Israel or Iran? Antony chooses Oman
New Delhi, May 7: Dodging a visit to Israel despite repeated invitations, defence minister A.K. Antony has now asked a high-level military delegation led by the defence secretary to balance a trip to Tel Aviv with another to Tehran.
Antony himself has chosen the non-controversial shores of Oman, which he is scheduled to visit on May 18-19.
Defence secretary Pradeep Kumar is set to lead successive delegations to Israel and Iran later this month. The visit to Tel Aviv was a given because of the robust defence relations between India and Israel that both countries keep under wraps as far as possible. But significantly, Antony himself is not scheduling a visit, though it is long overdue on reciprocal terms — the last trip was by the Israeli defence minister.
The visit to Iran, probably the first at such a high level from the defence establishment in five years, is expected to counter-balance the criticism that Antony faces at home because of the ties with Israel.
The little revival in India-Iran military ties — on a steady downslide since New Delhi voted against Tehran twice at the International Atomic Energy Agency — will be taking place at a time India is pondering the future of its involvement in Afghanistan since President Barack Obama signalled that the US was in exit mode.
Antony has put off his Israel visit twice. New Delhi had also urged Tel Aviv to defer a second consecutive visit by the Israeli defence minister (Ehud Barak) in 2008. Antony has a record of being touchy about the Left's questioning of India's intense defence relations with Israel — which is now its second-largest supplier of military hardware after Russia. But the visit to Iran — Israel and Iran are foes — is likely to offset such doubts because it would allow the government to argue that it is pursuing a policy of multilateral initiatives.
It is likely that the defence secretary's delegation to Iran will include a team from the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). The BRO completed a 217km highway between Zaranj and Delaram in Afghanistan in 2008. But for a short stretch, the road can connect the Iranian port of Chabahar — through which the BRO shipped most of its equipment — to the "Garland" Highway that connects major cities in Afghanistan and is a potential land route for Indian personnel and equipment to central Asian countries.
India and Iran had strong military relations till 2005. Both countries use largely Soviet/Russian-origin hardware. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the Indian military helped refurbish the Iran army's T-72 tanks (which it also uses) and Indian naval bases serviced Iran's Kilo-class submarines (that are also in the Indian Navy's fleet).
In 2002, a BRO team had visited Iran for a feasibility study on building bridges near the port of Chabahar. But since five Iranian sailors were accepted for a training course in the Indian Navy in 2007, there has been practically no military exchange between the two nations even as the US rhetoric against Iran's nuclear capabilities rose in pitch and tenor.
Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Moutaki, visited India in November last year. In contrast, successive Israeli military delegations have been coming to India — at the rate of one every two months and in December last year even two in one month. Israel also has joint projects with the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation to make short-range and medium-range missiles.