Seriously concerned by Iran-Israel escalation, says India; embassies in close touch with Indians in the region

The lack of any direct mention of Iran’s strikes on Israel in the MEA’s statement underlines New Delhi’s effort to remain neutral; concerns about Indian sailors in Iranian custody, Indians in the Gulf, and workers headed to Israel

Updated - April 14, 2024 09:44 pm IST

Published - April 14, 2024 10:50 am IST - New Delhi

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel on April 14, 2024

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel on April 14, 2024 | Photo Credit: Reuters

India said it is “seriously concerned” by the escalation of hostilities in the Gulf region, and called for “immediate de-escalation” and diplomatic measures between Iran and Israel.

In a statement issued hours after Iran launched drone and missile strikes against Israel, the Ministry of External Affairs said that Indian embassies in the region are in contact with Indian communities living there. Indian officials had already been in touch with the Iranian government about the safety of 17 Indians on board an Israel-linked ship MSC Aries, which was seized by Iranian forces on Saturday.

Iran-Israel tensions LIVE updates April 14, 2024

Meanwhile, the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv issued a second advisory on Sunday, asking all Indians in the country to follow safety protocols, in light of the new tensions and the fears of more retaliatory strikes between Israel and Iran.

Call for de-escalation

“We are seriously concerned at the escalation of hostilities between Israel and Iran which threatens the peace and security in the region. We call for immediate de-escalation, exercise of restraint, stepping back from violence and return to the path of diplomacy,” the MEA said. “It is vital that security and stability are maintained in the region.” It added that Indian embassies are in “close touch” with Indian citizens in the region, and that the government is monitoring developments closely.

Significantly, the MEA statement did not refer directly to the Iranian missile strikes in the region, which the Iranian government said were a reprisal for Israel’s April 1 attack on Iran’s embassy in Damascus, when seven Iranian military advisors, including three commanders, were killed. The Indian statement was distinctly different from statements by the United States and its allies, which pledged to defend Israel, and the UN Secretary General, who pointedly condemned the Iranian strikes.

Focus on Indians’ security

The more restrained statement from New Delhi indicates its need for balance, given the Modi government’s attempts to deal equally with both Tehran and Jerusalem in the last few months. In particular, New Delhi’s attention has been diverted to the issue of the 17 Indian sailors on board the MSC Aries, who have been taken into Iranian custody.

“We are focused on ensuring the security of Indians, including those on the ship that was detained,” an official said on Sunday.

Balancing act

Amidst rising tensions after the October 7 terror attacks on Israel by Hamas, the bombing of Gaza by Israel, and the targeting of ships in the Red Sea by Houthi militants, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had visited Tehran for talks in November, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Dubai in December. 

“We have a certain position on Israel, on the ongoing developments there. In regard to Iran also, we had the visit of our External Affairs Minister to that country. We discussed all the issues that are involved in our relationship including connectivity, including several other aspects of our bilateral relations,” MEA spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal had said in a briefing on Friday when asked about the tensions.

8 million Indians in Gulf

In addition, India has been focused on the issue of Indian expatriates across the region, as worries grow about a full-fledged conflict. While there are relatively fewer Indians in Iran (about 10,000) and Israel (about 18,000) at the moment, more than eight million Indians live and work across the Gulf region, and any escalation of tensions could affect them all.  Although no announcement has been made about possible evacuation efforts, India had carried out “Operation Ajay” to bring back about 1,500 Indians on commercial flights after the October 7 attacks. The statement on Sunday reflects a desire to remain neutral in a deeply polarising conflict in the region.

Another concern now is the thousands of Indian workers who had been preparing to travel to Israel under a government-to-government agreement to supply construction workers for Israeli projects in a bid to fill Israel’s massive shortage of labour caused by its decision to revoke entry permits for Palestinian workers. With India issuing a travel advisory against any travel to Iran or Israel, as well as airspace closures, Air India cancelled its flight to Tel Aviv on Sunday.  

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