Eye on the Middle East | Amidst the Iran-Israel escalation loop, India is not spoilt for choice - Hindustan Times
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Eye on the Middle East | Amidst the Iran-Israel escalation loop, India is not spoilt for choice

Apr 15, 2024 03:48 PM IST

While the crew of captured ships have traditionally been released unharmed, the current crisis presents a new frontier for Indian foreign policy

On April 13, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy seized the MSC Aries, a Portuguese-flagged vessel owned by the Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group, as it crossed the Strait of Hormuz. The captured crew of the vessel, travelling from UAE’s Khalifa Port to Mumbai, includes 17 Indians. Later that evening, Iran also launched a swarm of armed one-way drones towards Israel. All this was part of its retaliation strategy against Israel’s airstrike on its consulate in Syria on April 1, which left at least four IRGC generals dead.

An official slides down a rope during a helicopter raid on MSC Aries ship.(via REUTERS) PREMIUM
An official slides down a rope during a helicopter raid on MSC Aries ship.(via REUTERS)

Even as India began a fervent diplomatic effort to secure the crew’s release, it joined Russia, France, Poland, and the United Kingdom in issuing an advisory to its citizens against travelling to Israel. The drone attack itself, which caused brief shutdowns of airspaces across the Middle East, was largely foiled due to effective interception by American, British, and Israeli fighter aircraft. In its response to this latest escalation of hostilities in West Asia, India expressed “serious concern” and called for “immediate de-escalation, exercise of restraint, stepping back from violence and return to the path of diplomacy.”

With the crisis now featuring direct Iran-Israel clashes, where does India stand?

The Old: IRGC Ship Seizures

The Strait of Hormuz is a 39- to 96 km-wide chokepoint connecting the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea. With UAE and Iran straddling either end, the Strait is vital for maritime trade (predominantly oil), in turn making it an ideal geopolitical pressure point for Tehran. The geographic advantage is pressed home by the asymmetric methods of operations that the IRGC Navy has mastered by using smaller gunboats rather than large ships. This allows Iran to look to the Strait as the preferred theatre of operations, whether to engage British or American naval vessels directly or to harass/capture maritime traffic linked to a hostile state. Just the threat alone of blockading the Strait has usually rang alarm bells globally, and Iran has made this threat multiple times between 2011 and 2012, in 2018, and more recently, on April 9.

It is unsurprising then that capturing an Israel-linked vessel was part of Iran’s response options, notwithstanding the nationalities of the crew. Moreover, Indian crews have been similarly detained in vessel captures in the past as well. In 2019, Iran captured the Stena Impero with 18 Indian crew in response to the British capture of an Iranian oil supertanker (Grace I), with four Indians on board. Given that Indians constitute almost 10% of sailors globally with seafaring jobs having jumped over 40% between 2013 and 2017, such occurrences are not unusual. The crew of captured ships have traditionally been released, unharmed.

The New: Iran-Israel escalation and maritime concerns

While Indian ship crews being caught in the Middle Eastern crises is not unprecedented, the current political predicament reflects new frontiers for Indian foreign policy.

On one hand, since Iran’s activity in the region presents a more direct and tangible threat to Indian economic interests, New Delhi has sought to leverage its historic ties with Tehran and communicate its concerns directly. This is especially concerning Houthi attacks on ships bound for Indian ports. During his visit to Iran in January, external affairs minister S Jaishankar noted “a perceptible increase in threats to the safety of maritime commercial traffic in this important part of the Indian Ocean” which had a “direct bearing on India's energy and economic interests” and was not to the benefit of either party.

India’s cooperative tone was evident in the rest of the statement which highlighted India’s strategic ties with Iran, especially with regard to developing the Chabahar Port, crucial to the International North-South Transport Corridor (which will enable a trade to Central Asia and Russia by-passing Pakistan).

On the other hand, India’s tone with Israel has been indirectly critical. It has shown an ability to distinguish its stand on terrorism (such as the Hamas attacks on October 7, 2023) from its stand on the larger Israel-Palestine question (and thus Israel’s disproportionate attacks on Gaza). Over the last three months, Jaishankar has been particularly proactive in asserting that a two-state solution was the way out of the present crisis and that the Palestinians have a right to a sovereign homeland. While this was also reiterated in the EAM’s statement after his Iran visit, he pressed the urgency of the two-state solution even more in February at the Munich Security Conference.

Also read: What external affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Palestine amid Israel-Hamas war

More importantly, India had noted Israel’s April strike on Iran’s Consulate “with concern”, urging “all parties to avoid actions that go against commonly accepted principles and norms of international law” — arguably a tacit criticism of Israel’s violation of the sanctity of diplomatic establishments.

Eye on the Future

The escalation loop between Iran and Israel remains open. Iran has declared a cessation of its direct operations against Israel, and the re-opening of Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi airspaces signals that regional allies believe in the declaration’s credibility. However, while Israel’s response has been to target Iranian proxies, the potential of more Israeli attacks on Iranian targets cannot be discounted.

For India, both Iran and Israel are now disruptors. Israel’s egregious actions in Palestine and its adverse effects on the larger socio-political stability of the region risk the security of India’s grand strategic vision that birthed the India-Middle East-European Economic Corridor.

A political solution that promises enduring regional stability is India’s ideal end-state. Iran on the other hand, while having remained an outlier in the Gulf’s normalisation agreements with Israel, supplements the risk due to its need to preserve deterrence in the region by encouraging proxy attacks against Israel and maritime shipping, and now through direct strikes against Israel. Given the strategic value of both states to New Delhi, it can condemn neither. Hence, India has avoided any condemnation of Iran’s strikes.

However, due to the intensity of Israeli operations in Gaza, the Indian foreign policy needle (at least through strong statements of support for Palestinian rights and the two-state solution) has been swinging subtly against Tel Aviv. The widening gap between Arab states and Israel due to the mounting casualties in Gaza bolsters this rationale.

This calculus can change if the locus of the conflict shifts more to that between Iran and Israel. It provides more latitude for Gulf states to look away from the discomfort caused by Israel’s unpopular Gaza campaign, and back to the other single-point adversary against whom they have historically faced — Iran. This is evidenced in the indirect assistance provided by some (not all) Arab states (such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan) to Israel, against Iranian drones.

Should further escalation help reduce the newly created Arab-Israel gap, the space for India to push forth with engagement with all sides, increases. In any case, India has balanced its ties with Iran for decades, with its ties with Arab states or Israel.

However, since Israel’s Gaza campaign continues unabated (with Hamas still holding Israeli hostages), New Delhi’s approach is to maintain its current stand and encourage a cessation of all hostilities. This is further evident in the two consecutive posts by EAM Jaishankar on X in which he stressed the importance of restraint and de-escalation in his conversation with the Iranian foreign minister, and shared his “concern at the developments” with the Israeli foreign minister.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal.

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