x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Questions swirl about the motive for Delhi car bomb

Iran has a lot to lose as up to 12 per cent of its oil is exported to India.

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. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, 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, which Tehran has blamed on Israel. But the theory that these 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, the 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 anti-nuclear sanctions threaten to derail its economy.

Last week, India announced that a large trade delegation would visit Tehran within the next few weeks to explore expanded trade opportunities. The announcement coincided with a visit by the 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 Hizbollah or Quds Force personnel."

Despite the doubts, pressure is likely to mount on India to participate more fully in western sanctions. But India's economic and strategic priorities make it highly unlikely that it will play ball.

Between 10 and 12 per cent of India's oil imports come from Iran - worth about US$12 billion (Dh44bn) 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, 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, adding that the refineries that import from Iran are state-owned and quite old. She said they operate on thin margins that make them reliant on the long-term cost discounts they get from Iran.

Then there are the wider strategic concerns about isolating Iran, particularly when it comes to stabilising Afghanistan after 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, the 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, some analysts say Iran's involvement cannot be entirely ruled out.

"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 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."

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

erandolph@thenational.ae

Follow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Eric Randolph on @EricWRandolph