that an existential threat and has threatened military action to prevent Iran from reaching that threshold. Several analysts have theorized, that though Iran is officially denying any involvement, it could have used these attacks to signal to Israel and the US that it can, if required, do physical harm to their people across the world.
Other opinions wonder why Iran would risk alienating a friendly country like India by conducting such attacks on it’s soil. India, after all, is now Iran’s biggest customer for oil. India, in defiance of western sanctions, is finding ways around the ban on US dollar transactions with Iranian entities, by making Rupee payments and even using barter as a means of providing the heavily sanctioned Iranian economy some measure of relief for the common people. India’s refusal to back down enables Iran to get food and other essentials from India through the Rupee payments and barter route. It could be the usual suspect – Pakistan – trying to scupper India’s new found influence with Iran, and put it’s relations with Israel to the test?
On the other hand – it just might be Iran. India being a soft target for terrorists, Iran might have concluded that it would be easiest to conduct an attack here, and leave little traces behind. There could be local help in the form of sleeper cells which were activated to provide the logistics and conduct the actual attack. More ominously, Iran might have concluded that it is easiest to do it in India, since India will be caught in a bind in the sense of not wanting to offend Iran by implicating it, despite any evidence it may gather. Iran may have concluded that India will be worried about looking like it sided with Israel, and will be hammered by it’s Muslim minority population just as elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh (which has a significant Muslim minority) are underway. Hamstrung as it is by it’s friendly relations with both Iran & Israel, India theoretically offers the best bet of getting away with it from Iran’s point of view.
And therein lies the central question behind the mess India finds itself in in the aftermath of the attack. For how long can India pretend that it’s relations with Israel and it’s relations with Iran have no bearing on each other? Indian leaders have for long issued anodyne and banal diplomatic statements, that at best sound like India doesn’t want to offend anyone, and at worst sound like India doesn’t know what position to take. Its almost as if India believes that, somehow, it will escape the troubles between Iran & Israel, and also between Iran & the United States. We have been in this mess before. While the Nuclear Deal was yet to be signed between India & the US, India was put to the test, being part of the Security Council, to vote against the Iranians on their Uranium enrichment program. India, much to it’s discomfiture, ended up voting against Iran as it wanted to be on the right side of the US Congress prior to the signing of the Nuclear Deal. Iran reacted angrily against the UN resolution, and especially pointedly against India, which it singled out for an act of betrayal. India has ever since been trying to mollify Iran touting it’s shared historical ties as ancient civilizations, and keeping up with trade as one of Iran’s largest oil customers. Iran also offers India a hedge against Pakistan in that it offers an alternative route to land-locked Afghanistan. India, being physically blocked off from Afghanistan, would not want to lose it’s only way to bypass Pakistan. If Iran is lost, India would have no way to prevent the Pakistanis from dominating and taking over Afghanistan through their Taliban proxies.
With Israel too, India has had it’s legendary ambivalence on full display. For decades, India’s leaders treated Israel like a pariah, even denying it diplomatic recognition, on the grounds of India supporting the Palestinian cause against Israel. Israel quietly swallowed this, knowing India’s insecurity with it’s Muslim population, and it’s prickliness on the Kashmir issue for which it needed to keep the Muslim Gulf states in good humor. Also, Israel was aware of India’s history of accommodation of outsiders, including Jews. Then over the years, as it turned out, the Muslim Gulf states including Iran often sided with Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir. India, with the second largest Muslim population, was kept out of the Organization of Islamic Countries – at Pakistan’s insistence. The rise of Hindu nationalism in India also contributed to the tilt away from appeasing Muslim states, and leading to the eventual recognition of Israel with the establishment of diplomatic relations in January 1992. Since then, Israel has become one of India’s biggest suppliers of military hardware. When India conducted it’s nuclear tests in 1998, the rest of the world bore down on India, but Israel along with France, refused to condemn it, or participate in the sanctions imposed. Israel supplied India with emergency kits of laser guided munitions during the Kargil War that enabled Indian fighter jets to accurately target Pakistani positions on the occupied heights. Israel continues to supply India with crucial military hardware that offers tactical battlefield advantages in the proxy war with Pakistan.
From Israel’s point of view, by acquiring the nuclear bomb, Iran poses an existential threat to it which cannot be wished away. Iranian leaders have – foolishly – made public statements of wiping Israel off the map. Israel being such a tiny state in geographical terms, even one or two nuclear bombs on it’s territory would end it’s existence as a viable state. It, therefore, is justified in preparing for the worst-case scenario by stoking the drum beat for sanctions on Iran and raising the possibility of using air strikes to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. Even if we take Iranian threats as bluster, Israel would still be threatened by the Iranian ability to use it’s nuclear capability as a deterrent factor and use it’s proxies – Hezbollah & Hamas – with impunity. Much like Pakistan uses it’s terrorist proxies against India under the shield of it’s nuclear capability.
India’s stance, therefore, puts it in a pincer right between it’s relations with Israel & Iran. Both are friendly countries offering India crucial diplomatic leverage, geographical access, and military help in it’s quest to fend off Pakistan, and also keeping rivals like China at bay in it’s quest for geopolitical advantages. India’s relations with Israel & Iran also give it some amount of strategic independence vis-a-vis the United States. The US, if it had it’s way with India, would have India cut off it’s relations with an old, historically friendly Iran, and been able to effectively sanction India to the hilt if it has been able to convince the Israelis to go against it.
Therefore, doesn’t it seem that India has done a pathetic job of maximizing the potential of it’s friendly relations with both Israel & Iran? Why did India have to wait till the boiling point when the two countries have, for all practical purposes, started a proxy war on Indian soil? In one of my previous posts, I had mentioned that India, as one of it’s options, try to use it’s influence with both Iran & Israel to try and moderate their respective postures towards each other, and thereby avoid the risk of these two crucial friends of India falling out with each other, resulting in India having to make a hard choice between the two.
India’s leadership has lacked the maturity, boldness, and imagination to take a leap of faith to try and take a mediating role between two friendly countries, even if there is little hope of success. Had India tried to do this, it would have had more gumption to take on any Iranian transgressions against Israel, and on the flip-side beat down any Israeli bluster about Iran. You have to show the willingness to take a stand. By tip-toeing around difficult positions, India’s leaders have done us Indians a disservice in not being able to use our strengths to our advantage with friends & allies like Israel and Iran. It is astounding that India’s Prime Ministers have a lot of imagination & magnanimity when dealing with a country like Pakistan which is ideologically and genetically predisposed to never-ending hostility towards India, while completely ignoring the state of relations with allies which are more rational.