Iran’s very successful bid to be portrayed as the global bad boy has been puzzling — not to mention, frustrating — for the international community. It is especially so for ‘friendly’ States such as India, which has, for practical as well as historical reasons, sought to play down Iran’s tag as a ‘rogue State’.
On Wednesday, Tehran made things more difficult by showcasing its latest ability to load domestically produced 20% enriched nuclear fuel rods and by adding 3,000 centrifuges that will now enable it to enrich uranium faster. While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated that this move was aimed at upgrading Tehran’s civilian nuclear programme, coming at the thick of Iran’s escalating feud with Israel and the latter’s open accusation that Tehran was behind the attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi earlier this week, Iran’s gesture is as close to a red rag to a bull as it comes.
For India, this provides a unique problem. Israel has grown to become a close partner since the time of the NDA government in the late 90s when New Delhi overcame its shyness in the face of its ‘traditional’ support to ‘Muslim’ States in West Asia and sought out ties especially in defence and intelligence-sharing. This relationship has grown over the years under the UPA, 26/11 marking an important point in which common victims brought the two countries perceptibly closer. At the same time, India’s ties with Iran have crystallised more firmly than in the past, as New Delhi has increasingly depended on Tehran for oil imports and access to Afghanistan, the Iranian port of Chabahar still being India’s only entry point to that country. In other words, for India’s own interests, New Delhi needs to maintain ties with both Israel and Iran.
To be fair, despite Republican noises from Capitol Hill in Washington about New Delhi’s ‘fence-sitting’ on the issue of Iran, the Obama administration has been reticent to force India to ‘choose’ between Israel and Iran. In fact, Washington itself has shown restraint in adding fuel to Israel’s threats to ‘take out’ Iran’s nuclear installations ‘before it’s too late’.
Perhaps more importantly, New Delhi can take the cue from both Israel’s and Iran’s reaction to India’s parallel relationship between the two adversaries: both Tel Aviv and Tehran understand New Delhi’s preference to engage with both sides. And this is what New Delhi has done even in the aftermath of the Delhi attack on the Israeli diplomat. What it should do further is to keep a low but active profile in engaging with both countries, while being vocal about the need for both its ‘friends’ to show restraint, especially when it comes to using Indian territory as a ‘soft’ theatre of war.