Delhi Bombing “Unlikely To Be Iran, Unlikely To Derail Relations”

The point of the article below is not to suggest that Iran was categorically not involved in Monday’s bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat’s wife in New Delhi, but that it would be an unlikely choice for the Iranian government to sanction and coordinate such an attack. There is an important distinction between an attack organised officially by the government, and one organised by elements within the Iranian military, or loosely affiliated militant networks. While the Iranian government may be ultimately responsible – in the sense of failing to control sub-national groups, for instance – it may also find itself a victim of this episode if, as we are already seeing, this leads to a further escalation of demonising rhetoric from the West and Israel.

Of course, as RUSI fellow Shashank Joshi says below, the Iranian state is not above such ill-considered and impolitic decisions. If US reports that Iran was involved in an attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador to America are true, that would be an even more reckless and controversial act.

One could also argue that India’s close relationship with Iran cuts both ways: their ties might make an Iranian attack on Indian soil unlikely, but they also guarantee that India will not retaliate.

It is, as Will Hartley from Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre said to me, “about as murky as it gets”.

Below is an un-edited version of the article that appeared in The National, Feb.15.

NEW DELHI // Experts have cast doubt on claims that Iran was behind Monday’s bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat’s wife in New Delhi, because India is one of the few countries that can relieve the pressure on Iran from crippling western sanctions.

Indian investigators were yesterday searching for the motorcycle assailant who attached a bomb to the diplomatic car in the heart of the capital, injuring the wife of Israel’s defence attaché along with three others.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to blame the attack, along with a foiled bombing in Georgia, on “Iran and its protégé Hizbollah”.

The attacks appeared to mirror the recent killings of Iranian nuclear scientists that Tehran blamed on Israel.

But the theory that they were revenge attacks by Iran has met with considerable scepticism among experts in India.

“It would be a strange choice for Iran,” said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

“At a critical time when the West is trying to pressure India to cease imports from Iran, why would they choose this moment when there has been no instance of Iranian terrorism in India in the past?”

India has emerged as a possible lifeline for Iran as American and European antinuclear sanctions threaten to derail its economy.

Last week, India’s commerce ministry announced that a large trade delegation would visit Tehran within the next few weeks to explore expanded trade opportunities.

The announcement coincided awkwardly with a visit by EU president Herman Van Rompuy to New Delhi, aimed at convincing the Indian government to press Iran to give up its nuclear programme.

“It is unclear why Iran would attempt an attack on Israeli interests in India, which has been broadly supportive of Iran during the recent sanctions debate, and is one of its most important trade partners,” said Will Hartley, editor of IHS Jane‘s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre in London.

“The attacks in India and Georgia appear relatively amateurish, and lack the sophistication that would be expected from an operation executed by Hizbullah or Quds Force personnel.”

Despite the doubts, pressure is likely to mount on India to participate more fully in Western sanctions in the wake of the attacks.

But India’s economic and strategic priorities make it highly unlikely that it will play ball.

Between 10 and 12 percent of India’s oil imports come from Iran – valued at about $12 billion per year. India recently overtook China to become Iran’s biggest customer – purchasing 550,000 barrels per day in January.

Even if India was willing to curb its oil imports from Iran, and make up for them with increased purchases from other sources such as Saudi Arabia, technical obstacles stand in the way.

“Only modern refineries can switch to a different type of crude oil easily,” said Lydia Powell, an energy analyst with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

“The refineries that import from Iran are state-owned and quite old. They are designed only to refine certain types of crude oil, and they operate on razor-thin margins that make them reliant on the long-term cost discounts they get from Iran.

“This idea of shifting to another source is very easy to say, but economically it’s very difficult.”

Then there are the wider strategic concerns about isolating Iran, particularly when it comes to stabilising Afghanistan in the wake of a possible US withdrawal in 2014.

“All of our development aid into Afghanistan comes through Iran’s Chabahar port since we are unable to use entry points in Pakistan,” said Ramesh Chopra, a former head of military intelligence for the Indian Army.

“We are not going to have peace in Afghanistan without having peace with Iran.”

Despite the deep ties, analysts say Iran’s involvement cannot be entirely ruled out, particularly after Thai authorities said yesterday that a man, possibly of Iranian origin, blew his legs off while carrying a bomb through Bangkok.

“It’s not beyond the Iranians to take such political risk,” said Shashank Joshi, a fellow with the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“It’s also possible that India was one of the few countries where they found a sufficiently permissive environment and willing local proxies to conduct such an attack.”

It is possible that a low-level member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards could have exceeded his authority in sanctioning such a politically sensitive operation, he added.

“We should also remain open to the idea that this was a local or Pakistani group, acting autonomously or perhaps to garner international attention and patronage.”

Meanwhile, the intended victim of the attack, 42-year-old Tal Yehoshua-Koren underwent surgery to remove shrapnel from near her spine and was in critical, but stable condition Tuesday morning. The other three victims received only minor injuries.

The Indian government has refrained from pinning blame on any group, saying only that the attacker was clearly “well-trained”.

A spokesman for the external affairs ministry added that India “does not support Iran’s quest for anything beyond peaceful nuclear energy”, but believes the right approach to the issue is through negotiations under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Follow The National’s South Asia coverage here.

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