THE BLOG

An Asian Entente: India, Iran, Israel

Of George W. Bush's infamous axis of evil, Iraq simmers, North Korea waxes and wanes, only Iran remains firmly in Obama's crosshairs. Two of his closest allies, Israel and India, are seemingly on the outs with Obama. In 1907, erstwhile adversaries England, France, and Russia formed the Triple Entente, generating enduring peace between them, and claiming the 20th century for the West. At the dawn of the 21st, India, Iran, and Israel have the opportunity to come together and transform it into an Asian one.

Sounds like a pipe dream? At first glance, maybe so. Iran and Israel are constantly at loggerheads, aiming bombastic rhetoric at each other. All three countries have distinct ethnic, religious, and linguistic identities. But so did the European powers. And like them, the Asians too are confronted with common challenges and coalescing interests. First, each one fears a return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. India and Israel fret that a nuke in the Taliban's hands is a recipe for blackmail and disaster. India moreover is worried stiff that Obama's Af-Pak policy will embolden Pakistan to wrest Kashmir away from it. Leave aside the Americans, with even Hamid Karzai making feverish overtures to the Taliban-Pakistan combine, India's over $1 billion investment in Afghanistan since 9/11 promises to come to naught.

Iran, too, has not forgotten how the Sunni Taliban oppressed Afghani Shias. A joint Indian, Iranian and Israeli plan for Afghanistan could well keep the Taliban at bay. Enmeshed in an Asian net, Kabul would have difficulty flaring over just as Germany has been kept under the wraps of the European Union for the last fifty years. Success in keeping Afghanistan calm will confer on all three countries immense prestige, which is what they really crave. Israel seeks recognition from the Muslim world. A concordat with Iran would earn it not just Shiite goodwill, it will also put pressure on key Sunni holdouts such as Saudi Arabia to follow suit. Iran and India are both keen to recapture the glory of their ancient civilizations. Iran's muscle flexing has perhaps less to do with bolstering its security than with posturing for respect.

India already counts itself as a global player but has been brought down a peg or two lately. George W. Bush built it up as a counterweight against China, Obama has virtually excluded it from his Af-Pak policy. New Delhi has perforce had to learn to be master of its destiny. To swing its nuclear deal with Bush, it antagonized the Iranians by voting against them at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Now anxious to repair relations with Iran, it is opposing international sanctions against Teheran. Israel too is making obvious its intentions of charting a course independent of the Americans.

Starved of energy, both Israel and India need reliable sources. Iran is flush with oil and gas. But it lacks extraction technology, as well as access to ready markets. India and Israel can provide each in good measure. A much-ballyhooed gas pipeline from Iran to India got clogged by the latter's embrace of the U.S. With that relationship fraying, pipeline discussions are back on track.

On the whole, India has maintained good ties with both Israel and Iran. Diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv were established in 1992, and annual non-military trade has since blossomed to nearly $3 billion. More significantly, Israel has become India's second largest defense supplier, with sales of around $9 billion. With Iran, India's 20 million Shiite community reinforces civilizational links. Iran remains the only Islamic country to have backed India's case on Kashmir.

An accord between the three countries promises way too much -- security, recognition, energy -- to be sabotaged by needless bellicosity. In the 1970s, Pakistan served as a conduit between bickering America and China, instigating a stunning turnaround in their relations. To extend its influence, India has been crafting alliances in far-flung places (BRIC with Brazil, Russia, and China; IBSA with Brazil and South Africa). Why not take a leaf out of its archrival Pakistan's book and exert closer to home in bringing Israel and Iran together?