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India and West Asian Political Tensions

S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 16, 2012

    Indian policy makers have always been wary of the security situation in the West Asian region, given the hard facts of the presence of a six million strong diaspora and their well-being, $40 billion remittances received from them, the region accounting for two-thirds of petroleum imports, large volumes of trade (total trade with GCC countries amounted to a whopping $119 billion in 2010-2011), being among the pertinent factors. However, political tensions in West Asia either related to the Israel-Palestine issue, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Iran-Iraq war, or the two Gulf Wars, while generating concerns/sympathies internally, and leading to the evacuation of large numbers of Indian citizens in crises situations, have not resulted in negative consequences for India’s internal security situation. The February 13, 2012 terrorist attack on an Israeli Embassy vehicle right in the middle of the power corridors of the nation’s capital seriously injuring the wife of the Defence Attache along with three other Indian citizens has for the first time brought the stark realities of the worsening political situation in West Asia home.

    In the aftermath of the Delhi attack, and similar such incidents in Tbilisi, Georgia (where another ‘magnetic’ bomb was detected by an Israeli Embassy staffer and subsequently defused) and in Bangkok (where a person holding an Iranian passport and allegedly making preparations to attack the Israeli Embassy was maimed in a bomb explosion) the following day, Israeli authorities have squarely placed the blame on Iran for these incidents. Prime Minister Netanyahu insisted that ‘Iran is behind these attacks; it is the largest exporter of terrorism in the world.’ President Shimon Peres charged that ‘the government of Iran today is the headquarters of terrorism, of hatred and of war, and will not spare any effort to attempt to kill and to destroy …’ The Iranian Foreign Ministry has rejected these charges, with its spokesperson stating that the accusations were part of a ‘propaganda war … made by the Zionist regime of Israel.’

    While investigations are in full swing, India has been careful in not ‘jumping the gun’ and hypothesising about the perpetrators. Home Minister P. Chidambaram stated that ‘at this stage it is premature to name any country’ and that the law of the land will take its course. However, special teams of Delhi Police constituted to investigate the incident are seriously pursuing the Israeli contentions, with reports noting that they are actively scrutinising the hotel records of Iranian tourists to the city in recent times. To conclusively prove (or disprove) that there is an Iranian hand behind the incident could however be difficult and contingent upon a host of factors including establishing the identity of the motorcycle-borne perpetrator, the source of the device, etc.

    Irrespective of whether the alleged Iranian hand is conclusively proved or disproved, the incident does bring to light a number of disturbing facts. These include the first such use of a ‘magnetic’ bomb in a terrorist attack in India, the possibility of dealing with Iranian-funded/trained ‘Shia-terrorism’ – not necessarily against Indian targets but against targets in India (though even this could change), the quality of Indian counter-terrorism mechanisms and of first response to such incidents, and greater complications in India’s bilateral relations with Iran, Israel and the US.

    India has been affected negatively by the Iranian nuclear imbroglio, with Indian companies and individuals at the receiving end of unilateral (primarily US) economic and non-proliferation sanctions as well as multi-lateral UNSC-mandated sanctions. Various Indian chemical companies and senior scientists working in major public sector corporations like the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) have been placed on US sanctions for varying periods of time between September 2004 to July 2008 for export of material that allegedly has dual-use applications and for alleged assistance to the Iranian nuclear programme. Indian importers of Iranian oil like Reliance had to stop their imports in April 2010 on account of the US Comprehensive Iran Sanctions and Divestment Act (CISADA) of January 2010. India is facing continuing problems in paying for the crude it buys from Iran since December 2010, when the Reserve Bank of India scrapped the Asian Clearing Union (ACU) mechanism on account of US pressure. The Iranian nuclear issue has of course created tensions in India-US bilateral relations and India-Israel ties, with both Washington and Tel Aviv not looking favourably upon New Delhi’s continuing economic and political engagement with Tehran. This, despite India voting thrice against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in September 2005, February 2006 and November 2009.

    While the above have been the concrete negative implications of the Iranian nuclear imbroglio for India, the February 13 incident, irrespective of whether the Israeli allegations are proved to be true or otherwise, shows that India has become one of the battlegrounds in the raging proxy war between Israel and Iran – as can be inferred from the charges and counter-charges traded by Israeli and Iranian officials. Incidents like those of February 13 could also lead to further calls to tone down the nature of cooperation that India has with both Iran and Israel - two countries with which India has important strategic ties - by those opposed to the bilateral ties that India shares with these counties. Given the importance with which ties with India are viewed in Israel (with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz stating in December 2011 that they were second only in importance to ties with the US), it would have been prudent for senior Israeli leaders not to have immediately accused Iran and Hezbollah for the incident in India in the absence of concrete proof.

    To be sure, Indian policy makers have been cognizant of complications arising out of the Iranian nuclear issue. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for instance highlighted the domestic concerns way back in February 2006 when he stated ‘what goes on in Iran, it does worry a significant proportion of our population’ and ‘creates some anxieties, particularly among the Muslim population of our country’. Other Indian policy considerations regarding the Iranian nuclear issue have been the implications for regional stability in view of the possible presence of another additional nuclear weapon power in India’s ‘proximate’ neighbourhood as well as national security considerations on account of operative clandestine proliferation networks and Iran-Pakistan nuclear linkages. The Iranian nuclear issue creating complications on India’s internal security front does however seem to be an unforeseen novelty.

    With Dr. Singh having accepted the September 2011 invitation from President Ahmadinejad to visit Tehran in ‘the near future’, prospects of the visit could be clouded by developments relating to the on-going investigations into the Delhi terrorist incident. There is a real danger that India’s West Asia policy, which has been largely successful in catering to India’s core national interests, could become hostage sooner than later to the rising political tensions involving the US, EU, Israel, and the GCC countries on account of the Iranian nuclear imbroglio. It remains to be seen if India can be strategically innovative in ensuring that ‘peace and stability and a climate of moderation in the [West Asian] region’ - in the words of Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on February 6, 2012 - are maintained or if the rapidly changing events on the ground will further constrict India’s strategic space.

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