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Soleimani plotted terror in India, says Trump; Delhi walks diplomatic tightrope

The Indian security establishment has never considered Iranian intelligence or militia operations as a major threat. Barring an attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi in 2012, there is no history of Iranians or Iranian agencies being involved in a terrorist attack or subversive activity in India.

Written by Krishn Kaushik , Deeptiman Tiwary | New Delhi | Updated: January 5, 2020 7:51:23 am
At the funeral procession of Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Saturday. Reuters

Maj. Gen Qassem Soleimani had “made the death of innocent people his sick passion, contributing to terrorist plots as far away as New Delhi and London”, President Donald Trump said after the United States had killed the Iranian commander in Baghdad early on Friday.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs had reacted cautiously to Gen Soleimani’s assassination — noting that “a senior Iranian leader has been killed by the US”, underlining that “peace, stability and security in this region is of utmost importance to India” and it was “vital that the situation does not escalate further”, and urging “restraint”.

The MEA statement did not mention Gen Soleimani by name; and India is yet to react to Trump’s mention of his “terrorist plots” in New Delhi. India’s outgoing ambassador in Washington DC, Harsh Shringla, who will now take charge as foreign secretary, “paid a farewell call” on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday, but there was no official statement on whether they discussed Gen Soleimani’s killing.

The Indian security establishment has never considered Iranian intelligence or militia operations as a major threat. Barring an attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi in 2012, there is no history of Iranians or Iranian agencies being involved in a terrorist attack or subversive activity in India.

In February 2012, a man on a motorcycle stuck a bomb with a magnet on to a vehicle in which the wife of an Israeli diplomat was travelling. The bomb went off about 500 metres from the Prime Minister’s official residence, injuring the woman, identified as Tal Yehoshua Koren, her driver, and two bystanders.

The following month, Delhi Police arrested Urdu-language journalist Mohammed Ahmed Kazmi for allegedly having provided logistic support to the bombers, and for having conducted reconnaissance for them. The police also accused Kazmi of having received more than Rs 20 lakh from Iran. Kazmi had been rounded up on the basis of call data records, which showed he had been in touch with the alleged bombers.

EXPLAINED: Why General Qassem Soleimani mattered

Delhi Police investigators had identified the bombers and conspirators as Houshang Afshar Irani, a builder from Iran; Sedaghatzadeh Masoud, a sales employee in a commercial company on Baharestan St in Tehran; Syed Ali Mahdiansadr, a mobile shopkeeper in Tehran; Mohammad Reza Abolghasemi, a clerk in the finance department of Tehran’s water authority; and Ali Akbar Norouzishayan, a retired accountant in Tehran.

Masoud was identified as the mastermind, and Irani as the bomber. Masoud was also suspected to be behind similar attacks that were carried out around the same time in Georgia and Thailand. Investigations had found that some of the Iranians had previously visited India in 2011.

A letter rogatory sent to Iran by Delhi Police seeking information on the conspirators and cooperation for their arrest, had expressed suspicion that they were members of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

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In its chargesheet filed in July that year, the Delhi Police did not mention the IRGC — even though it did say that the conspiracy had originated in Iran. The police have not received responses to their letters rogatory for cooperation sent to Iran, Georgia, and Thailand — and the case has not progressed. Kazmi, who always maintained his innocence, is currently on bail.

“Iranian groups or intelligence have never had India on their radar. Their interest is in the Middle East. The 2012 attack was an exception arising out of the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist by Israel. The failed attack in Georgia and another in Thailand were a result of that,” a senior official in the Indian security establishment said.

The only foreign militant groups — apart from those operating from Pakistan and Bangladesh — that have had India in their crosshairs over the past couple of decades have been al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Members of al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) have been arrested by Indian authorities, and several attempts by Indians to join the IS war in Syria and Iraq have been detected.

Several informal groups have tried to carry out attacks in India after being inspired by the ideology of IS, but without any structural connect with the group or its operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

On Friday, Pompeo named several countries that the US had briefed after Soleimani’s killing. He said he had spoken to Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, but did not mention India.

Alice Wells, a senior State Department official, posted on Twitter about strengthening America’s military cooperation with Pakistan: “To strengthen mil2mil cooperation on shared priorities & advance US national security, @POTUS authorized the resumption of International Military Education and Training #IMET for Pakistan. The overall security assistance suspension for Pakistan remains in effect.”

India has longstanding diplomatic relations with both the US and Iran. Iran has been the largest exporter of oil to India, and India has developed the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar visited Iran last month and met President Hassan Rouhani. After a joint commission meeting co-chaired by Jaishankar and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Jarif, the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that the Ministers had “reviewed and positively assessed progress in bilateral cooperation, including connectivity, trade and commerce, cultural and people-to-people contacts”, and “also exchanged views on regional and global issues of mutual interest”.

The statement also mentioned that the Ministers had “expressed satisfaction at the progress achieved in operationalization” of Chabahar port, and “recognized that it has a potential to act as a gateway between the Indian subcontinent, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Europe”.

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