NEW DELHI – India’s traditionally friendly relations with Iran have come under unprecedented strain because of the launching of an Israeli spy satellite by an Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) rocket a fortnight ago.
This comes on top of recent tensions caused by India’s refusal to attend talks to complete a commercial deal on a proposed Iran-India-Pakistan gas pipeline.
The satellite is equipped with a synthetic aperture radar, which captures images of small as well as large objects day and night while penetrating cloud cover. It is widely believed to be designed to enable Israel to track activities in its neighborhood, in particular, activities pertaining to Iran’s nuclear program.
On Tuesday, Seyed Mahdi Nabizadeh, Iran’s ambassador in New Delhi, publicly regretted India’s assistance in lifting off the “TECSAR” satellite in a hush-hush manner from a launching pad in southern Andhra Pradesh state on Jan. 21.
The Indian government justified the launch on technical and commercial grounds. But Nabizadeh said: “We hope the issue could be considered from the political point of view also. Our relationship with India is very strong and good. Many are trying to destroy (that) relationship We hope that wise and independent countries such as India would not give their space technology to other countries to launch instruments for spying against friendly countries like Iran.”
Nabizadeh added: “The United States continues to be hostile (to Iran), and even today is trying to create problems between Iran and its friendly countries. We expect friendly countries to realize this…”
Although Iran has not conveyed its view to New Delhi at the official level, the ambassador said: “Informally, yes, we have had a discussion.”
“The fact that the Iranian ambassador chose to go public on this issue shows that Tehran takes it seriously and is deeply uncomfortable with India’s close collaboration with Israel in the military and space fields,” Qamar Agha, an expert based at the Center for West Asian Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia university in the capital, told IPS.
The Indian authorities could not have been unaware of Iran’s sensitivity on the spy satellite issue. The Israeli media had reported, quoting military sources in Jerusalem, that the TECSAR satellite, developed by Israel Aerospace Industries, is meant to keep a watch on Iran’s nuclear activities. The development of the satellite and its preparation for being lifted into a space orbit were shrouded in secrecy. Its launch, originally scheduled for September last year, was postponed, apparently for political reasons.
Describing the TECSAR launch as “spectacular,” ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair said on Jan 21 that it was a “red letter day” for Antrix Corporation, ISRO’s marketing and commercial arm. He added that the liftoff had been a difficult mission: “We had to almost go along the equatorial path, and then do a difficult maneuver to achieve (it).”
Reacting to reports that TECSAR was a “spy” satellite, Nair feigned ignorance of the content of its payload. But he said there is no such category as “spy satellites” because all imaging satellites have a multitude of purposes. India too is developing a radar imaging satellite, likely to be launched next year.
“The Indian government is clearly divided between its formal position that Iran’s current nuclear activities are legitimate and its keenness to develop a close partnership with Israel,” says Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University.
“New Delhi is schizophrenic,” said Vanaik. “It maintains that Iran has the right to develop peaceful nuclear technology subject to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But India also wants an alliance with the US and Israel which both oppose any nuclear activity on Iran’s part, including uranium enrichment for power generation. India has recently allowed its new strategic relationship with the US and Israel to prevail over its traditional friendship with Iran.”
India twice voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in contravention of New Delhi’s own position that Iran is not in breach of any of its obligations under the IAEA or the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Stephen Rademaker, a former US assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation and a senior arms control negotiator, said a year ago in Delhi that India’s votes were secured through “coercion,” presumably by Washington.
The US strongly opposes the Iran-India-Pakistan gas pipeline project, and has publicly warned India that it could face sanctions if it goes ahead with the deal, which is considered highly attractive for its energy economics.
Besides the much-touted “strategic partnership” with the US, India has also developed a close political and military relationship with Israel, with which it established full diplomatic relations only in 1992. This has entailed a huge shift away from India’s traditional support for the cause of Palestinian nationhood.
“Shamefully,” says Vanaik, “India has not uttered a word against Israel’s recent blockade and collective punishment of the people of Gaza. At this rate, India will fail to play an independent role in the most important and volatile region of the world.”
Over the past few years, India has become Israel’s biggest client in the global arms market. Between 2000 and 2006, India bought military hardware and software worth seven billion US dollars from Israel. This included a one billion dollar deal for the Falcon early warning system and smaller contracts for unmanned surveillance aircraft.
In 2006, India signed a 480 million dollar contract with Israel to develop a “next generation” Barak missile for its navy. This was followed last year by a 2.5 billion dollar deal to develop antiaircraft and antimissile systems based on the Green Pine radar. This is the biggest military contract in the history of Israel.
But India-Israel collaboration is not limited to arms deals. It extends to military and space research and development across a broad range, including surveillance satellite technology and electronic warfare, and upgrading of Soviet-era equipment including fighter jets, field guns and helicopters.
The two states are also widely believed to share military intelligence, especially pertaining to Pakistan and Islamic militants. And Israel’s Mossad secret service is thought to have trained India’s external intelligence agencies and a special protection group that guards important people.
The proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline is likely to be a major casualty of India’s increasingly close relations with the US and Israel. India has turned down several invitations since July last year to participate in talks to clinch the pipeline deal, which has run into a dispute over periodic price revision.
“New Delhi is making a big mistake,” holds Agha. “The price revision issue can be easily sorted out by give-and-take. If the deal is further delayed, India could lose the pipeline and natural gas, probably to China. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline for which Washington is rooting is no substitute for it.”
Yet, India’s petroleum minister Murli Deora announced yesterday that he will not attend the trilateral talks in Islamabad, planned for Feb. 12 or 13, to discuss the price issue.
“India’s collaboration with the US and Israel is likely to extract a much higher political and economic price than imagined earlier,” warns Agha.
(Inter Press Service)