Any escalation of Iran-Israel confrontation is dangerous for India

The crisis requires a serious and differing Indian approach towards Iran; while the Ministry of External Affairs should continue to focus on diplomatic engagements and opportunities, the Ministry of Defence will have to formulate policies to counter missile threats from Iran and allies, especially to the Indian mainland.
Last Updated : 26 April 2024, 23:52 IST
Last Updated : 26 April 2024, 23:52 IST

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Though both countries have settled for not escalating the conflict, the simmering tension over the spectacular Iranian missile attack on Israel on 13 April is far from over and is causing greater uncertainty and anxiety across the Middle East and beyond. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already beleaguered by the ongoing Gaza War, was compelled to respond; but under international pressure, especially from the Biden Administration, he was content with a retaliatory attack on the Iranian air defence system in Isfahan. If Iran successfully dragged its proxies, Israel benefitted from the military involvement of the US, Britain, France and Jordan in countering the missile attack. Thus, the Iran-Israel confrontation is no longer bilateral. How does this unfolding drama could affect and threaten India?

One, Iran has demonstrated its military-technical skills in reaching over-the-horizon targets. Despite their differing cruising speeds, the drones, cruise, and ballistic missiles launched by Iran and its proxies reached Israel almost around the same time. This requires considerable planning, precision, and synchronized launches. Much of these military capabilities and advancement have been achieved by Iran indigenously and despite the four-decade-old American sanctions of various types.

India has to recognise, admire and prepare for Iran’s expanding regional military presence and capabilities. The world has not yet seen a unidirectional weapon system. Iranian drones and missiles can also fly eastwards, and several strategic assets of India are now within striking range of Iran and its allies. State policies are never rooted in intentions but in the capabilities of the other. The crisis requires a serious and differing Indian approach towards Iran; while the Ministry of External Affairs should continue to focus on diplomatic engagements and opportunities, the Ministry of Defence will have to formulate policies to counter missile threats from Iran and allies, especially to the Indian mainland.

Two, since its founding, the militant Shia Lebanese group Hizballah has been the prime proxy through which Iran has been carrying out its ambitions in the region. Over time, the Iranian proxies have expanded, and their lethal range has increased. Now, its formidable proxy forces include Houthis in Yemen and the Popular Mobilisation Force (al-hashd ash-shabi) in Iraq. In addition, Iranian influence also extends to Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That Iran used the land facilities of its proxies to launch these missiles also indicates the strategic nature of the proxies and their utilities.

Tehran’s new determination to abandon its three-decade proxy war strategy and directly attack Israel with airborne projectiles from the mainland as well as from Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen demonstrates a stark reality: Iran has the political will, military capability, and technical expertise to carry out long-range attacks to pursue its national interest. Iranian drones, cruise, and ballistic missiles flew over and, in the process, violated the airspaces of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, indicating the Iranian disregard for the sovereign inviolability of these Arab states. This would imply India's Gulf policy coming under greater Arab-Persian tensions.

Thirdly, any intensification of the Iran-Israel confrontation will disrupt oil supplies out of the Gulf region as both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea could become battle zones. Until now, the spike in oil prices is minimal and could transform dramatically should violence escalate. Iran will also suffer due to supply disruption, but it might consider a limited conflict to its advantage as more countries will seek to appease and accommodate Tehran’s demands and conditions.

Fourthly, for now, Iran has focused its anger and attention on Israel and not on the latter’s allies and regional friends who shot tdown its projectiles. While Jordan admitted to neutralising some Iranian projectiles, media reports in Israel speak of Saudi ‘role’ in containing Iranian attacks. The interests of Palestinians in Jordan and Amman’s hostile statements against Israel could safeguard the Hashemites from a hostile Iranian response. This may not be the case for Saudi Arabia as both countries have been competing for the leadership of the Islamic world. In recent years, Houthis have fired Iranian missiles against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Though the physical damage is limited, the current crisis has exposed the strategic vulnerability of Gulf Arab countries and their sea lanes of communication through the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and Bab el-Mandeb in the Red Sea; these, in turn, will affect the flourishing Indo-Gulf trade.

Five, as part of its strategy against Israel and its interests in the region, the Iranian navy has been intercepting, seizing and confiscating foreign vessels. For example, amidst the recent Iran-Israel conflict, 17 Indian crew members were captured when Iran seized a Portuguese-registered cargo vessel. Though they were released following intervention by External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar, the incident also underscored the Iranian strategy to intimidate friends of Israel. It is a reminder that countries like India should refrain from openly expressing support for Israel and to minimise their criticisms of Iran. India has always been nuanced in taking stands on controversial international developments, but the Iranian muscle flexing will only strengthen this posture.

Six, any escalation will refocus the interests and welfare of Indians in the region. Besides an estimated nine million in the Gulf Arab countries, there are about 18,000 Indians in Israel and about 5-10,000 in Iran. Most Indians in these two countries are pursuing education; Israel also has Indians in its healthcare industry, and a significant number of Indians in Iran are religious pilgrims. Escalating the conflict will pressure the government for their urgent evacuation. India had carried out similar operations in the past, and over six million came home during Covid. This time, the problem will have a sense of urgency and will be affected by the country’s preoccupation with Lok Sabha elections.

Seven, this crisis demands certain reorganisation of the MEA. Iran is not part of the three divisions that deal with West Asia North Africa, namely the Gulf Division, Hajj Division and WANA Division, but is part of the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran Division. New Delhi cannot formulate a balanced and meaningful policy towards Israel or the Gulf Arab countries without considering their interests, rivalries and conflicts with Iran. The time has come to incorporate Iran into the Gulf Division of the MEA.

While no one wishes for an escalation, countries capable of bridging the Iran-Israel divide are limited; if the US does not have formal relations with Tehran since 1979, countries like China and Russia are too closely identified with Iran to moderate Israel. Seeking re-election, Joe Biden is also preoccupied with the Gaza crisis and trying to nudge Netanyahu towards the elusive but realistic two-state solution. Thus, the escalation of the crisis rests entirely on Iran and Israel and not on others.

(The writer teaches contemporary Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)

Published 26 April 2024, 23:52 IST

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