Modi will script history by forging an India-Iran-Israel partnership

New Delhi is probably best placed apart from perhaps Beijing in acting as a meaningful mediator.

 |  7-minute read |   29-11-2016
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Imagine a two-day business forum of India, Iran and Israel in Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel convened by CII or FICCI.

Businessmen from Tehran pitch for inbound investments into the newly opening up Iran while boasting how their pilaf and naan are better. In another room, whiz kids from Bangalore and Tel Aviv discuss taking over the world with “Internet of Things” over hummus and chips. And in the meanwhile, the Iranians and Israelis can say hello to each other and even dare a small talk!

For a habitual conference-goer it might not be a big deal, but to bring together businessmen from Iran and Israel, in the home of their diaspora, will be a coup of sorts of track 2 diplomacy.

A first step in the long walk to a “3I partnership” has to begin in the realm of commerce and ideas where resistance to exchange is milder. If only India can pull it off and later expand it into a full-fledged trilateral summit.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of West Asian politics will know that Iran and Israel are not the best of friends. Iran is waging war against the Israel by supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel has been accused as the “Little Satan” that has put spanners in the Iranian nuclear program. And the Mossad videos on YouTube filled with daredevilry don’t help.

Post the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the two states have been at loggerheads over many issues big and small, political and ideological. But, things have not always been messed up between the Shiite giant and the tiny Jewish state.

David Ben Gurion, the founding father of Israel, and Shah Reza Pehalvi, the Shah of Iran from 1941 to 1979, formed an “alliance of periphery”. Iran was the second Muslim country to recognise Israel post independence in 1947.

Persians and Jews have traded and lived together in harmony for centuries in Baghdad. If one reaches back to the Bible, Persian kings Cyrus and Darius had helped Jews build the “Second Temple” in Jerusalem.

So the current narrative of hatred, is a classic case of recent history shrouding the not too distant past like a ghost; leave alone the long civilisational relationship between the Persians and the Jews.

The hard neorealism has taken such a dogmatic stronghold in standard narrative that it has come in the way of any creative new constructivist interventions. Even after Iran’s recent detente with United States, (not so fondly referred to as  the “Iblis” or “The Great Satan” by Ayatollah Khomeini) the lead ally of Israel, the rapprochement between Israel and Iran is not spoken about much enthusiastically among the international relations experts.

The last big argument involving Israel and Iran was in the context of US-Iran nuclear deal with George Schulz and Henry Kissinger opposing, and the “balance of powerwalas” lead by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt arguing for the deal. Newly elected US president Donald Trump had vowed to revoke the nuclear deal, but what he actually does has to be seen.

India should seize this opportunity and “lubricate” the relationship. India is probably the best placed to play the role of the "sutradhar" for many reasons.

Firstly, Iran and Israel are both friends of India. The political and economic relationship with the two countries have been steady. There has not been any bad news that has emanated, be it in defence and technology partnerships with Israel; or cooperation on the oil, Chabahar port or Afghanistan with Iran.

modirouhanibdpti_112916050329.jpg Prime Minister Narendra Modi With Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in Tehran. (Photo: PTI)

Secondly, the cultural and civilisational ties of both the countries with India are age-old. India is home to Parsis and Jews that have settled and assimilated well in their adopted land.

Thirdly, after a long time India has an energetic foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both countries will also look at India as the sober and respectable uncle that is qualified to play mediator between the warring cousins.

PM Modi has already visited Tehran in May 2016 and is scheduled to visit Tel Aviv early 2017 for the silver jubilee celebration of the beginning of diplomatic relations between India and Israel.

Fourthly, India should “dare mighty things” and play a leadership role in geopolitical affairs if it has to bolster its IR CV. If it succeeds, India will add one more arrow to its quiver in its attempt to secure the permanent UN Security Council seat, the claim for which has so far been based on economic and demographic heft.

Fifthly, the scourge of Sunni Islamic terrorism is a common problem. From ISIS to Hizbul Mujahideen, the network is deeply webbed and considers Shias, Jews and Hindus as kafirs.

Finally, India is probably best placed apart from perhaps China in acting as a meaningful mediator. Since China’s diplomatic corps is much invested in South China Sea, this issue might not be on the top of their agenda.

India should proactively take initiatives in kickstarting the initiative knowing well that it is a leap of faith. Rather than approaching it as a short-term tactical attempt, the larger vision of cooperation and stability should come through.

India should come across an honest and trustworthy, and more importantly, a patient broker that will hold firm through the vicissitudes of lady luck.

It has to remember that it will be a long haul that requires persistence. It will not be without its set of challenges. Questions will be asked on expending of the sparse Indian diplomatic capital and opportunity costs. The move can prompt Saudi Arabia to strengthen its Sunni alliance with Turkey and its client state of Pakistan to create a “security dilemma”.

The West Asia region is a veritable tinderbox of complicated political networks and reversals of progress should be expected. With entrenched constituencies in both sides, the leaders will only take hesitant steps to placate and carry them along.

Realists would pooh pooh such attempts that appear “idealist”. They have to be reminded that a few idealist initiatives have to be part of a realist foreign policy. The historic and Nobel-esque nature of the attempt should be kept in mind.

Both Iran and Israel will be vested in the initiative if the ambitions of security (from Israel’s side)  and economic growth (from Iran’s side) are brought to the table. Such a move might also have America’s blessings and could bring a semblance of geopolitical and geoeconomic stability in West Asia.

The US has shrinking interest in West Asia as they have become self sufficient in oil, and are more focussed in dealing with China. Since they are in no position to play a role, an ally in India making a move will perhaps be welcome. 

The timing will be crucial. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had announced that the theme of the upcoming year would be “The Resistance Economy”, which has an Orwellian ring to it. It is important to put this initiative across as welcoming Iran is coming out of sanctions.

The moderate Iranian president, Rouhani will be seeking re-election next year. Such an initiative will improve the general acceptability of Iran as a place to do business and strengthen the reformist forces. Also, for the hard-line Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyanhu, any cooperation would help politically.

In the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, the then president of Israel, Shimon Peres, who passed away recently, said that "Iran is not an enemy", and "I don't see a reason to spend so much money in the name of hatred”. Iranian president Rouhani ordered the removal of “Death to Israel” slogans on it missiles saying those are inimical to the peace that he seeks in the neighbourhood.

For Prime Minister Modi it is “samay ki maang” that he shepherds this initiative and leaves a footprint in history. He will definitely see the vision of India-Iran-Israel axis as being a harbinger of progress through cooperation of peoples of three great religions.

Indian diplomats should also not get too enamoured at “Looking East” that they let go of an opportunity to make a lasting contribution to one of the most vexing contemporary geostrategic problems.

To take the partnership of the “3 Is” to fruition, India should be the “third eye” providing a vision that is beyond the normal perception.

Also read: Can Modi dispel the hypocrisy in India-Israel ties?

Writer

Banuchandar Nagarajan Banuchandar Nagarajan @banuall

The author is a Harvard graduate. He is a political and public policy advisor.

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