New Delhi: The successful North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile targeting the United States has ramifications that go beyond the Korean Peninsula. Those ramifications extend to the Middle East and further up to the Eastern Mediterranean encompassing two rival states at either ends, Iran and Israel, and they have further negative consequences for India, Israel’s newest and much-trumpeted strategic partner. The absence of a strategically-educated and -guided Prime Minister is hurting India at every turn.

The United States has no geopolitical counters for North Korea’s nuclearization. Military options bring unprecedented risks for South Korea and Japan. Any existential threat to North Korea would expose South Korea and Japan, both of which also host thousands of US servicemen, to nuclear attacks. China has some leverage on North Korea but is either unable or unwilling to employ it. In any case, it has accepted nuclear North Korea as a fait accompli. Russia has its own reasons to side with China on the North. If the United States is sensible, it will not risk a war. It cannot even hope for a stalemate that it somehow obtained in the Korean War. The strategic consensus seems to be to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and to hope that the principles of deterrence calm the North’s apprehensions of regime change and usher in a measure of stability in the region.

It is another matter that this new arrangement will further strengthen China vis-a-vis Japan/ South Korea and advertise to them the limits of US power in the Asia-Pacific. Japan has the capability but no heart to go nuclear itself. On the other hand, a nuclear North Korea may not always serve China’s interests. At any rate, China seems adept at handling and managing rogue states. Those in India need to look no further than Pakistan.

It is, however, the impact of North Korea’s de facto nuclearization that will bring long-term problems to this country. And as usual, tactically-minded as India is, no one is aware of the gathering storm.

North Korea has defied the world and endured some very tough sanctions to go nuclear for a modern geopolitical reason. And this is to save the regime from foreign intervention and involuntary change. The link between nuclear weapons and regime change has existed from the time Soviet Russia broke the United States’ atomic monopoly. This was further reinforced by the Chinese and Indian nuclear tests in 1964 and 1974. Indeed, the first Pokhran test by Indira Gandhi came in the backdrop of the 1971 Bangladesh War and the United States’ threat of intervention on West Pakistan’s side with the despatch of a carrier taskforce to the Bay of Bengal.

More than anything previously in fact, Indira Gandhi’s 1974 test showed the decolonized nations of the world especially in Asia, and particularly in the Middle East, a way to preserve their regimes. Having lost Bangladesh, Pakistan was vengefully spurred to have its own deterrent against India after 1974. In Pakistan’s case, its fears were worse than regime change: It could not trust to existing even as a rump state without nuclear weapons. But purely regime change fears animated a lot of states located to the west of Pakistan to seek security in atomic weapons acquired by any illegal means possible: From Iran to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and even Libya in North Africa. Having the wherewithal and the daring, this was almost the first thing that Israel did: To gain its own deterrent. As long as its nuclear capability was irrefutably apparent in the highly toxic but essentially nuclear-free region of its location, Israel felt no compelling need to go publicly nuclear. As a nonpareil military technology exporter, Israel has also gathered invaluable expertise for its own nuclear programme from its intimate association with foreign test programmes. Its specialization is miniaturization for nuclear warheads.

The nuclear imbalance to Israel’s favour in the Middle East has given it added advantage in limited wars. With the pacification of Arab states over the years after the breakthrough peace with Egypt, Israel’s sole major adversary in the region remains Iran, whose Palestinian and Lebanese proxies are a thorn in the side of the Jewish state. After several failed attempts to become a nuclear state, Iran reached an agreement with the United States and other major powers to give up its atomic quest in return for lifting of US-led sanctions. Donald Trump has given notice of his loathing of the Iran deal concluded by his sagacious predecessor, Barack Obama, and brought the rival Saudis into the inner circle of US allies. If Trump persists on the anti-Iran course, full US sanctions against Iran may lock in in the foreseeable future throwing the Middle East in turmoil again. The Iranians have built a stomach for sanctions and may even welcome it if it gives them a chance to unshackle from the Obama deal and pursue their nuclear programme unimpeded.

Without the North Korean success, the Iranians would have had self-doubts about their monumental nuclear enterprise. No longer. At all events, the elected moderate Iranian government will scarcely be the driver of a resurrected nuclear programme. The Iranian deep state and its principal executants, the Revolutionary Guards, would compel it for the old and tested reason of regime preservation and for a second cause: Nuclear parity with Israel. Ten times the convulsions generated by North Korea’s nuclearization would trail Iran’s matching quest, and the major powers would be weaker than now to resist a resolute Iran. If and when Iran goes nuclear, the entire complexion of the Middle East will change. Iran will dominate the Muslim world in a manner Pakistan could not despite being the only Islamic country with nuclear weapons. Israel will, in that contingency, face the greatest threat to its existence.

A just solution to the Palestinian question prior would greatly contribute to Israel’s security, but no one seems keen to impart some horse sense to the Israeli leadership. From the accounts published in the press, Narendra Modi scarcely raised the subject in his long and highly publicized engagements with his Israeli opposite number. If the current Israeli leadership has zero wisdom, there was no reason at all for India to lose its sense of proportion and make a most usual normalization of ties into a kitschy tiresomely prolonged event. Till the Palestinian issue is satisfactorily settled with an equitable two-state solution, strategic balance has to be maintained between Israel and Palestine. All the world does it. It is critical to Middle East security. But as with all things else, Narendra Modi delights in breaking conventions, even if it hurts India’s long term interests.

Israel was a sensitive issue with India not so much because of domestic politics as it had to do with relations with the external Muslim world. If Indian Muslims can fight Pakistan in wars since 1965 (for which reason Pakistan closed all immigration to Indian Muslims), there is no cause to believe that they have an interest in holding back India’s relations with Israel if it serves the national interest. But geopolitics always urges caution when bilateral relations are sought to be transformed. Emotions play a lesser role than hard and calculated realism. What is to be gained from a more visibly improved relation that is not presently available? How will this proposed transformation affect other state relations? Geopolitics is not a monochromatic affair. It is not a motion picture with clearly etched heroes and villains. You make the best of a bad deal. India was chugging along fine in the existing state of ties with Israel. So was Israel, which also keeps ties with Pakistan in a sensible display of geopolitical balance. But with Narendra Modi, everything is an event, where every geopolitical caution is cast to the wind. You never get a sense of strategic foresight and restraint with him.

This lack of moderation will extract a heavy price from India when Iran goes nuclear on the path shown by North Korea and the Middle East implodes. Narendra Modi’s successors would be hard put to restore the balance of ties with all countries in the region, including Israel and Iran. The world is in a highly uncertain situation. No major power is in control of world affairs. No transformations in geopolitics are possible short of putting national survival at stake as North Korea has done. Gradual increments in power are the only option available and even this has to surmount obstacles. Peaceful rise suited India and reflected its sovereign character agglomerated over many centuries. It shone the country’s deep strategic insight. Now geopolitics has acquired the ersatz glitz, shallowness and ephemerality of event management. With new nuclear powers on the horizon and the constraints on national power and therefore on war-fighting abilities likely to be removed, the world would be a pronouncedly contentious place. India is totally unprepared for this new reality. What is more, it is not even seized of its stealthy approach.