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A friend of enemies

The Israelis aren't so impractical to believe that India, by dint of its strengthening ties with Israel, will change its ties with Iran, writes Chanakya.

india Updated: Feb 18, 2012 21:41 IST
Hindustan Times

There’s something quite disarming about the fact that when you call the Iranian embassy in Delhi, the music that plays over the phone when you’re kept on hold is Mozart’s ‘A Little Night Music’. There’s nothing musical, however, about the no-holds-barred scrap being conducted between Iran and Israel these days. Normally, such acrimonious fights take place far away — either in the Middle East, which we mentally push farther away by calling it ‘West Asia’, or in the more visible NYT-CNN climes of Washington. As a result, here in India we usually find such news tucked away in the notoriously abrid-ged world pages of our newspapers, or we follow them in Time or Newsweek whenever we feel like reminding ourselves that there is life outside Delhi, UP....

But with the assassination attempt on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi last week, West Asia jumped to Page 1. Suddenly, we have folks who aren't the usual Indian foreign policy wonks wondering whe-ther New Delhi would, should or could get roped in to playing an unwilling part in an international affair. India’s happy status of being able to keep its relations with Iran and Israel, two countries constantly at each other’s throat, intact wobbled last week. Two enemy States fighting it out in our living room is the last thing New Delhi wanted — or expected — especially since India's ties with both Israel and Iran have been unaffected by what goes on in their part of town.

With Israel insisting that the attack on one of their diplomats was the handiwork of Iran, suddenly India finds itself being a possible player in a West Asian cloak-and-dagger-and-sticky bomb tragedy. But has the attack really disrupted New Delhi’s practised tightrope walk (known in critical circles as ‘fencesitting’)?

I spoke to an Israeli official asking him what Jerusalem really expe-cted New Delhi to do in the aftermath of the attack on one of his colleagues. The Israelis, it seems, aren’t so imp-ractical to believe that India, by dint of its strengthening ties with Israel, will now change its ties with Iran.

But the official pointed out the intrinsic asymmetry in India’s relations with Israel and Iran. “The kind of intelligence-sharing between Jerus-alem and New Delhi related to security and terrorism makes this a growing relationship,” he tells me. Apart from India’s defence-related purchases from Israel, this aspect of increased cooperation on the security front — especially after 26/11, which also saw Israelis being targeted in Mumbai — makes any possibility of New Delhi returning to its traditional Cold War-era ‘non-aligned’ position impractical if not impossible.

But no one should expect Iran to be impractical about the growing chumminess of New Delhi and Jerusalem either. Speaking to a Delhi-based Iranian official, it was clear to me that Tehran trusts India not to overtly accuse Iran of conducting last Monday's attack on the Israeli diplomat in Delhi. “The Indian authorities will, we’re sure, conduct a fair and objective investigation into the incident,” he told me earnestly. As for any discomfort regarding New Delhi’s growing closeness to Israel, the official assured me that Tehran isn’t naive. “What a sovereign country chooses to do with another country is its business. That is no concern for Iran.”

Investigations may indeed prove the involvement of Iranian operators in Monday’s incident in New Delhi. Or they may not. For Israel, the attack — along with other foiled attempts in Georgia, Azerbaijan and perhaps Thailand — may be the ‘smoking gun’ that pinpoints Iranian culpability. But for New Delhi, however worried it may be that a ‘friendly’ State may have been brash enough to conduct an act of covert war against its enemy on Indian terrain, more evidence will be needed to prove that it needs to talk firmly with Iran. I would imagine foreign ministry officials keeping their fingers crossed in the hope that investigations into the New Delhi attack being conducted jointly with Israeli teams don’t throw up anything concrete. That would, in effect, force the-ir hand to throw out a few diplomats of a country with which it conducts business in oil and whose territory it uses as the only viable entry point to Afghanistan. Remember that in the face of the recent assassinati-ons of Iranian nuclear scientists, India kept mum. Any concrete proof of Israeli involvement in those killings would have created an equally tricky situation for New Delhi.

So what does India do in the face of a new chapter of the Iran-Israel battle opening in town? As far as I can see, it should see to it that the matter reg-arding the attack on the Israeli diplomat is closed qui-ckly, ensure that such attacks don’t recur on Indian soil and essentially keep a low profile as it pursues and strengthens its ties with both Israel and Iran without making too much of a show. In other words, India should continue to serve its own national interests.

First Published: Feb 18, 2012 21:37 IST