Vishwaguru on stand by in Israel-Iran clash

The Modi government’s open and unstinting support of Israel in its war on Palestine has isolated India in the Global South and beyond

Iranians celebrate the missile attack on Israel with a model of the Fattah missile in Tehran
Iranians celebrate the missile attack on Israel with a model of the Fattah missile in Tehran

Ashis Ray

The conflict in West Asia and the Gulf has burgeoned perilously into a wider confrontation. From warfare in and around Israel, it has extended to Iran in the vicinity of India’s blue water fleet. Israel’s chief of defence staff, Lt Gen. Herzi Halevi, vowed his country will respond to Iran’s missile and drone attack on Israel.

A forceful retaliation would risk plummeting the region into a full-blown war. Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi has warned that the “smallest action against Iran’s interests” will be met with a “severe, extensive and painful” response.

The possibility of the Israeli Air Force bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities has been omnipresent for quite some time. The consequences of such action would certainly ignite a major conflagration. The West, of course, turns a blind eye to Israel’s widely suspected but officially undeclared possession of a nuclear arsenal.

Iran and Israel have for decades now been in a state of proxy war. Undisclosed covert Israeli operations inside Iran have killed senior military or intelligence personnel as well as nuclear scientists. Such methods are likely to be among Israel’s options to avenge Iran’s missile and drone attack, which appeared to be more of a warning than a serious act of war.

But Israel has reason to be alarmed about Iran surrounding it with armed anti-Israel outfits not just in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria but also in Iraq and Yemen.

Israel’s war cabinet, despite almost daily meetings, is yet to agree on the nature of a retaliatory blow. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper cautioned: "Israel must weigh its response." A further escalation, in its view, could prompt Lebanon-based Hezbollah — perceived to be more potent than Hamas — to get involved as an Iranian ally. If another of Israel’s neighbours, Syria, historically hostile towards Israel and pally with Iran, becomes proactive, that would significantly enlarge the theatre of war.

Iran’s projectile assault on Israel — though mostly intercepted by Israeli, United States, British and French air defence systems — was not unprovoked. It was triggered by Israel obliterating a building in the Iranian consular compound in the Syrian capital of Damascus on 1 April and killing an Iranian general.

United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres condemned the Israeli attack. Even the Pentagon, according to the Washington Post, was "frustrated" at not being notified by Israel in advance. India was "distressed".

Yagil Levy, a professor of military sociology at the Open University of Israel, was quoted by the Guardian as saying, “Israel doesn’t have a really strategic approach… the approach to identify the (connections) between specific military actions and expected benefits is not in the repertoire of the Israeli leadership.”

The United States, Israel’s staunchest ally and supplier of state-of-the-art arms as aid, which headed off the Iranian missiles and drones from its naval deployment in the Mediterranean Sea, reiterated a continuation of its “steadfast” support of Israel’s defence, but refused to participate in any potential Israeli counter-offensive against Iran. At the same time, its solidarity has lent a new lease of life to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, previously on the verge of being cut adrift by Washington.

India’s vacillations

Amid all that, the host of last year’s G20 Summit and self-proclaimed leader of the Global South which could have played a prominent role in promoting peace, is not even a peripheral player.

Less than four weeks after the G20 gathering in Delhi, Narendra Modi jolted the Global South with his shrill support for Israel following Hamas’ attack on Israeli military and intelligence-gathering assets and on civilians in the kibbutz or Jewish settlements on 7 October.

It has never occurred to Modi that Israel has over the years serially violated the United Nations’ 1948 award on Palestine, unlawfully annexed Palestinian territory and completely ignored the UN’s two-state recommendation.

While India’s ministry of external affairs (MEA) spokesperson attempted to row back from the harm inflicted by Modi on India’s historical impartiality in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the damage is for the time being irreparable.

Indeed, Modi’s policy earlier this month culminated in India abstaining from a motion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to hold Israel accountable for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Gaza Strip, which was approved by 28 to 6 votes. An estimated 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli armed forces in the past six months.

India is also isolated in the BRICS bloc, where the other primary members Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, while denouncing Hamas’ 7 October attack, in which 1,139 people (including military personnel) were killed and 200 persons were seized as hostages, have condemned Israel’s indiscriminate counterattack on Gaza.

Brazil has backed every UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. South Africa has gone a step further by accusing Israel of genocide in the International Court of Justice and obtaining an interim verdict that "at least some of the acts and omissions alleged by South Africa have been committed by Israel in Gaza and appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the Convention (on genocide)".

Under Modi, India has toed the American administration’s line, which overlooked Israeli excesses in Gaza until opinion within the US wouldn’t tolerate the wanton killings and humanitarian crisis any more. US President Joe Biden, seeking both Jewish money and pro-Palestine votes in an election year, ultimately issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu, which scared the latter into withdrawing Israeli forces from Gaza.

Netanyahu’s failures

Indeed, this increased speculation that it was a matter of time before Netanyahu would be ousted, having bungled badly in terms of not anticipating a Hamas strike on Israel and having failed to rescue all the hostages despite a disproportionately violent military strike. Of the 200 hostages, 130 are still in Hamas captivity.

In the latest round of truce talks between Hamas and Israel, the former have reportedly slashed by half the number of hostages it is willing to release in exchange for a six-week ceasefire — 20 instead of 40. CNN reported an official of the Biden administration remarking: "The longer the conflict has gone on, the more recalcitrant Hamas has become rather than the other way around."

In 1947, Iran had joined India in devising an alternative plan to the two-state solution proposed by the UN for Palestine. It advocated a federation that would keep the country united, with autonomous Arab and Jewish segments.

After Israel came into being in 1948, Iran recognised it immediately until diplomatic relations were severed in 1951, only to be restored in 1953, when a coup engineered by the US and the United Kingdom unseated the Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh; and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became Iran’s dictator and established a close relationship with the West. During this period, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad even trained its Iranian counterpart SAVAK.

However, that unravelled when Pahlavi was overthrown by an Islamic revolution in 1979, and Israel in Tehran’s eyes became the ‘Little Satan’ to the US’ ‘Great Satan’. Iran cut off all links with Israel and adopted an aggressive position on the Palestinian issue. It now effectively no longer endorses Israel’s right to exist, while Tel Aviv looks upon Iran as its arch enemy.

Ashis Ray can be found on X @ashiscray

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