In 'West Asia at War', former IFS officer Talmiz Ahmad talks about how PM Modi's 'de-hyphenation' of relations with Israel was a 'balancing' act

Modi paid a high-profile visit to Iran in May 2016. There, he signed the agreement for India to develop the Chabahar port and then, with the participation of the then Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, signed a tripartite agreement to link Chabahar with Zahedan by rail.

The projects approved were:

• A contract for the development and operation of two terminals and five berths at Chabahar, spread across ten years

• The extension of credit lines of $500 million for the port and of `3,000 crore ($500 million) for importing steel rails and the implementation of the port

• MoUs on the provision of services by Indian Railways, including financing to the tune of $1.6 billion, for the Chabahar–Zahedan railway line – which is also a part of the trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan on a transit and trade corridor. However, within a year, Donald Trump was in the White House and all these agreements came to nought.

Even as India’s ties with Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries have flourished, US sanctions on Iran have severely restricted Indo-Iranian relations. The ‘maximum pressure’ policy of the Trump administration, which required that imports of Iranian oil be reduced to zero from May 2019, meant that the country moved from being the number-two oil exporter to India to the status of a non-supplier.

Again, though the US granted a waiver to the development of the Chabahar port, it became very difficult to pursue construction activity, since international companies were afraid of being subjected to US sanctions. These sanctions also curtailed trade ties with Iran, so that activity at Chabahar was drastically reduced. Perhaps due to the absence of any progress in developing this port, in July 2020, Iran announced that its own companies would be executing the Chabahar–Zahedan railway line. Iran diplomatically said that the Indian companies could re-join the project at a later stage.

These negative developments have created fresh challenges for India. In July-August 2020, Iranian media and the New York Times carried reports of a wide-ranging and ambitious twenty-five-year ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ agreement between Iran and China that would involve a Chinese investment of about $400 billion in Iran’s energy, infrastructure, industrial and defence sectors. There are also reports of closer links between the Chabahar and Gwadar ports, and even an extension of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects to connect with Iran and Afghanistan.

These reports, even if timed to project to the US that the two countries on its hit list are pursuing important ties with each other, should ring alarm bells in India. The former US diplomat Philip H. Gordon has written that even the partial implementation of the agreement ‘would signal a major escalation in the US strategic competition with China and blow a hole in the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran at the same time’.40 US-based commentators on West Asia, Ross Harrison and Alex Vatanka have noted that both Iran and China share the motivation ‘to push back against US efforts in the Middle East’, and that these two countries could be cooperating across the Eurasian landscape – from the Mediterranean to Syria to Central Asia, the Caspian and the Gulf.

Israel: Defence and Beyond

Modi brought to ties with Israel a long history of personal engagement. He had visited Israel in 2006 as the chief minister of Gujarat, and had encouraged Israeli investments and technology in his state’s agricultural, dairy and irrigation sectors. As prime minister, he not only strengthened ties with Israel beyond defence, but also made the interactions more overt – ending the earlier practice of having covert official engagements with the country.

Israel remains a major source of India’s niche defence requirements, particularly in the area of missiles, including the joint development of long-range surface-to-air missiles (LRSAM) for the Indian and Israeli navies, and of medium-range surface-to-air missiles (MRSAM) for the Indian air force. Beyond defence, India and Israel are partners in other high-tech areas relating to agriculture, health, biotechnology, nanotechnology, desalination, waste-water recycling, and waste management and reprocessing. From 2018, a new area for bilateral cooperation that emerged was that of energy with the signing of an MoU of cooperation in the oil and gas sectors.

During his first visit to Israel as prime minister in July 2017, the first by a sitting Indian Prime Minister, Modi signalled that India’s ties with Israel would be ‘de-hyphenated’ from its interactions with the Palestine Authority. He did this by not visiting Ramallah, as had been the practice of Indian leaders till then. But he tried to balance the two relationships: he received the president of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, in Delhi, in May 2017, before his visit to Israel; he then paid a separate, standalone visit to Palestine in February 2018, a month after Netanyahu’s visit to India.

Despite the obvious bonhomie between Modi and Netanyahu, some commentators have struck notes of caution. On the eve of Netanyahu’s visit, the Israeli daily, Haaretz carried an article headlined: ‘India wants an affair when it comes to Israel, not a serious relationship’.

The writer, Orshit Birvadker, attempted to explain to her readers that India took ‘balanced positions’ between Israel and Palestine because it wished to assert its ‘political independence’ in international affairs. She also recommended that, while ties with Israel enjoyed bipartisan support in India, the two sides should ‘remain pragmatic in their engagement with each other and not allow sentiment to cloud their decisions’. On the same lines, Indian commentator Mohan Guruswamy wrote on the expanding bilateral defence ties just after Modi’s visit to Israel, ‘They [the Israelis] are not doing us any favours. It’s all hard cash and the rest is Israeli guile.’ At this point, it would be useful to discuss a diplomatic initiative that has brought India into a new West Asian ‘minilateral’ – the Quad 2.