My Enemy's Friend is My...?

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's landmark visit to New Delhi two weeks ago may have been cut short by violence at home, but this did not stop him from having a productive trip.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's landmark visit to New Delhi two weeks ago may have been cut short by violence at home, but this did not stop him from having a productive trip.  Israel's $1 billion sale of a Phalcon radar system to India was only the highlight of several diplomatic and military moves made which brought India and Israel closer together.  Some observers of the Israel-India courtship have euphorically proclaimed that this new "strategic alliance" will make India a key Israeli ally in the fight against terrorism.  The Brookings Institution's Parag Khanna, writing in the September 10 issue of In The National Interest, believes that Israel and India, along with Turkey, can make up a pro-US, democratic counterweight to the famed "axis of evil."  Such sentiment is not limited to outsiders - the chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has even said that Israel's relationship with India is now second only to its relationship with the US. 

However, one need only check Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's guestbook in New Delhi to understand how problematic Israel's enthusiasm might be.  Only ten days before Sharon's arrival, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi visited New Delhi to reaffirm Iran's own "strategic partnership" with India.  Kharazzi's visit was only the latest in series of meetings between high-level Iranian and Indian officials.  In fact, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami was in New Delhi himself this past January for India's Republic Day celebrations, and Vajpayee has been to Tehran several times in recent years, prompting a different set of observers to warily note India's blossoming relationship with the Islamic Republic. 

Though this bizarre diplomatic twist appears to fly in the face of zero-sum, geopolitical logic, India has nevertheless managed to somehow profoundly improve its relations with both Israel and Iran simultaneously.   Given both Israel's and Iran's propensity to be hyper-sensitive on issues involving the other, India has achieved a rare feat indeed. A closer look at the dynamics of this peculiar situation reveals a very active Indian diplomatic corps driven to satisfy its rising power's diverse demands, which Israel and Iran, combined, best meet.  While Israel offers India much-needed access to advanced military technology and counter-terrorism know-how, Iran offers India strategic, geographic advantages vis-à-vis Pakistan and a supply of energy India desperately needs for the future.

India and Israel

Thus far, military cooperation has dominated the Indian-Israeli agenda, though the two countries do have over $1 billion in commercial trade annually.  Israel has one of the world's most technologically sophisticated militaries and has increasingly been willing to sell its products abroad.  India's almost rabid desire for military modernization and the inability of its main arms dealer (Russia) to satisfy India's demand for high-tech military equipment make it an ideal customer for Israel's superior hardware.  India is now Israel's biggest military customer and, in addition to the Phalcon radar system, Israel is considering the sale of its cutting edge theater ballistic missile defense system, the Arrow. 

In addition, Israel's experience dealing with Islamic extremism and terror makes military cooperation even more attractive to New Delhi.  India's fight against Islamic terror and extremism in Kashmir shares the same tactical challenges as Israel does with the Palestinian Intifada.  Though Israel has clearly not found a solution to its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, Israeli security forces have become masters of the tactics and strategies used in counter-terrorism.  India cannot get better counter-terrorism training and assistance anywhere to aid its own military's fight against Kashmiri separatists and Pakistan-backed terrorists. 

In return, Israel gains a large, powerful ally in a very hostile region of the world - something that should not be underestimated.  Plus, India shares Israel's interest in fighting Islamic extremism and terror.  Israel will greatly benefit from Sharon's and Vajpayee's recent agreement on real-time intelligence sharing and help with tracking specific terrorist organizations and personnel.  As such, Israel has every right to be pleased in its success in turning a once extremely pro-Palestinian opponent into a close tactical ally.

India and Iran

Amid their frequent high-level meetings, Iran and India have produced several recent agreements for economic and military cooperation.  On the economic front, Indian-Iranian commercial trade has ballooned to over $25 billion and will only continue to grow, especially in the energy field.  During Khatami's visit to New Delhi, the two countries agreed to a new, long-term energy deal, whereby Iran will supply India with 5 million tons of natural gas each year for the next 25 years.  More energy deals appear in the offing as India's growing energy needs make it a natural market for Iranian oil and gas exports - currently there are talks about a major pipeline to connect Iran and India. 

In addition to economic cooperation, Indian-Iranian military cooperation is also growing.  In March 2003, India and Iran staged a joint naval exercise, and Iran has given India permission to build a naval port on the southeastern corner of the Iranian coastline at Chahbahar.