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Since January 2011, the world has watched, riveted, as nation after nation in the Middle East and North Africa has risen in protest against regimes that had become ossified and toxic. As these unprecedented events unfolded in the Middle East and powerful autocrats fell by the wayside, the initial reaction in India was that these events were happening in a different world. In Egypt, India watched with a sense of foreboding and cynicism as the US jettisoned its long-standing ally Hosni Mubarak and made space for a chaotic mix of military and Islamists. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, who had become a Western favourite in his last years, was hunted down like a dog in the desert, as NATO strafed the country into submission. Libya, which has gone back to producing oil, is now a warring theatre of violent tribes. Islamists are on the rise there too. After pulling out all its nationals from Libya, India took the view that this was actually a fairly distant war for us to lose much sleep over. After all, almost all of its 5 million expatriates live and work in the Persian Gulf, not the Levant, which was roiling in protests. There were nagging fears over the rapid spread of Islamic extremism bleeding into India but the general opinion was that it was still a way away.
Meanwhile, old conflicts in the Middle East blended with the new instabilities to create a toxic cocktail that threaten to shake the foundations of a global order that we had taken as established. And even though India's economic growth and consequent rise in the world meant that our stakes in these countries all grew exponentially, we decided it's best to keep our noses clean in these dirty wars. Let's stick to our old mantra of noninterference, non-intervention in affairs of other states. We put off examining what these conflicts mean for India. We liked the Chinese line - I won't ask, you don't tell. Just make sure I don't get affected.
The predominant Indian narrative about the goingson in this region went something like this. . . We don't like Iran getting a nuclear weapon, but Iran will get it anyway. We need Iran for oil and Afghanistan, not always in that order, and we can't influence them because they don't listen to us. So we continue the way we were. Syria is part of a sectarian conflict imposed by external actors - Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and the US. And this is just a Western conspiracy to go after Iran. The Shia-Sunni divide is sharpening in the Middle East and we're now seeing shades of that playing out even in Afghanistan. But we want both on our side because we have both kinds of people. So our best bet is to divide our favours - let's buy oil from both Iran and Saudi Arabia. That way we pay everybody and everybody will love us. We can avoid taking really tough decisions on our security. Because those involve making tough choices. The West is getting into other deadly conflicts, dumping their old allies and forcing changes in the region whose effects will be felt less in distant Europe, and more in South Asia. Yet we desist from using our influence to secure future advantages.
Until an apparently Iran-sponsored terror attack against an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi last week forced India to take a harder look at a changing world, playing in a theatre near us.
Let's take a tour de horizon to look at two of the biggest forces of change that affect India, its security, foreign policy and future.
Iran would like Israel to be wiped off the face of this earth. Israel believes that Iran's quest for nuclear weapons is aimed at just that. Therefore, Israel would much prefer that Iran's nuclear capability is pre-emptively destroyed, crippled or delayed, whichever comes first.
Iran is accused of employing terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas to launch rocket attacks inside Israel. These are also believed to be revenge attacks as Israel is reportedly developing the capacity to strike at Iranian nuclear targets inside Iran. Recent reports say Israel is working with a dissident group called Mujahideen-e-Khalq, using their operatives to plant magnetic bombs on Iranian nuclear scientists' cars, or missile facilities. There is a covert war on, and this week, it arrived on our doorstep.
The bomb attack against an Israeli defence attache's wife in New Delhi is probably part of the larger Iran-Israel war. India has yet to name Iran, but similar incidents in Bangkok, Tbilisi, Baku and even Turkey make it difficult for India to hold out for a smoking gun.
If this was indeed Iranian in origin, Tehran miscalculated badly, that's for certain. The terror attack in India has deeply embarrassed one of Iran's few surviving friends - India is about the largest importer of Iranian crude oil, and has withstood strong Western pressure to maintain its position. Now, India will be forced to take a public call on terror attacks by groups other than the relatively "safe" Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish. These groups are easy to condemn whole-heartedly, but India risks diluting its own cause on terrorism if it doesn't call out Hezbollah and Hamas for the same acts.
If it's discovered that terror "contractors" were used in the attack, that should impel a whole new set of choices for India as it battles global terrorism. A police officer investigating the attack told journalists here this week, "The Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist outfit with roots in Lebanon, has no base in the country. There is a very strong probability that the attack was carried out at their behest and through their funds but executed by a well-trained militant of a Pakistan-based outfit for considerable payment. "
India would prefer not to delve deeper into Israelsponsored covert activities against the Iranian nuclear programme which, by the way, India does not like one bit. But it's probably time to speak out on that issue as well, and maybe even help Israel see the light on resolving the Palestine issue.
Could the New Delhi attack be the beginning of a larger Iran-Israel war? Israel killed Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh in exactly the same manner in 2008. This could have been revenge. On the other hand, Hezollah has attacked big Israeli interests, specially in 1992, with its Buenos Aires attack against the Israeli embassy, which was followed by attacks on the Jewish centre there and Israel's embassy in London. India has to be very careful that it does not become the theatre of their war, and for this, it will need to be more involved with both these players.
Iran is also undergoing an opaque power struggle. India needs to know more about it.
Israel has refrained from haranguing India about Iran thus far, despite India and Israel moving very close on defence, technology, intelligence and terrorism. India has to prepare for some changes there as well.
This is the larger and deeper conflict in the Middle East and it affects strategic dynamics in the region. It also has profound implications for India, especially if Iran acquires a nuclear weapons capability.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are leaders of the Shia and Sunni world, respectively. They compete for global energy markets, political dominance, sectarian dominance and their definition of the Islamic Bomb. Their theatre of operation - the Persian Gulf and the Levant.
Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by an old and rigid family with the help of Wahhabi clerics who believe in the virtue of spreading this extremist ideology to poorer parts of the world, was rattled with the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Islamic Revolution, which spearheaded the rise of the Shia Islamic narrative. Khomeini famously described the Saudi monarchy as 'heretics' and 'vile and ungodly Wahhabis'.
Through the US' dislike for the Islamic regime and the decade-long Iran-Iraq war, when the Saudis actively assisted the Iraqis, Iran was effectively burdened through the 1980s. But with the end of the Cold War, Iran too emerged, bloodied but unbowed.
The growth of the global economy and demand for oil took Iran out of the red, especially with growing economies like India and China needing Iran's oil.
Both countries have almost equal amounts of oil. But Saudi oil infrastructure is more sophisticated;years of international sanctions make it more difficult for Iran. But Iran controls the Straits of Hormuz, through which about 40 per cent of global oil supplies flow.
Add to this the reality that the overwhelming majority of the world's oil reserves are amassed in the Persian Gulf - Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE hold 58 per cent, says the Energy Bulletin. To complicate matters, these are predominantly Shia concentrations - the Shia populations of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE make up 62 per cent of the population.
The second Gulf war by George Bush in Iraq was brutal for its closest ally, Saudi Arabia. Iraq moved from a Sunni-dominated regime to a Shia-dominated one, and thereby into Iran's sphere of influence. That created a huge regional and sectarian imbalance. Iran's political sway now spreads through Iraq, Bahrain (Shia majority people, Sunni rulers), Lebanon (through Hezbollah), Palestine (through Hamas and Islamic Jihad). It started fingering the eastern Shias in Saudi Arabia as well as in Yemen (in earlier times, Saudi Arabia had unleashed massive air power against a Shia Houthi rebellion in Yemen). Iran is buddy-buddy with Russia, China and India. It uses the pliant Syrian Assad regime to fund and support Hezbollah and attack Israel. With its nuclear ambitions, Iran is potentially a game-changer in the regional power play.
The Arab Spring hurt Saudi Arabia as well. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt disliked Iran intensely. Iran celebrated his fall, and quickly made friends with the Muslim Brotherhood. That's why, when Bahrainis revolted in Pearl Square, Saudi Arabia sent troops to help the king subdue the protests. Iran celebrates when pro-Western autocrats in the region fall.
Iran and Saudi Arabia dislike Israel with equal intensity. But as they play out their own strategic rivalry, these two countries have taken different sides on the issue. Saudi Arabia has spearheaded an Arab diplomatic initiative to work out a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. Iran promotes violence against Israel through Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
Funnily, as Iran pushes its nuclear programme, Saudi Arabia and Israel have become strange bedfellows in their counter-quest of denying Iran that capability. It is generally believed that the Arab states will give Israel free overflight facilities should Israel attack Iran. Wikileaks quoted Saudi diplomat Adel al Jubeir telling the US about the Saudi king's "frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program". Saudi Arabia later denied this conversation.
Saudi Arabia is also wooing Iran's oil customers. It has already replaced Iran as India's top supplier. Last week, Saudi King Abdullah charmed AK Antony out of the skies (literally) to promise India more oil. India is cutting down on Iranian oil because there are no longer honest ways of paying for the oil.
India is gearing up for a closer relationship with Iran as the US abandons Afghanistan - many believe to the mercies of a Pakistan-supported Taliban.
But look at the peril ahead for India - if Iran acquires weapons capability, Saudi Arabia is almost duty-bound to get its own deadly toy. For that it will look no further than Pakistan, whose nuclear programme Riyadh funded precisely with this eventuality in mind. It will put the Pakistan army, with all its toxic ideologies, back in the reckoning again as the custodian of the Sunni Bomb. That's a set of outcomes that would be nothing short of a distillation of Indian nightmares.
Standing at the cusp of the Persian Gulf and the Levant, Syria is crucial in the ongoing great game in the Middle East. The Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad is a pliant proxy for Iran, which uses it to funnel support to the Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad against Israel. .
Assad's fall would have huge implications. It would significantly weaken Iran, and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood would get oxygen for its endeavours. The collapse of Syria would have ripple effects across the region. India has oil, remittances, religious extremism and terrorism coming from this region.
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