When, on January 29th 2021, a small IED device went off outside the Israeli embassy in Delhi's high-security diplomatic zone, it brought back memories of the 2012 car bomb that injured Tal Yehoshua-Koren, wife of the Israeli defense attache to India. On March 26th, a missile targeted an Israeli ship en route to India, in the Arabian Sea.
The common denominator in all these attacks? Evidence implicating Iran.
In 2012, Indian security agencies unearthed phone records and money transfers indicating the role of three Iranians and an Indian journalist; the Indian police report later concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps planned the attack. The ongoing investigation into the two recent attacks has hinted at Iran and the IRGC’s role, without yet publicly confirming it.
Nevertheless, these alarming developments strongly suggest that Israeli individuals and installations will continue to face major security threats from Iran on Indian soil.
Iranian intelligence and hit squads have targeted Israelis, Israeli establishments and Jewish communities across the globe, but India never expected to become a serial location for Tehran’s surveillance and attacks.
India's security establishment has always tried to balance its growing strategic ties with the West and Israel and its historic-cultural and economic ties with Iran, and believed this would confer some form of immunity.
India has voted against Iran's nuclear program three times at the International Atomic Energy Agency, but it disapproved of U.S. sanctions, and continued to buy Iranian oil. Delhi also feels that the West employs double standards on terrorism: sympathy for Pakistan and an overly harsh attitude towards Iran.
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In return, India expected Iran to make favorable gestures on the Kashmir issue, and to keep its rivalry with Israel and the U.S. off Indian soil.
However, the 2012 attack brought Iran's Middle East wars to India. Initially, India underplayed Iran’s role, to avoid a public confrontation with Tehran, but mounting evidence left little scope to turn a blind eye. Even after the recent attacks, one could again witness Delhi's reservations in naming Iran.
One could argue that Delhi’s diffidence arises from not realizing the gravity of the situation, or doesn’t want to acknowledge the unsustainability of its previous "see no evil" stance on Tehran’s activities within its borders. But what is clear is that Iran is increasingly perturbed by India's growing strategic partnership with the U.S. and Israel, particularly with the defense ties between India and Israel, and wants to send a warning.
Since Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP government won the 2014 elections, India's West Asian policy has undergone a paradigm shift. India shed its characteristic diffidence and openly embraced Israel. Over the last seven years, India's strategic, defense, and cultural ties with Israel have grown exponentially, deeply unnerving Islamist groups in India and their transnational sponsors: Iran, Turkey and Pakistan.
In response, Iran has shed its previous inhibitions in asserting antagonism towards India. Iran openly condemned India for its treatment of Muslims after the abrogation of Kashmir's special status and the Delhi riots. In Kashmir, Iran's regime has made massive inroads among the Shia community over the last two decades, resulting in their radicalization and drift towards separatism.
Kashmir's Shias have traditionally stayed loyal to India because of Sunni extremists' dominance in the separatist movement. However, during a recent field visit, I interviewed many Shia clerics in Kashmir who told me that Iranian leaders now insist they cooperate with the anti-India Sunni hardliners. One expression of this is the escalating anti-India sloganeering in Shia Muharram processions over the last three years.
Further, they said Iran-backed Shia clerics are importing Iran's martyr culture to Kashmir, glorifying fallen terrorists like Burhan Wani as religious martyrs in the same mold as Iranian transnational ‘revolutionary’ figures like Mostapha Chamran, who helped found Lebanon’s Amal movement, and Qassem Suleimani, head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, assassinated last year in Iraq.
Despite the shriller tone from Tehran, India is still reluctant to relinquish its ties with Iran. There are substantial reasons for Modi’s government to stay on the fence, from ensuring essential energy supplies (10 percent of its oil imports come from Iran) to the value India puts on historical and cultural ties to the desire not to alienate the BJP’s many Shia voters.
Even so, emerging geopolitical dynamics mean Delhi is unlikely to continue its delicate balancing act.
Iran has already entered into a 25-year strategic partnership with China, India's number one adversary, whereas India is a critical pillar of the Quad, the contra-China grouping, which will, sooner or later, acquire a military dimension. While an informal, but formidable, anti-India and anti-West, alliance between China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and Turkey is emerging, Delhi has almost decisively thrown its lot with the Arab-Israel camp.
In Kashmir's popular separatist and jihadist discourse, India, Israel, and the U.S. are considered an evil trifecta and enemy of Islam. But there is a particular, and cross-denominational, hostility towards Israel.
India’s Pakistan-backed Sunni and Iran-backed Shia extremists find common ground, and tactical cooperation, in a pathological hatred for Israel, which overflows into violence towards Jews in general.
It was unsurprising that, during the 26/11 mass terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, the Pakistan-sponsored Sunni terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba chose a Chabad House as one of its prime targets. Security sources note that Iranian sympathizers enlisted sleeper cells from Lashkar-e-Taiba to commit the 2012 attack. Other transnational terrorist groups, such as the regional affiliates of ISIS and of Al-Qaida and their local cohorts like the Popular Front of India also pose a major threat to Israel.
The nascent India-Pakistan peace process, brokered by the UAE, Israel's friend and a critical player in the Abraham Accords, has raised hopes for a lasting peace in South Asia. However, it is premature to expect much more than a tactical respite, allowing Pakistan to salvage its economy (while preserving its terror infrastructure) and India to keep its western borders quiet, especially when China is disturbing the peace to the north.
Iran thus poses a concrete threat to Israeli interests in India. It is likely to exploit its robust intelligence footprint but utilize proxies to attack Israeli targets, from consulates to cultural centers, passenger flights to maritime cargo. Thanks to India’s lax and inadequate security structures, its poor intelligence mechanisms and unskilled police personnel, Israeli visitors, especially in destinations outside the major cities, are significantly vulnerable.
And while Iran wants to send a message through sabotage, if not injuries or deaths, it will be keen to employ smokescreens shielding its direct involvement and complicating law enforcement efforts, orchestrating attacks but with local or Pakistani-sponsored Sunni extremist groups taking responsibility.
As Iran’s uneasiness with India’s entrenched relations with Israel rises, so does the risk of further attacks. After the 2012 attack, former Indian Foreign minister Kanwal Sibal declared that Delhi was signalling to Iran: "Do not use India as a battleground for your problems with Israel."
But India’s lack of a convincing response to Iran-sponsored terror means that deterrence failed; it has actually encouraged Tehran to think it can get away with attacks, on Indian soil, with little more than a slapped wrist. As a counter-terrorism expert commented after the 2021 attack, Iran’s "message was clear and the threat is real."
Abhinav Pandya is the author of "Radicalization in India: An Exploration," (Pentagon Press, 2019) and a forthcoming book on terror financing in Kashmir. He is the co-founder of the Usanas Foundation, an India-based geopolitics and security affairs think tank, and is a Public Affairs graduate from Cornell University. Twitter: @abhinavpandya