By Madhav Nalapat
19th Feb, 2012
The 13 February terror attack on an Israeli embassy vehicle in Delhi had surprised the Israelis, for although their diplomats were at high risk of a terror attack in several locations, India had till then been seen as a "medium risk" location. This too after the 26/11, 2008 attack by Lashkar-e-Toiba on Mumbai's Chabad House, and the martyring of a young Israeli couple there Till that killing, India had been considered a "low risk" location for Jews, including those from Israel.
Israel has good reason to worry about Iran. The Jewish state has in the recent past been judged to be responsible for the killing of five Iranian nuclear scientists, all by motorcycle-borne bombers and shooters. There are several anti-regime elements in Iran, ranging from leftists to disadvantaged minority groups such as Sunnis or the Kurds, and recruiting them for acts of violence on Iranian territory has not proved difficult for intelligence agencies of the many countries that are inimical to Iran. In this pantheon, Israel is joined by the US, much of the EU, as well as by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although the latter three have till now kept their antipathy private. No country, however, has done greater damage to Iran's international reputation than Israel, which has spread information and disinformation about the Islamic Republic across the world, most vigorously in the US and in parts of the EU. Following the 13 February 2012 incident, it is clear that Israel intends to make India too a priority in this "information war" against Tehran, although such a strategy carries with it risks not found in the US or the EU. For one, India has much closer civilisational contact with Iran than it does with Israel. Also, the country is home to more than 30 million Shias, a community that has been hostile to Israel since 1982, the year when Ariel Sharon assisted the Maronite Christian militias of Lebanon to go after the Shia, killing thousands and creating a backlash of anger against the Jewish state. Thus far, Israel is the only external country that is a target of Shia terror groups, a legacy of the Lebanese civil war. Near the world's only Jewish state, two large countries have Shia majorities, Iraq and Iran, while there are considerable Shia populations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as Shia majority in Bahrain. Policymakers in Israel are wary of the security risks that their country faces, and see in the collapse of the regime in Tehran their best chance of a peaceful future. Since the 2003 Iraq war, Israel has made regime change in Tehran a priority, an objective in which Tel Aviv has been joined by Washington and Brussels. Iran has retaliated mainly by backing (the Shia) Hezbollah and (the Sunni) Hamas in Lebanon and Palestine respectively.
Netanyahu has blamed Hezbollah and its sponsor, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, for the bomb plots in Tbilisi, Delhi and Bangkok. However, those tracking such developments say that this is unlikely. For one, the choice of countries does not make sense in the context of Iran's overall geopolitical interests. Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, about the only good friend of Iran in Europe, a country where Iranian citizens do not even need a visa to enter. The spas and beaches of Georgia are filled year-round by Iranian nationals, and it does not make sense for Tehran to have planned an attack on such a friendly country. Similarly, Iran has good relations with Thailand, a country where businesspersons and tourists from Iran operate freely and in profusion. As for India, now that the Peoples Republic of China is giving signs of responding to US-EU pressure to cut off ties with Iran by reducing its purchases of oil from that country, Delhi may emerge as the largest market for Iranian crude. The very fact that the incidents of 13 and 14 February took place in countries friendly to Iran (and which are under US-EU pressure to downgrade links) indicates that they were carried out by groups operating in the vicinity of Iran, who are opposed on sectarian grounds to the Islamic Republic. Such groups are already active against what they consider a proxy of Iran, which is the Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus, which is also Shia-dominated (in a Sunni-majority country), and they have been known to fund and to equip groups engaged in violent actions against the Syrian regime.
Although such sectarian vigilante groups (clustered in locations across West Asia) have — since the Libyan operation — mastered the technique of inserting weapons and money to insurgents, they have yet to develop a similar proficiency in carrying out terror attacks. Rather than the ferocious professionalism of Mossad or (the significantly lower level of lethality of) Hezbollah, the "signature" on the Tbilisi, Delhi and Bangkok blasts showed the amateurishness which fortunately resulted in a zero loss of life in the three incidents. Although Home Minister P. Chidambaram considers the Delhi bomber to be a "well-trained" professional terrorist, the fact is that this terror expert confused the left side of the vehicle he was targeting for the right, thereby botching the operation. More than skill, it is luck and the lack of an effective security perimeter around the Prime Minister's House that enabled the bomber to make good his escape. In Tbilisi, the explosive was placed so clumsily that it was discovered and defused, while the three Bangkok bombers resembled Keystone Cops in their comic efforts at doing harm to passers-by. Losing one's cool the way at least two of the three Bangkok bombers did is not a trait normally associated with Hezbollah, although to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his team, it hardly matters who committed the act, provided that Iran gets the blame for it. Those responsible for the Bangkok blasts at least seem to have used Iranian nationals, who even more conveniently had ID close at hand.
While the US is pushing India to downgrade ties with Tehran, it seems unconcerned about the fact that India has had to turn to Iran for transit rights into Central Asia precisely because Islamabad has blocked any Indian traffic to that destination through its own territory. Also, India needs Iranian oil to feed several of its refineries, and working out long-term arrangements with other suppliers is impossibility in the short term. Snapping off commercial ties with Iran would place India in the same bracket as the US and the EU, which are known to resile from deals whenever circumstances (or perceptions) change. Geopolitically, the biggest gainer from an Israeli attack on Iran would be Turkey, unless Tehran prevails in a militarised contest of wills. Countries with Sunni governments but with substantial Shia populations see a humiliation of Iran as being helpful in enabling them to continue on the same course, of denying a fair role in governance to the Shia. None of this has anything to do with India's national interest, which is based on neutrality in West Asian regional and sectarian conflicts. Those who demand of India that this country take sides, thereby placing its expatriate population at risk because of the tensions that such a bias would create, are wrong.
A one-time resident editor of the Times of India, Professor M. D. Nalapat is director of the School of Geopolitics of the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India.
Source: The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi