February 14, 2012 – New Delhi Attack Tests India’s Relations With Iran: Israeli accusations that Iran was behind an attack on a diplomat in New Delhi are contributing to international pressure on India to back away from its friendly ties with Tehran and curb its consumption of Iranian oil.
Most immediately, the incident puts India in the position of trying to maintain friendly ties with two bitter enemies, Israel and Iran.
India enjoys strong relations with Israel, which is one of its defense suppliers. But the energy-hungry country also has robust trade ties with Iran: It is one of Iran’s largest crude oil buyers and has irked the U.S. and other Western nations by resisting pressure to cut back on those purchases.
Those dynamics could make things uncomfortable for Indian officials as the investigation moves forward into who directed Monday’s attack, and suspicion of Iran grows following explosions in Bangkok Tuesday in which an Iranian national appeared to have prematurely set off explosives.
Israel accused Iran and its militant ally Hezbollah for the attacks in Delhi and Bangkok and an explosive found in an Israeli diplomat’s car in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Indian officials have reserved judgment on who was behind the attack in New Delhi. “At the moment I’m not pointing the finger at any particular group or organization, but whoever did it, we condemn it in the strongest terms,” Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram said.
Iranian officials denied Iran was behind the Delhi and Tbilisi attacks, but haven’t commented on the Bangkok explosions.
If Indian investigators ultimately determine Iran was involved in the attack, there would be enormous domestic and international pressure on India to back away from supporting Iran and even curb its oil purchases, analysts say.
“It won’t be easy for India to just snap its ties with Iran, but whatever happened yesterday adds to the pressure,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. He said India could become a “proxy battleground” amid tensions between the West and Iran.
An Israeli official said the stakes are higher for India to charge Iran with a role in a terrorist attack on its soil. “If India says what [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu says, it entails a big change in policy and they have to think it through,” the official said. “That brings things to a whole different level between India and Iran. That’s not something you can do in a day.”
A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in response that India had no evidence on which to blame Iran. “That is entirely false and in no way depicts reality,” he said.
Though Israel has urged India to stop buying oil from Iran, the Israeli official said Israel hasn’t let New Delhi’s refusal “spoil the good relations between Israel and India…They have a right to continue their own policy.”
India imported 550,000 barrels of oil a day from Iran in January, making it Iran’s largest crude customer, ahead of China, whose imports have dropped because of a pricing dispute.
International sanctions on Iran, including a U.S.-led crackdown on dealings with the country’s financial institutions, disrupted payments by Indian companies last year, but the two countries have worked to find ways around the impasse.
The U.S. hasn’t joined Israel in openly accusing Iran in connection with Monday’s attacks. But if Indian police reach the same conclusion, it is likely to enhance the case that India should reconsider doing business with Tehran in support of global efforts to force Iran into negotiations about its nuclear program.
The India-Iran relationship is a source of frustration in Washington. India “seems to be rebuking the sanctions and looking for workarounds,” including transactions in gold and other detours for the oil payments, said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, at a U.S. Senate hearing on Feb. 7 for the confirmation of Indian Ambassador-nominee Nancy Powell.
Sen. Menendez said India’s actions are “helping the Iranian government have the resources to fuel their nuclear ambitions.”
Ms. Powell told the senator the matter is “one of those that I will be dealing with very seriously and very early in my tenure.” She added, “India shares with us a desire to see a nonnuclear state in Iran.”
Meanwhile, New Delhi has burgeoning ties with Israel to tend to. India’s defense purchases from Israel—part of a high-priority modernization of the country’s armed forces after decades of neglect—include surface-to-air missiles and surveillance and missile defense technology. The countries also share the experience of being frequent targets of terrorist attacks.
In Monday’s attack, a motorcyclist planted a magnetic explosive on a car carrying a woman who works at the Israeli Embassy’s defense section and is the wife of Israel’s deputy defense attaché, Indian police said. The car burst into flames, injuring the Israeli woman, her driver and two people nearby.
Indian investigators were chasing down leads and scanning CCTV footage to try to identify the motorcycle driver, said Mr. Chidambaram, the Indian home minister. “It was quite clear that a very well-trained person has committed this attack,” he said.
Israel is cooperating closely with Indian investigators, said David Goldfarb, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi. “We always have good connections and cooperation with the Indian authorities and naturally after an event like this that only increases,” he said.
The Israeli Embassy employee who was targeted in the Monday blast, Tal Yehoshua, was traveling to pick up her children from the American School when the explosion happened not far from the embassy, according to Indian authorities.
She was admitted to a Delhi hospital and underwent successful surgery to remove shrapnel from near her spine, a hospital official said. She was in critical but stable condition in the intensive-care unit and was expected to remain hospitalized for several more days, the official said. Three other people injured in the blast, including Ms. Yehoshua’s driver, were treated at another hospital and released Monday, an official said. (Credits: Photo – Reuters, Narrative – The Wall Street Journal)
The Master of Disaster