The recent attack on an Israeli diplomat’s car, in what is supposedly the most secure part of New Delhi, has raised questions as to whether India’s West Asia policy is sustainable. That policy has been fairly clear-cut till now. Israel is a major defence partner, and it co-operates closely with Indian security in counter-terrorism and technological matters. India has nuanced its stand with respect to the rights of the Palestinians from its earlier, post-colonial inflexibility; trade and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries have shown a consistent upward trend. The recent attack, in which the spouse of an Israeli official was injured, has had a destabilising effect because the Israeli government has said it was part of a co-ordinated effort by the Islamic Republic of Iran on its assets abroad. Two other attacks, in Georgia and Thailand, occurred on the same day; but Indian authorities have not yet backed up the Israeli claim.
India’s relations with Iran are strong, and – a couple of negative votes at the International Atomic Energy Agency apart – they have progressed independent of growing Western anger at that country’s perceived unwillingness to publicly renounce a quest for nuclear weapons. India has consistently said that Iran must honour its international non-proliferation agreements; but the Iranian government claims, with some justice, that it has the right to a civilian nuclear power programme. India imports 12 per cent of its crude oil from Iran. With fresh Western sanctions, Iran appears willing to receive payment for some of this in rupees, which means that the Iranian market could double or triple in importance as an export destination for Indian goods. For policy makers in the United States, however, this counts as blatant breaking of the sanctions they’ve cobbled together, and India is being accused of “enabling” Iran’s repressive and irrational regime. The claim is now common that India must choose between Iran and Israel.
This idea must be comprehensively rejected, and India must continue to pursue a foreign policy that is determined by its national interests. If it feels particularly under pressure from the United States now, it is because New Delhi’s foreign policy establishment has not grasped the essential fact that it needs to give the US something on issues of less moment to India in order to ensure that India’s actions on more important issues are respected. Support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s action against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, for example, would have helped spike any argument that India is an unreliable ally. As tensions ramp up in West Asia, however, India must view its increasing stakes there – in Israel, Iran and the Gulf – as levers, not as liabilities. Nobody wants a war that could cause immense loss of life, embolden radical Islamists and cause oil and gas prices to climb precipitously. It is worth noting, too, that neither Iran nor Israel has called on India to “choose” between them. Any revision of New Delhi’s approach will thus be hasty, unnecessary and counterproductive. Peace and trade in West Asia are India’s paramount strategic interests in the region, and India must actively seek both.