Page 1 of 2 India seeks 'velvet divorce' from Iran
By M K Bhadrakumar
Amid the rubble of the Middle East policy of the George W Bush-Ehud Olmert duo,
there has been a true success story. The United States and Israel have largely
succeeded in snatching India from the "other" side of the Middle Eastern
geopolitical divide. This became evident more than once in the past week.
On October 26, US forces based in Iraq attacked the Syrian border village of
Sukkaryiah. The attack triggered outrage regionally. Even the Arab League,
which has an ambivalent attitude toward Damascus, felt compelled to condemn
Washington. But Delhi looked away. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who paid a
five-day visit to India in June - the first visit by a Syrian head of state in
more than three decades - must be bemused why Delhi didn't say at least what
was so patently
obvious, namely, it is wrong to violate the territorial integrity of a
Only in June had an Indian spokesman claimed that Assad's visit "further
consolidated the excellent relations that exist between India and Syria and
identified new areas of bilateral cooperation".
This dichotomy in India's diplomacy with regard to the Muslim Middle East -
excellent photo opportunities not quite translating as official policy and
ultimately degenerating as publicity exercises in the competitive environment
of Indian politics - was again on display during the weekend visit to Tehran by
Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, from October 31 to November
Kashmir issue in focus
Mukherjee's visit was badly timed. Only a few weeks had passed since Delhi
hosted two visits by the Israeli and US army chiefs, Avi Mizrahi and George
Casey, to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in a clear policy departure
from past practice. The visits marked a quantum leap in US-Israel-India
security cooperation. It provoked some sharp comments in the official Iranian
media - about Delhi opening the door to Israeli and US involvement in the
"Kashmir problem" against the backdrop of the Islamic militancy in the
adjoining Pakistani tribal areas and in Afghanistan.
Just four days before Mukherjee arrived in Tehran, the Tehran Times newspaper,
which is credited with reflecting Iranian thinking, featured an article roundly
condemning the Indian stance on the Kashmir issue. Titled "The Black Day of
Kashmir - 61 years of pain", the article was ostensibly meant to coincide with
the anniversary of the Indian military intervention in Kashmir on October 27,
1947, which it called "one of the darkest chapters in the history of South
The article amounted to an unvarnished endorsement of the Pakistani point of
view. It said, "India continues to defy the world by denying Kashmiris their
inalienable right to determine their destiny ... The atmosphere of tension in
India-Pakistan relations has engendered instability and insecurity in South
Asia. The urgency of the situation and the need to resolve the dispute as soon
as possible cannot be over-emphasized ... The world's Muslims will always stand
by the Kashmiris until they succeed in their struggle to attain the right to
The lengthy article recalled Iran's "deep-rooted spiritual and cultural bonds
with the people of Kashmir" and went on to fondly underscore that in Tehran,
Kashmir is known as "Little Iran" - Kashmir-Iran-e-saghir.
Such rhetoric on the eve of a foreign minister-level visit from India hardly
served the purpose of a "curtain-raiser", except to warn Delhi in advance that
it cannot be business as usual in Iran-India relations and that the chill in
bilateral ties and the dissipation of mutual understanding must not be lightly
taken as a mere hiccup.
Simply put, if Delhi's intention was to project a semblance of normalcy in
India's relations with Iran and to create a favorable impact thereby on Muslim
opinion in India, Tehran decided it would not play ball.
Washington and Tel Aviv must be quietly chuckling. Up until some three years
ago, there was a constant refrain in India-Iran political exchanges - that
their relationship constituted a factor of peace and stability in the region.
But the mantra was completely lacking in the pronouncements of the two sides
during Mukherjee's visit. The two countries are drifting apart.
Indian naval deployment
Mukherjee candidly admitted that "in this changing context, we need to look at
India-Iran relations afresh". Indeed, that "context" is dramatically changing.
A fortnight before the visit, Delhi deployed for the first time ever a warship
in the Persian Gulf region, which will operate in close coordination with the
Western navies under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the
Mukherjee assertively said in Tehran, "India has a natural and abiding stake in
the safety and security of the sea lanes of communication from the Malacca
Strait to the Persian Gulf."
But Delhi didn't consult Tehran beforehand. Delhi instead approached Oman for
assistance in berthing facilities for its warship. Tehran, meanwhile, views the
Western naval deployments in the Persian Gulf with alarm. Last week, Iran's
Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi criticized the expansion of NATO to
the east and called on regional governments to "distance themselves from
competitive and hostile policies".
Tehran would have most certainly noted Delhi's decision to host a large-scale
naval exercise with the US along India's western coast in late October in which
the nuclear-powered American aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and US nuclear
submarines and frigates participated. Iran has since announced the opening of a
new naval base in the southern port of Jask in the eastern part of the Strait
of Hormuz. According to the chief of the Iranian navy, Admiral Habibollah
Sayari, "With this new naval base, a new line of defense was created in the
Persian Gulf. If necessary, we can prevent any enemy from entering the Persian
Gulf's strategic area."
Sayari announced that Iran proposed to build yet another naval base to
establish "an impenetrable line of defense at the entrance to the Sea of Oman".
He added, "If the enemy goes insane, we will drown them at the bottom of the
Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman before they reach the Strait of Hormuz and the
entrance to the Persian Gulf." Curiously, the Iranian announcement coincided
with the consultations of Indian National Security Advisor M K Narayanan in
Oman regrading an Indian proposal that the sultanate provide berthing
facilities for the Indian warship deployed in the region.
Though Mukherjee's visit to Tehran ended on Sunday, it has not yet been
revealed whether President Mahmud Ahmadinejad received him. A call on the
Iranian president - and, perhaps Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei - was customary
for visiting Indian foreign ministers in the halcyon days of the India-Iran
strategic partnership. In another sign of the change in the Iranian mood,
Tehran "downgraded" the Joint Economic Commission with India. Mottaki is no
longer its co-chairman, as is the practice with Iran's other major
interlocutors and partner countries.
Thus, a series of icebergs has been lately slicing through the hull of the
Titanic that used to be the grand old India-Iran "strategic partnership". A
disaster was waiting to happen ever since India voted against Iran at the
International Atomic Energy Agency three years ago following US President
George W Bush's entreaties with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Pipedream of energy cooperation
At the root of it lies unprecedented US-Israeli interference in India's Iran
policy. Such interference is nothing new since the early 1990s, when Delhi
established diplomatic relations with Israel. Delhi skillfully navigated the
relationship with Iran, despite the robust growth of ties with Israel on a
However, things began changing three to four years ago as Indian foreign policy
in the region began getting more "security-centric" and Israel was elevated as
a pivotal relationship. Today, in the