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India sticks with Iran, for now
By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent visit to India and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's present trip to Turkey have brought to light the complicated balancing act India is forced to play in its foreign policy. Israel, Turkey and, more important, the United States are all unhappy with India's close strategic ties with the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran. But if India has to continue to pursue its policy of encirclement of Pakistan, it needs to maintain close ties with Iran, Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries bordering Pakistan.

New Delhi has, therefore, made it clear to the Israeli leader, who raised the issue of Iran, that its ties with Tehran are non-negotiable. India could accommodate Israeli concerns on some issues, but not on its ties with Iran. India has not initiated anti-Israeli resolutions in the United Nations on the question of Palestine for several years, as it used to do during the Cold War era; Israeli leaders have noted this fact with satisfaction. But India could not completely abandon Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or support Israel's stated desire to eliminate him, even by killing him.

Similarly, India agreed not to pass Israeli defense technology on to Iran. Sharon was assured of this at the highest level. But India could not give up its strategic ties with that country, he was also told. This was in response to Sharon demanding from India what he called "reciprocity". He insisted that this must constitute the basis of Indo-Israeli ties. In return for the Phalcon radar system and sensitive intelligence reports on terrorism, for instance, Israel asked India to disavow anti-Israel resolutions in the UN and other multilateral bodies. More significant, it also asked India to be mindful of Israel's security concerns before developing even closer ties to Iran.

If Israel, with its superior military prowess, known nuclear capability and unquestioning support of the sole superpower is so wary of growing India-Iran ties, then the latter has even more reason to be wary of growing India-Israel ties. Since 1981, when Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, Iran, possibly with its own nuclear-weapon ambitions in mind, has been particularly fearful of a similar Israeli attack on its reactors. Israel has signed a treaty with Turkey that allows it to take advantage of its air bases. It has also developed relations with Azerbaijan. This has given Israel the possibility of coming closer to the Iranian borders, heightening security concerns in Tehran with regard to its northern and northwestern borders.

No wonder Iran is making all-out efforts to improve its air-defense capability against air raids by the Israeli air force. But after it had started breathing somewhat easily after testing its Shahab-3 missiles in July 2000, as these missiles can threaten Israel directly, it now finds itself surrounded by the chief Israeli patron, the United States, on both sides. In its perception, the predatory US imperialism on the rampage in the region represents an even greater danger than the Israeli presence.

Iran is thus bound to feel more concerned than ever. The difference in US attitude and behavior toward North Korea, suspected to have already developed a few nuclear weapons, and Iraq, which was known to have no nuclear capability, and perhaps also known to US and British intelligence to have no other weapons of mass destruction, could not have escaped the notice of the ruling clerics in Tehran. In this situation the development of an India-Israeli-US nexus cannot but heighten their worries. But apparently India has told them that its relationship with Israel and the United States, too, is equally non-negotiable.

India's close strategic ties with Iran worry other friends of India as well, as does its developing relationship with Israel. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is a Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalist country that spawned al-Qaeda. Though a US ally, it is no friend of Israel. It could not possibly be pleased with India coming closer to a Shi'ite fundamentalist country like Iran, which considers the Sunni Wahhabi Taliban to be Islamic deviants. During the Vajpayee visit to Iran a couple of years ago, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, in fact, made an entirely unsolicited reference to growing "terrorism, violence, rebellion and narcotics trafficking" in the then Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and added that he was "deeply regretful that such crimes are committed in the name of Islam".

He also condemned the destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan and regretted the misuse of Islam by the Taliban forces. This could not have been music to Saudi ears, but India managed to maintain its close relations with both countries.

Similarly, despite its closeness with Iran, forged first by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi with the Shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, in the 1970s, and renewed with the fundamentalist regime by then prime minister Narasimha Rao in early 1990s, India continued to maintain close ties with Iraq under Saddam Hussein. A secular dictatorship, Iraq was the only Muslim country to support India unhesitatingly on the question of Kashmir or in its war against Pakistan in 1971 for the struggle that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.

India is, of course, not the only country that has to walk a tightrope in maintaining friends with widely divergent and sometimes entirely contradictory or even hostile perspectives. Many countries, or perhaps all countries, do so at one time or other, in one case or another. This has particularly been the case since the end of Cold War. But India is faced with unique problems in maintaining its relations with Iran because this relationship does not only expose inconsistencies in its foreign policy, but also contradictions in its domestic political dynamics.

India's coalition government is led by the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP's mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and sister organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Forum) and Shiv Sena (Shivaji's Army) etc that constitute the extended family of Hindu fundamentalists called the Sangh Parivar abide by the Hindutva philosophy of "cultural nationalism", which looks at the world Muslim community as one nation.

Hindutva's cultural nationalism predates Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" theory by almost a century. The idea of a Muslim monolith is so deeply ingrained that even if they try to do so, Hindutva ideologues confess that they are unable to distinguish an Indian Muslim from a Pakistani or that of any other nationality. Then the term used for Muslims by top Hindutva politicians is invariably jihadi or terrorist. This is essential if an irrational fear of Muslims has to be instilled in the largely secular Hindu majority nurtured for millennia on the eclectic and large-hearted Hindu philosophy that never closed its doors on new ideas or religions.

Secularism is the foundation of the Indian constitution and its democratic system, but one can almost daily watch on television Hindutva leaders railing against the so-called secularists and reiterating their vow to root out secularism from the country. But this Hindutva vision of a terrorist Muslim monolith oppressing the world, including India, runs into a direct clash with India's mature conduct of its foreign policy aims based on its perception of its national interest and requirements of realpolitik. The BJP's Hindutva ideology, for instance, would demand that it go the whole hog with Israel and the United States in destroying Iran, the second destination, after Iraq, in President George W Bush's war against his "axis of evil".

A nuclear-powered Islamic fundamentalist country that supports terrorist organizations in Lebanon, Palestine and Pakistan would be a greater danger to the world and should obviously be stopped before it acquires nuclear weapons. A Muslim Turkey run by an Islamic party - in all but name - might help Israel and the US encircle and destroy Iran, or at least its nuclear reactors when the time comes, which may be sooner rather than later. Yet an India run by Hindutva ideologues is maintaining ever-growing close strategic ties with that country and considers its relations non-negotiable. And this at a time when even the majority of Iranian people want to get rid of Islamic fundamentalists and go back to secular democratic governance denied to them by the greatest proponent of democracy in the world, the United States, which overthrew the democratically elected Mossadeq government in 1953 and installed a king.

A Hindutva-run India has also no problem in maintaining close relations with Saudi Arabia, another fountain of Islamic fundamentalism. This, of course, is demanded by India's national interests, as perceived by nearly all political parties. India's Iran policy, too, has bipartisan support. In fact most of the initiatives of Indian foreign policy as it exists today were embarked on by the secular Congress party now in opposition and by and large followed by socialist and communist parties that had influence in the central government before the BJP came to power.

This is deeply embarrassing for the Hindutva politicians. But they cannot run a foreign policy as dictated by the situation India finds itself in today if they treat the Muslim ummah (world Muslim community) as one terrorist monolith. They were pleasantly surprised last year when, after the large-scale massacres of Muslims in Gujarat, in which the BJP state government was directly implicated, the only countries that did not criticize India were Muslim. While the Christian West spoke up and denounced the government in no uncertain terms, asking it to provide justice to the thousands of victims and rehabilitate the millions of uprooted, the world Muslim community remained silent.

As pre-election communal cleansing of minorities constitutes an essential part of election strategies of ruling parties - the main opposition Congress party, too, thought so while it ruled, but seems to disagree now - and as the BJP moves inexorably in this direction in the election year ahead, it can only count on the support of Muslim countries and Israel: the rest of the world will denounce another communal conflagration in equally severe terms if the number of killed again starts going beyond a thousand, the benchmark the West seems to follow in such situations.

The BJP still recalls with gratitude the response of the Muslim world, particularly Iran, to the demolition of the 16th-century Babri mosque in December 1992, a joint Congress-BJP operation conducted by a Congress-run central government and a BJP-controlled Uttar Pradesh (UP) state government. While the country was still nursing the wounds inflicted by the demolition and the widespread massacres that had followed, the then Iranian president Rafsanjani visited UP's capital city Lucknow and declared that he had full faith in India's secularism and the ability of its constitutional system to safeguard its Muslims.

It goes to the credit of Hindutva leaders that they did not allow their ideological proclivities to cloud their vision and have pursued a foreign policy that by and large has near-unanimous support from the entire political spectrum. Despite Pakistani pretensions of leading the Muslim world, India has maintained and further developed close ties with almost all Muslim countries, while remaining firm on its stance on Kashmir and Pakistan. This is no mean achievement and the credit should go to Vajpayee, who succeeded in doing this in a very difficult situation. He obviously learned well the lessons of his first stint as minister in 1977-79 when he handled the external affairs portfolio with great aplomb.

But this complicated and fascinating balancing act that is the conduct of Indian foreign policy is soon going to get even more complex. That Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons is not proved yet, but apparently UN inspectors suspect it. They have found hidden reserves of enriched uranium at Iran's gas-centrifuge project at Natanz, being ostensibly developed as a civilian nuclear power plant. Since the declared intent for Natanz' single-centrifuge "test stands" was to optimize centrifuge designs, which normally involves the enrichment of trace amounts of uranium, the question is naturally being asked: where did the extra radioactive material come from? The Iranian explanation that the damning uranium probably found its way to the site "inadvertently" from an overseas supplier has only swung the needle of suspicion still more its way.

Iran knows, as does the world, that its survival as an independent country depends on how fast it develops nuclear weapons. Right now may be the best time. The United States is stuck in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, on both sides of its borders, unable to move to invade and occupy, as Iran justly fears. Even if Iran agrees to all of the nuclear watchdogs' conditions - by October 31 - it would still not stop the country from trashing the Non-Proliferation Treaty at some point and going ahead with its weapon-building project, if it indeed has one. So, to take the worst-case scenario, or the best case, depending on which side of the fence you are, Iran could have a nuclear weapon or two ready within a year.

It is inconceivable that Israel would allow this to happen. It may not have much time left to engage in an Osirak-like attack against Iranian nuclear reactors. But will Iran use its Shahab-3 missiles then to rain mayhem and destruction on Israel? And will the United States then wait for further proof of Iranian "evil" to march next door from its sanctuaries in Iraq and Afghanistan? India must be ready with its response to such not very unlikely scenarios.

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