India Becomes New Battlefield for Israel and Iran

India, a rising world power, enjoys good relations with both Israel and Iran – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by either country, and has turned it into a new stage for competition between the Middle Eastern rivals

Saudamini Jain
Saudamini Jain
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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month. Credit: Haim Zach / GPO
Saudamini Jain
Saudamini Jain

A few days after arriving in New Delhi last month, Israel’s new ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, called Iran “the biggest destabilizer” in the Middle East.

Gilon’s comment came during his inaugural press conference, in response to a question on the road map for the “new quad” – a term being used in India to describe the recently formed grouping of the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and India. Foreign ministers of the four countries held their first ever meeting last month to set up a new joint working group focused largely on economic issues, and plan to meet again in Dubai in the coming weeks.

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The ambassador told the assembled Indian media that Israel had been very clear on its view of Iran. He added that India had spoken about its own interests, but that “many of the evaluations of what’s happening are similar.”

The remark sparked a very public spat between Gilon, the Iranian Embassy in India and the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Alon Ushpiz. In a statement, the embassy called Gilon’s comments “the childish remarks” of an “evil-minded Zionist envoy,” and Israel a “terror house” and a “selfish and bloodthirsty regime.”

Gilon in return thanked them: “When at 57 someone calls me ‘childish’ and ‘adventurous,’ I take it as a compliment,” he tweeted, signing off with “Yours proudly the ‘evil minded Zionist envoy.’”

Ushpiz, a former ambassador to India, tweeted about a 2012 explosion outside the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi when “an ‘evil-minded’ Iranian death squad attempted to assassinate one of our diplomats.” The Iranians responded by calling Tehran “a great hero in fighting against international terrorism,” and asked Gilon “to end using the said childish tactics.” Then the row ended.

But this is not the first time New Delhi has served as a battleground for the Iran-Israel conflict. Last January, a small explosion near the Israeli Embassy in the capital was attributed to Iran. The 2012 explosion Ushpiz referred to occurred in the same area and wounded four people, including an Israeli diplomat.

India, however, has invested a large part of its Middle East diplomatic efforts in not taking sides, says Kabir Taneja, a fellow at New Delhi-based think tank the Observer Research Foundation. “New Delhi sent fairly strong messaging to Tehran and Tel Aviv [after the explosion in 2012] that this kind of activity on Indian soil will be detrimental, in one way or another, to its relationship with both countries. And the same kind of communication was given [in January] also,” he says.

Since establishing full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, India has successfully compartmentalized its very visible and high-level ties with both Israel and Iran – with whom it formalized diplomatic ties in 1950, soon after Indian independence.

“Israel has always pushed India to distance itself from Iran. And not just distance but to call [out] Iran for sponsoring terrorism in the Middle East,” Taneja says. “But this kind of public call out [by Gilon], I think, is a first … I’m a little perplexed as to why India would be dragged into this. No country, like India, would want this to happen on their own soil, because then you’re being dragged into something you’re not involved in,” he adds.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeting then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New Delhi back in 2018.#Credit: Avi Oyahon / GPO

Irking Iran

Gilon’s statement gives credence to a growing perception in India that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is strengthening its ties with Israel to the detriment of its historically rooted partnership with Iran, though Taneja isn’t convinced that is the case.

“I don’t think that’s true,” he says, explaining that the narrative is often played up due to a growing affinity for Israel in certain parts of the public discourse. He says Israel is viewed as “being very result-oriented when it comes to counterterrorism. And the second is, of course, ideologically oriented.”

India imports 13 percent of its arms from Israel, its third largest supplier after Russia and France, according to the 2020 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report. India is also Israel’s largest arms client, accounting for a reported 43 percent of its exports from 2015 to 2020 according to the institute. The two countries’ bilateral annual trade (excluding defense) was $4.14 billion last year, up from $200 million in 1992, and they hope to finalize a free trade agreement by next June.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi waving to supporters, in front of an image of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei earlier this year. Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

In the last several months, India’s foreign minister and military chiefs have visited Israel, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett plans to visit India next year. Earlier this month, at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, he met Modi for the first time and called him “the most popular person in Israel,” jokingly adding: “Come and join my party.”

In the past, India’s closeness with Israel – particularly the personal rapport between Modi and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – seemed to irk Iran. Sumitha Narayanan Kutty, Leverhulme fellow at King’s College London, points to what happened when Modi visited Israel in July 2017, which was a first by a sitting Indian prime minister.

The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had raised the issue of Kashmir before – in 2010, he had called India “a Zionist regime” for its policy over the disputed region – but these instances were few and far between. However, when Modi visited Israel, Khamenei mentioned Kashmir twice in two weeks, Kutty notes.

Neither Israel nor the UAE have deeply impacted India’s relations with Iran. However, the Tehran-Delhi relationship became more turbulent after the United States imposed new sanctions on the Iranians in 2019. India had been the second largest importer of Iranian crude oil, which made up 10 percent of India’s energy imports at the time, but those dropped to zero after the sanctions were enacted. Bilateral trade between India and Iran, which had previously exceeded $17 billion, suddenly fell to $3.5 billion, with Iran currently buying five times as much as it is exporting to India.

“There was a feeling of disappointment in Iran that India hadn’t done more to defy those sanctions,” says Aryaman Bhatnagar, a foreign policy analyst in New Delhi. Although the Indian government got waivers and claimed to have strategic autonomy, he says, it found it difficult to manage its contrasting approaches to the United States and Iran.

Bhatnagar believes that “India is tilting more toward Israel and the Gulf states, because there’s so much more to gain from them than from Iran at this point in time. Iran can’t invest in India. India can import oil from the Gulf countries. Security cooperation is much stronger with Israel. The diaspora is not as strong in Iran as it is in the Gulf Arab countries.”

Yet despite those reasons, he thinks India “is likely to strive as hard as possible to maintain a balance.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting then-IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and then-President Reuven Rivlin in 2017.Credit: Mark Neiman / GPO

Golden gateway

One potential reason for that lies to the northwest of India. In the lead-up to the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Tehran twice this summer and met Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, to discuss collaborative engagement about the country on Iran’s northern border.

Afghanistan, Bhatnagar explains, has been a major avenue for cooperation between India and Iran. The two worked together to develop the Chabahar port, situated in southeastern Iran on the Gulf of Oman, not far from the Afghan border. India considers the port a “golden gateway” to bypass Pakistan and enhance trade with Afghanistan, Central Asian and East European countries. “But as things have panned out in Afghanistan, over the past few months it has become limited as an avenue for collaboration,” he says.

Since the Taliban controls key border checkpoints and cargo routes, Afghanistan becomes an “impediment to existing cooperation – particularly their efforts to improve regional connectivity and trade through the Chabahar port,” Kutty says. India and Iran’s discussions on Afghanistan are critical, she adds – a view echoed by Taneja, who calls Iran an absolutely critical player in Afghanistan.

Kutty says that while “this cooperation does not directly impact Indian-Israeli interests,” it shows how India has reoriented its foreign policy toward the Middle East – no longer a balancing act but based on its strategic interests. “India no longer attempts to please everyone all the time – or equally – marking an important distinction in how it engages with these countries,” she says.

Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem last month.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

“India’s relations with Israel or the UAE made such good progress precisely because none of these countries want to be dictated to by another,” Kutty observes. “It is important to recognize that neither the UAE, Israel or Iran have, as yet, directly placed India in the difficult position of choosing one over the other,” she adds.

And if one does demand that? “I don’t see that happening,” Bhatnagar says. “None of the countries have the clout to pressure India into doing something like that.”

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