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A fine balance

How long can India get away with a Middle East policy that pleases all?

Christopher Clary & Mara E. Karlin |
May 9, 2009 1:38:38 am

For the last decade,India has pursued a policy of skillful ambiguity in the Middle East. It has adroitly pursued friendly relations with everyone: Israelis and Palestinians,Iranians and Saudis. While this performance should be applauded as a diplomatic tour de force,India’s nimble statecraft may not be sustainable if New Delhi seeks a greater global role commensurate with its capabilities. India has hedged its position on the two central crises — beyond Iran — that define the contemporary Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Should New Delhi seek to maintain friendly relations with all of these parties,it will be difficult to stay relevant. Furthermore,such fence-sitting conflicts with India’s desire to be recognised as a global power.

To date,India and Israel appear to have reached quiet agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. India provides firm rhetorical support to the Palestinian people,but continues to provide billions to Israel’s defense establishment. Already this year,the two countries reportedly have concluded their largest defense deal to date in which Israel will provide an air defense system to India for $1.4 billion. While public accounts are sketchy,Indo-Israeli counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation also appears robust,with recent press reports that such cooperation includes spy satellite collaboration. In Delhi,it is common to hear criticism of US support to Israel,although India is not without levers in its relationship. As Israel’s Ambassador to India David Danieli said in a 2006 interview,“India certainly can contribute by having a dialogue with Palestinians and with Israel. India maintains equally good relations with both. So the ears of both sides are certainly open to hear Indian views.” While India could wait and watch while others do the heavy lifting in the peace process,it is in a unique position to draw on historical goodwill and influence with both parties.

India also happens to have good relations and important economic ties with both Israel and Iran,the other hotspot likely to flare up in the coming months. Now that Benjamin Netanyahu has formed a government,there are renewed discussions of whether Israel should militarily strike the nascent Iranian nuclear programme. Israel’s decision will be influenced by whether it believes international diplomacy can prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear device. While India has an oft-stated position against additional nuclear powers in the region,it has been reluctant in using its influence to achieve that objective. This hesitance is due to a host of reasons,including India’s own nuclear legacy,the geopolitical and economic benefits that come with good Indo-Iranian relations,and its desire to avoid appearing as a US proxy. Stability in the Middle East — with implications for energy prices,remittance flows,and radicalism — is surely in India’s interest. If India seeks to avoid a nuclear Iran,but also to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran,how will it balance its relations with Tehran and Jerusalem during this critical period?

To date,India has masterfully balanced its competing partnerships in the Middle East. As India takes its rightful place on the global stage,empty rhetoric or studied ambiguity won’t withstand the increased scrutiny that comes with international prominence. India’s hedging on the Middle East seems particularly incompatible with its UN Security Council ambitions. By its very nature,the Security Council,a body whose work is dominated by the Middle East,requires tough “yes” or “no” decisions. The world will be watching as India determines whether it seeks to sit on the sidelines or seeks to influence the strategic orientation of that troubled region.

The writers served in a variety of positions in the US Defense Department focusing on South Asia and the Middle East,respectively

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