Balancing friendships: India’s ties with Israel remain strong, but Iran is not far behind
Russian Ambassador Alexander Kadakin is a popular figure in Delhi’s diplomatic community. Famous for his long stint in India and specialist knowledge of South Asia, Kadakin draws attention in parties for his quick wit and classy one-liners.
But on April 22, Kadakin was a tepid show as he walked into the 67th Israeli Independence Day celebration at the Hyatt Regency on the Ring Road that separates the South districts of Delhi from New Delhi, the official capital of India. Kadakin perhaps knew that the real star of the evening was to be India’s own Jewish hero, Lt. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob, who made it a point to show up despite being wheelchair bound and was warmly welcomed by Israeli Ambas-
sador Daniel Carmon. But along with all others, Kadakin was also seen running for the buffet and fine wine soon after the party began.
Such was the flow of the crowd into the hotel for attending the function that few could take their selfies without getting into the frames of others. Wine flowed freely, and after a while even the cops who came to guard the high-profile European and Asian ambassadors and dignitaries were sharing the spirit of the moment. As the party rolled on, music with a Pakistani-Sufi number boomed, and the guests were soon lost in a crowd that celebrated India-Israel ties.
An Israeli national celebration is always special for the diplomatic community, because it is on that day that the Israelis can join freely with others to celebrate. Security, the usual spoilsport, wrecks the fun of mingling with the Israelis for the rest of the year, as anyone familiar with Israeli affairs would know. Like previous years, this celebration was unique too: This was the first time that the Israeli embassy was hosting the diplomatic crowd after the change of government in Delhi last May. However, there have been other attractive diplomatic gatherings this season that also drew the best of the diplomatic corps, including the ambassador of Russia. That country is drawing attention for having agreed to supply potent S-300 missile systems to Iran.
A month ago, on March 21, to mark Nawruz, all the Farsi-speaking countries of Central Asia and the Middle East — Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrghizstan and Uzbekistan — gathered in a boisterous show of Farsi culture in Delhi. It was interesting that despite being Islamic or Muslim-dominated countries, none of the countries promoted the event as Islamic; instead, the program was conceived to showcase the similarities between India’s New Year festivities that fall in the spring with the Farsi New Year, which is similar to the multiple celebrations of various cultural groups of India. Though the event was meant for eight countries, the star of the show was Iran, which was the real mover behind this party.
And, just a day after the Israeli independence celebration, headlines in a prominent English language daily announced that India will finally put some fresh effort to salvage the port of Chahbahar that it had been developing with Iran. The latest motivation behind this improvement came a day after Chinese president Xi Jinping inaugurated the Gwadar Port near the Iran-Pakistan border for importing energy to China without going through the long ocean route. India’s automatic response is to get the Chahbahar Port going with a great deal of Iranian goodwill. It is obvious that given the multiple dynamics at play, India does not want any of its relations to cover its entire policy spectrum. But warmth with countries who are Israel’s existential enemies also highlights that Israel and India are no longer on the same path that they were at least a decade ago. International relations are changing fast, said Iranian Ambassador Gholamreza Ansari. Interestingly, Ansari also said at the same event that travel to Iran shall no longer be a hurdle for those Indian citizens who have Israeli visas stamped in their passports.
Though the neighborhood is changing fast and India’s priorities vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are taking new shape, it remains to be seen how India will keep its ties with Israel warm in a fast-evolving world order where the United States is inching closer to normal ties with Cuba, Iran and, possibly, North Korea.
For India-Israel ties, however, the biggest asset is the excellent political relations that New Delhi enjoys with Jerusalem. Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York last September and followed it up with a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Singapore in March. Nevertheless, both sides need to speed up implementation of the 2014 Homeland Security Agreement that reportedly is in slow motion due to troubles of finance and bureaucratic incompatibility. How-
ever, there is a growing buzz over possible prime ministerial visits to the Middle East/West Asia that hint of Israel being the favored partner of India and will remain so due to the security challenges in the Gulf area.
The challenge before the Modi government is therefore how to balance its ties with various opposing powers in India’s strategic backyard without cooling its ties with any. India-Israel ties are on a strong foundation, but the ties will be tested in the near future when India goes ahead to realize its full bilateral potential with Iran. Perhaps, it is then that direct intervention will be needed from the topmost office of India. Modi has already sent his top ministers like the minister of interior affairs, Rajnath Singh, to Israel for laying the groundwork of productive bilateral ties with the Jewish state. It remains to be seen if Modi himself will travel to Israel sometime later this year. He is expected to travel to Turkey in November for the G-20 Summit. Will the Israel visit then take place in November or before that? Or will Modi watch the region carefully before boarding the special Air India aircraft?
Kallol Bhattacherjee is a journalist based in Delhi.