Israel and its supporters in the West are agitated by India’s engagement with Iran, a country they regard as an irredeemable rogue state. Washington's decision to exempt India from financial sanctions on Iranian oil imports, just over a week ago, means that New Delhi continues to have a significant trading relationship with Tehran. But far from being an obstacle to peace, India’s friendship with Tehran can benefit Israel – and avert a war. Here’s how.
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For over four decades, India and Israel, two of Asia’s most resilient democracies, found themselves on the opposing sides of every debate. Eager to placate Arab opinion in its contest against Islamic Pakistan, India refused to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992. Israeli diplomats considered Mumbai, where they had a tiny consulate, “the loneliest post in the world”. India had no presence in Israel at all. The 35,000 or so Israelis of Indian origin were forced to obtain visas to travel to India through third countries.
Astonishingly, not only were Israelis unmindful of India’s shabby treatment of them – they conducted themselves as New Delhi’s allies whenever India got into trouble. In 1962, when Mao’s China waged war against India, Israel offered clandestine support to India. This trend continued through India’s wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. But it was only after the 1999 conflict with Pakistan over Kargil that India openly acknowledged Israel’s support.
Today, India is Israel’s closest eastern ally and its largest arms market. Annual non-military trade between the two countries exceeds $4.5bn. Israel’s tenacity in dealing with its adversaries has many admirers in India. A survey by the Israeli foreign ministry in 2009 found India – once a bastion of anti-Israeli sentiment – to be the most pro-Israeli country on earth, well above the United States.
Israel has a tremendous fund of goodwill in India. And India arguably has more leverage with Tehran than all the powers presently gathered in Moscow. Yet Israel chooses to mediate with Iran through Europe’s decaying powers, players that Tehran is adept at hoodwinking, while delegating the task of influencing Indian policy on Tehran to the United States.
This approach is bound to fail for two reasons. First, after having armed, financed and indulged Pakistan for five decades, Washington’s lectures on global responsibility sound risible to Indian ears. Second, despite its recent alignment with the West, India is fiercely protective of its independence – and nothing irks Indians more than being told what to do. As the Indian author MJ Akbar once wrote, “Indians do not make good stenographers. They simply do not like taking dictation”.
But where American advances yield resentment, Israeli appeals can generate genuine sympathy. Indians can readily identify with a fellow democracy that is a victim of terrorism and fears nuclear annihilation at the hands of a neighbouring theocracy devoted to its destruction. Besides, India has a personal interest in keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran’s reach. A successful launch by Iran will prompt other powers to go nuclear. Saudi Arabia will almost certainly buy an off-the-shelf bomb from Pakistan. The current turmoil in West Asia makes it impossible to predict the nature of the regimes that lie ahead. A deeply unstable region with multiplying nuclear states threatens India’s future as severely as it does Israel’s. This is the case Israel must make to New Delhi.
Israel must remain mindful of the fact that though India may share its fears, it cannot and will not support military action against Iran, a country with which India shares strong civilizational bonds. (Iran to many Indians is roughly what England is to Americans: the source of high culture, language and religion.)
But New Delhi has enough leverage with Tehran to effect an honest negotiation. India has gone out of its way to protect Iran’s reputation after Iranian agents carried out a terrorist attack against Israeli diplomats stationed in New Delhi. Critics of Iran balk at the idea of further talks. It is difficult to fault their stance because, as they rightly point out, Tehran has often used negotiations to buy more time for its weapons programme.
Still, the spectrum of ideas in dealing with Iran cannot be stuck between sanctions and strikes. The results of Israel relying wholly on its traditional Western allies in its effort to stem Iran’s march are plain to see, and disappointing to say the least. Israel must now start conscripting new friends to take its cause forward. At the very least, India can be a more effective peace broker than the EU. Israelis display an almost inexplicable reluctance to push India to do anything. But it’s time they realised that, as India’s reliable friends, they have earned the right to demand assistance.
Kapil Komireddi is an Indian writer.