Not taking sides in a conflict between two countries with which you share reasonably good and mutually beneficial relations, is more often than not justified on the grounds of national interests. It is generally also a safe policy to adopt especially if you don’t have a tradition of taking tough decisions and prefer to ride in as many boats as possible at the same time. While this policy (some will call it non-policy) requires deft diplomatic manoeuvring to maintain a relationship with two mutually hostile countries without antagonising either of them, it is a balancing act that becomes more and more difficult as the relations between the two antagonists deteriorate.
The real problem starts when their conflict starts to play itself out in your country. This then becomes a decision point: do you start taking sides or at least ‘tilt’ in favour of one over the other; or do you establish a ‘new normal’ i.e. stick to your position of neutrality but demonstrate your commitment to not becoming the battleground for other people’s wars by cracking down hard on whichever side stepped out of line in your country without subscribing to any of the specious arguments of moral equivalence; or do you simply close your eyes, act as though nothing serious happened and hope things return to normal?
These options are however only one dimension of the problem confronting India in the aftermath of the bombing of the Israeli embassy car in New Delhi which has caught India in the middle of mutual recriminations between Iran on the one side and Israel and the US on the other. The other, and in some ways more important, dimension of the problem is that it raises bigger questions about how India will manage its foreign policy in a world where power equations and international relations are changing bewilderingly fast.
Taking sides between Iran and Israel is not an easy thing for India to do because it has important, perhaps even vital, interests attached with both of them. What is compounding the problem for India is a certain lack of clarity on what constitutes India’s interests that are ‘permanent or eternal’. Quite asides the fact that it is a mistake to interchange the phrase ‘permanent interests’ (a rigid concept) with ‘interests that are perpetual and eternal’ (a more flexible and dynamic concept), in the fast moving and globalised world of the 21st Century the very notions of permanency are becoming a bit of an anachronism.
Viewed in this context, India’s ‘interests’ vis a vis Iran, or for that matter Israel, are neither ‘eternal’ nor ‘permanent’ but more in the nature of transactional, tactical and perhaps even transitory. The challenge for Indian foreign policy makers therefore is not so much balancing India’s relations with only two mutually antagonistic countries like Iran and Israel, but more about how to manage the country’s increasing global profile in a very dynamic global situation where it has to constantly juggle its multiple relationships while keeping in view myriad factors (domestic, economic, political, diplomatic, strategic, military and security related) to maintain an equilibrium which is inherently unstable. For instance, India’s relationship with Iran cannot be viewed only through the prism of its relationship with Israel or the US. India will also have to weigh in Iran’s relations with the Arab world, keep in view the Shia-Sunni conflict which has implications for India’s domestic politics, take into account the export of radical ideologies to India by both the Arab world as well as Iran, factor in not only its strategic interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia but also the policy of other countries like Russia and China.
While there is no denying India’s interests in Iran, there is at the same time a need make a hard-nosed and unemotional assessment of some of the binary propositions put forward in defence of India’s relations with Iran. Take for instance the oft repeated refrain of close historical and cultural relations. The fact is that historically, India has been a victim of Iranian invasions and occupation’ and culturally, India’s link to Iran is primarily the use of Persian as the court language, which really was an imposition of the occupiers’ language on the occupied, much like English is today. The sneering arrogance that Iranians often display towards Indians is a reflection of this ‘centuries of historical and cultural contact’!
Politically and diplomatically, Iran hasn’t exactly done India any great favours. During India’s wars with Pakistan, the Iranians always supported Pakistan simply because it happened to be an Islamic nation. The irony is that many Pakistanis today don’t consider Iranians Muslims because they are mostly Shias. On Kashmir again, except for the support they gave to India on the Human Rights resolution floated by the Pakistanis (the reasons for that are beyond the scope of this article), the Iranians haven’t exactly been great supporters of India’s position on Kashmir. In fact, Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader Khamenei have at times even questioned Kashmir’s integration in India.
India’s economic relationship with Iran also needs to be re-evaluated. Unlike the Arab world, where Indian expatriates work in large numbers and send billions of dollars in remittances, with Iran the bulk of the trade is one way – Iran exports around $ 11 billion of oil to India and imports just around $ 2.7 billion worth of goods from India. Given that Iran doesn't sell oil to India on concessional terms but on purely commercial terms, India could theoretically buy the oil from elsewhere. The problem in doing so isn’t so much of refining capacity and capability (as is being made out by some analysts) partly because the Iranian oil is sour crude and can therefore easily be replaced by other middle eastern crudes and partly because except for some old refineries most modern refineries in India can handle all sorts of crude; the problem is more of finding a replacement source for around 18 to 20 million tonnes of crude that India imports from Iran as also the rise in the international price of oil if the Iranian crude is no longer on the market.
It is important for India not to forget that Iran reneged on a $ 25 billion LNG deal that had been signed between the Iranian and Indian oil majors. The reason was a sudden spike in oil prices which made the Iranians demand more for the LNG than had already been agreed upon. Even on the IPI pipeline, it wasn’t so much the US pressure as it was the price which the Iranians demanded, the gas fields they committed for the project (the Pakistanis are at this late stage wanting an independent audit of gas availability in that oil field) and the over-the-top transit fees being demanded by the Pakistanis that were responsible for India backing out of the project. There were also critical security issues associated with the pipeline which made India skittish about going ahead with the project, more so since the guarantees and safeguards that India wanted were not being given.
The bottom line is that India and Iran are dealing with each other not out of altruism but because it is in their mutual interest. This mutually beneficial relationship is mostly commercial. But in recent years elements of a possible strategic alignment in the context of Afghanistan and Central Asia have got added to the relationship. In a long term sense, there is probably greater alignment of interests between India and Iran on Afghanistan than between India and the US. While the US would not bat an eyelid in kissing and making up with the Taliban, both Iran and India perceive an existential threat from the Taliban. In fact, this is an equation that will come into play when the US cops out of Afghanistan, leaving India and other countries in the lurch. Therefore, if India wants to stay relevant in Afghanistan and wants connectivity to Central Asian states, it will have to go through Iran.
On the flip side, closer strategic relationship with Iran could not only impinge on India’s relationship with the West (and Israel) but also with the Arab world, thereby once again confronting us with the difficult choice of balancing our interests between different contending and conflicting players. Perhaps this task would become easier if India was able to clearly articulate its core and critical interests and was willing and ready to pay a price for protecting them. Only after such an exercise is carried out will India be in a position to decide whether it needs to stick with Iran (notwithstanding the sticky bombs) or make a reappraisal of its relations with Iran.
One thing which India cannot and should not ever allow is for it to become a proxy battlefield for other countries. India needs to keep the experience of Pakistan before it to understand the dangers of turning a blind eye to hostile and inimical actions by other countries against each other on Indian soil. For the sake of Dollars and Dinars, Riyals and Rupees, the Pakistanis from the late 1970’s let the Americans, Saudis, Iranians, Kuwaitis, Libyans and even Iraqis fight their dirty wars and raise sectarian militias to settle their scores on the cheap with Pakistani lives on Pakistani soil. The result: Pakistan is today teetering on the verge of becoming a failed state.
All this is not to suggest, much less blame, Iran for the attack on the Israeli diplomat. India can take a position on this attack only after investigations are complete and, until then, subscribing to the allegations and accusations being hurled by Iran and Israel against each other would be a mistake best avoided. The Israelis have of course reacted pretty much as Indians react – they blamed Iran, just as we in India instinctively, and more often than not correctly, pin the blame on Pakistan, their proxies, their agents, militias and what have you. But India cannot take any diplomatic action against Iran merely on the basis of accusations. And even if these accusations are proved, India will have to calibrate its actions against Iran to avoid a complete breakdown in relations. In other words, while India will have to give a strong diplomatic riposte, this will probably be limited in the first instance to declaring a few diplomats persona non grata and warning Iran against any repeat of such action.
At the same time, India cannot prejudge that Iran was responsible for the attack. It is entirely possible that this attack was carried out by terrorist groups that operate with impunity and immunity in our not so friendly neighbouring country. India also has its own share of crazies, some inspired and funded by our neighbour, others with links with international terror groups in the Middle East. The possibility that this was a ‘false flag’ attack also cannot be ruled out, though it must be said that there are hardly any instances of such attacks being carried out against own citizens. More importantly, merely because one considers the possibility of a ‘false flag’ attack, it should not offer an opportunity to jaundiced minds to blame the victim for the attack, something our Western neighbour is very adept at and which the Iranians have already started doing.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigations, India now needs to start the all important exercise of defining its interests that it considers ‘eternal and permanent’ and the moral redlines that will guide the pursuit of these interests. In the context of Iran, India will have to decide that if push comes to shove how far it will be willing to go in supporting Iran. This means that India will have to weigh its $ 14 billion trade with Iran against its $ 50 billion trade with the US and equally big amounts of trade with Europe and the Arab world. India will also have to take a call on whether the pivotal position of Iran for reaching Afghanistan and Central Asia outweighs the benefits India derives from its relationship with the West and the Arab world. After all, given its geographical and other limitations, how much can India use Iran to play a critical role in post-US Afghanistan? And is Afghanistan so important for us that we will put all our other relationships on the line for it? These are hard but unavoidable choices that India might well have to make, sooner rather than later. At the same time, while making these choices, India will have to factor in the fallout that these choices will inevitably entail. Unless this is done, India will flounder badly in regional and global politics which is increasingly in a state of great flux.