Naor Gilon, Israel’s new ambassador to India, presented his credentials to the President on October 26. Two days later Gilon, who is a career diplomat, held an interaction with the Indian media. He began with lashing out at Iran and accused it of, according to Indian press reports, ‘destabilising’ West Asia. Israel and Iran bilateral ties are full of hostility and their capitals regularly trade charges.
However, their diplomats posted in third countries are expected not to embarrass their hosts by publicly condemning each other especially if the country to which they are accredited, such as India, has good ties with both states. Gilon was therefore guilty, at the very least, of a breach of diplomatic etiquette. This was surprising coming from a seasoned career diplomat.
In the days of conventional diplomacy Gilon’s attack on Iran would have led the Iranian ambassador to complain to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) against the break of diplomatic convention. There is little doubt that the MEA would have taken a dim view of Gilon’s comments and would have strongly advised him to refrain from publicly making anti-Iran comments. At the same time it would have discreetly and without attribution made it known that it had not found the ambassador’s comments acceptable. In this manner the Iranian’s complaint would have been addressed. The watchword of diplomatic practice then was discretion. But in these noisy and nationalistic times these traditional niceties are often overlooked by all sides.
Thus, the Iranian embassy in Delhi enraged by Gilon’s remarks issued a press release full of invective against Israel calling it a “terror house” guilty of “bloodshed, assassination and massacre of Palestinians”. It drew attention to Israel’s involvement in the “current Pegasus espionage”. In another set of comments the Iranian embassy stated that Gilon’s accusations against Iran were to cover up Israeli aggressive actions. It also drew attention to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. Finally it advised the Israelis against “using the said childish tactics to evade from giving the right answers to the valid questions”. The Israeli ambassador tried to make light of the charge of childish behaviour and raised the issue of the attack on his country’s diplomats in 2012 in Delhi suspected to have been carried out by Iranian agents.
India has cooperative ties with Iran and Israel. It has to insist that neither country targets the other in India. It cannot allow the diplomatic missions of either country to indulge in public bashing of the other. It would be therefore appropriate for the MEA to call in the ambassadors of both countries and demand that they maintain diplomatic conventions.
Certainly, while ambassadors and diplomats have to give priority to bilateral ties it is also part of their job to project their countries policies on international and regional issues where they are posted. It is also appropriate for them to put across their country’s stand on outstanding issues with hostile states. However, this has to be done in a manner that does not offend their host country. Most ambassadors seek out opinion makers across society and quietly and privately convey their country’s position. Sharp and high-pitched rhetoric as undertaken by the Israeli ambassador and the Iranian embassy may attract media attention but it is seldom effective in influencing those who matter. Indeed often it is counter-productive for it makes those who matter in a country feel that envoys who seek publicity either lack gravitas or are playing to a domestic constituency.
Significantly, at his media interaction Gilon also referred to the US-UAE-Israel-India meeting. From media reports it appears that he sought to give a convoluted explanation of the purpose of this meeting. He indicated that the meeting was an ‘outcome’ of the Abraham Accords. He also asserted that the establishment of UAE-Israel diplomatic relations were also part of the Abraham Accord process and that these two countries shared common concerns about Iran. There is no doubt that Iran-UAE relations have been difficult, contentious, full of suspicion and at times hostile too. To that extent there is a commonality of interests between the UAE and Israel over Iran. It is also no secret that the Sunni Arab peninsular states lobbied against the US-Iran nuclear deal and were happy, as was Israel, when former US President Donald Trump walked out of it. Besides, while all the Arab states make strong statements in support of the Palestinians their cause does not evoke the passion in the Arab street as it did in earlier times. Thus, from the viewpoint of the UAE and Israel there is a logic to the Abraham Accords.
The same is not so for India which has had cooperative if bumpy ties with Iran since its independence. This was so during the reign of the Shah who was closely aligned with the US during the Cold War while India was a non-aligned country. After the Iranian Revolution India-Iran relations grew but India had to navigate the sanctions the US imposed on Iran. This impacted the growth of cooperation in the energy sector but there was never any antipathy in India about Iran even if it did not see eye to eye with it on some issues.
In this background it is all the more necessary that the MEA does not allow any Delhi based ambassador to try to muddy India’s relations with Iran. This applies to even those ambassadors that represent friendly countries such as Israel. India must therefore draw redlines for the diplomatic corps in Delhi in keeping with diplomatic conventions and its national interest.