Israel’s spy satellite launched by India in the third week of January considerably enhances Israel’s intelligence-gathering capability. The launch of the Tecsar satellite, also known as Polaris, also marks a new stage in India-Israeli strategic relations and adds a new factor in the complex security scenario in the Middle East.
The Tecsar satellite is fitted with a large dish-like antenna to transmit and receive radar signals that can penetrate darkness and thick clouds. Built by Israeli Aerospace Industries, the Tecsar ranks among the world’s most advanced space systems.
India officially argues that it is commercially utilizing its advanced technological capacity to place satellites in orbit. But launching a spy satellite for Israel cannot be treated as a purely commercial transaction since the strategic and political implications of such a deal are too obvious. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), whose Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was used to place the satellite in orbit, is known for the fanfare and publicity blitz around its every launch. Such publicity was conspicuously absent on this occasion. The ISRO deliberately underplayed the strategic and political implications of the launch. There were no media witnesses for the event. Until Antrix, the marketing and commercial arm of the ISRO, made the announcement, the event was shrouded in secrecy.
The real reason for the satellite launch is Iran. India’s launch of the new Tecsar, Israel’s advanced Israeli satellite, is equipped with a camera capable of taking pictures of Iranian soil through the masses of clouds in day or night conditions. Although the United States was opposed to the launch, it has nevertheless assigned India responsibility for helping to contain Iran.
In reporting on the event, the Israeli media highlighted the strategic significance of the satellite in relation to Iran. The Jerusalem Post wrote, “The launch will dramatically increase Israel’s intelligence gathering capabilities regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program since the satellite can submit images in all weather conditions, a capability that Israel’s existing satellites lacked.” Haaretz was equally candid: “the sophisticated new spy satellite could boost intelligence-gathering capabilities regarding Iran.” The satellite “enables Israel to establish a new point of view in space, allowing it photographic angles and reception of Iranian communications which were unavailable in prior satellite launches,” the Haaretz article continued. News Middle East reported Israeli officials confirming that “Tecsar is of particular interest to their country because it can be used to keep tab on Iran’s nuclear program,” which the United States and Israel fear is a cover for pursuing nuclear weapons.
India has thus become an active collaborator in enhancing Israeli security, particularly vis-à-vis Iran. According to P.R. Kumaraswamy, a well-known expert on India-Israeli relations, “Put simply, should Israel resort to a military option against Iran’s nuclear program in the future, Polaris would be pivotal. Perhaps it was due to this consideration that the launch was surrounded with secrecy.” As Haaretz points out, “The launch is also an expression of the growing cooperation between India and Israel in the security sphere as a whole, and in particular in the field of missiles, radar and satellites.”
Israel commissioned the launch since it did not have orbital polar flight capabilities. The deal was finalized during the visit of Israeli defense ministry director-general Amos Yaron to New Delhi three years ago at the beginning of the term of the present Congress-led government in India. The launch of the Israeli spy satellite was originally scheduled for late 2007 but had to be postponed a few times. Indian officials attributed this to technical difficulties and weather. Media reports suggested that the delay was due to intense political pressure from some Gulf countries. But Jerusalem Post squarely put the blame for the delay on “Iranian sabotage,” information it attributed to Western sources. Iran “has applied heavy pressure through Indian opposition parties – particularly the Muslim and Communist political factions,” the daily said. There is no Muslim faction in Indian opposition. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), on whose support the Indian government depends for its survival, has been critical of the government’s support of the U.S. strategy against Iran. In a statement it attacked the government “for collaborating with Israel” and accused it of “aiding Tel Aviv’s military efforts in launching its spy satellite.”
A fortnight after the launch, Iran voiced its unhappiness over the launch of an Israel spy satellite by India. Iran said that New Delhi should have considered the “political” dimensions of the deal, according to rediff.com.  Iranian Ambassador Seyed Mehdi Nabitzadeh said his country’s point of view had been conveyed to the government, which responded by citing technical reasons. “We hope that wise and independent countries like India do not give their space technologies to launch spying operations against Iran,” the ambassador told the media in New Delhi.
A sea change in India’s relations with Israel took place after the National Democratic Alliance Government (NDA), led by the Hindu militants of the Bharatiya Janatha Party, came to power in 1998. India soon became Israel’s closest ally in Asia with strategic, defense, and intelligence cooperation growing rapidly. India became the biggest market for Israeli arms. Israel became India’s second largest supplier of arms but also the largest supplier of several high-tech, critical weaponry such as a wide array of surveillance items, electronic warfare systems, a ground-based Green Pine ABM radar, and Phalcon airborne warning and control systems. These arms sales were part of a declared NDA policy to forge an alliance among India, the United States, and Israel.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government came to power in mid-2004 amid expectations that it would take a new look at Middle East policy. However, there was no such review. Instead, the government continued to collaborate with Israel on a low-key basis. It was soon obvious that the government was waiting for the exit of Yasser Arafat from the scene to go ahead full steam with strategic and defense collaboration with Israel.
India’s Naval Chief Admiral Suresh Mehta visited Israel in the first week of January 2008 to finalize several key defense projects. World Tribune reports that Mehta, also chairman of the Indian joint chiefs of staff, met his Israeli naval counterpart and senior defense officials for discussions on weapons project and joint training. Mehta was said to have reviewed efforts to enhance the Israeli-origin Barak missiles defense system. The Barak-2 is designed to protect ships from a range of missiles and to expand India’s interception and detection capabilities. India has already deployed 14 Barak-1 systems produced by the state-owned Israeli Aerospace Industries. Under the sale, some of the components of the Barak were produced in India. Industry sources in Israel said India has sought to purchase Israeli missile technology. The sources cited India’s interest in Israeli Python 5 and Derby auto air missiles as well as Deblah-2 air-launched cruise missile.
The geopolitical implications of the collaboration between India and Israel are grave and manifold. In spite of denials, the United States has assigned India a role in its strategy against Iran, which India has been playing since July 2005.
“It is a safe guess that support for U.S. actions on Iran was one of the conditions of India’s nuclear deal with the United States,” I wrote in 2005. “The commitment Washington extracted from the Indian prime minister in July 2005 to vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy’s governing board was followed by a campaign against India on the Capitol Hill. Congressman Tom Lantos, in remarks before the House International Relations Committee, said India had to ‘choose between the ayatollahs of terror and the U.S.’”
India voted twice in the IAEA governing board against Iran, thus endorsing the U.S. agenda for confrontation with Iran. In the Henry Hyde Act, which governs the India-U.S. nuclear agreement, the Untied States expects “India’s full cooperation to dissuade, isolate and if necessary sanction and contain Iran.” Iran is likely to interpret the collaboration of India and Israel in intelligence-gathering as part of this grand scheme.
India’s interest in the proposed Iranian gas pipeline through Pakistan diminished sharply from the time the India-U.S. nuclear deal began to take shape. India has not participated in some of the recent discussions on the pipeline. While India has not officially withdrawn from the project, it is believed that the United States wants to undermine India-Iran economic relations to such an extent that New Delhi becomes a stakeholder in its plans against Iran.
There are other implications, too. Israeli spy satellites also serve as weapons in the continuing conflict with the Palestinians. Pakistan understandably has anxiety about spy satellites launched by India being used to gather information on Pakistan, especially with reported plans to launch two more satellites. Times of India reported that although command, control and supervision of the Tescar will be in Israeli hands, “Israel will allow India access to some of the data sent back to ground stations.”