Balancing in the Middle East: India's relations with Iran, Israel

  • Mirza Mohammed Ali Khan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 17, 2015 16:57 IST

With reports speculating a likely visit to Israel by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj this year and home minister Rajnath Singh having visited the country earlier in November 2014, bilateral relations between India and Israel have seen a flurry of activity after the new Narendra Modi-led government took power at the Centre.

The PM also met his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September, where the prospect of Modi visiting Israel was discussed.

Recent reports even suggested that India might consider changing its stance on Palestine at the United Nations. However, no further word on the issue has been forthcoming.

All these developments point to the fact that India is keen on developing bilateral relations with Israel, underlining its strategic importance for the country. Bilateral trade between India and Israel is reported to be about $6 billion. A free trade agreement that could further increase trade between the two countries is also being discussed.

As far as cooperation in defence is concerned, both nations face threats from terrorism and have signed agreements related to homeland security. India is Israel's largest buyer of defence equipment. "On a purely bilateral mode, unlike the UPA era, India will be more open, candid and unapologetic when dealing with Israel," PR Kumaraswamy, director, Gulf Studies Programme and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University's Centre for West Asian Studies told HT.

However, this spurt in relations between India and Israel has not produced any major changes in India's foreign policy yet, apart from reports about India's stance on Palestine. Even if this were to happen, it would be a largely symbolic move as India is not a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the organ that makes binding decisions.

In fact, India continues to build relations with Iran, a country that is not friendly with Israel. India's ties with Iran may have been caused hiccups in its relations with Israel, but with India's emergence as a growing economy, it can afford to do business with other nations on its own terms as well. The Modi-led government seems to have recognised and is making use of this fact, for example major investments from both China and Japan and the nuclear deal with Australia was closed despite the fact that India is a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"India's relations with Iran and its ties with Israel have remained exclusive," Kumaraswamy said. "Both relations will be largely independent, but with a couple of caveats. One, India will pursue the February 2012 terror attack against the Israeli embassy vehicle more actively and this would lead to some anxious moments for India-Iranian relations. Second, relations with Iran would be largely linked to the nuclear deal, especially when negotiations have been dragging. That would largely be a function of India-US and not India-Israeli relations."

As far as the India-US relations are concerned, we have had the highly talked about nuclear deal coming through with President Barack Obama just having visited India. It will be interesting to watch how things pan out, given this development. Iran has also indicated it is open to dialogue with the West, especially after Hassan Rouhani assumed power. Iran also has a major role to play in tackling the ISIS threat, and in addressing the issues that plague the Middle East. "US has understood that without Iran's support, you cannot stabilise the region," said Masood E Khalegi, Iranian consul general to India while addressing a business meet in Mumbai three days before Obama's visit. He also underlined that Iran is looking to expand trade ties with India, a sentiment that was echoed by Kavita Gupta, director general of foreign trade at the same event.

In October, the cabinet cleared India's investment plan to set up the Chabahar port in Iran. India stands to gain a lot from this development as the port could provide it with an important transit point to Afghanistan. It is also strategically located, just about 70 km from the China-Pakistan jointly developed Gwadar port. Earlier in December 2014, the Iranian ambassador to India, Gholamreza Ansari, met minister for steel and mines Narendra Singh Tomar and talked about strengthening trade ties between the two countries. Apart from this, if the West eases sanctions on Iran in the future based on the success of talks pertaining to its nuclear issue, India could further increase oil imports from the OPEC nation. "I don't see the Chabahar port as a factor in India's relations with Israel," Kumaraswamy said. "Unless there is some sort of military cooperation with Iran, Israel will not be concerned."

All this suggests that India seems to have got the balancing act right in furthering bilateral relations with both Iran and Israel simultaneously. Both the countries hold a lot of strategic importance for India, economically and geopolitically, and with both nations willing to do business it is up to India to take these relations even further.

(The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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