It is difficult to overstate the geopolitical dynamism of the Middle East these days, where careers are waiting to be made and dissertations to be written. Admittedly, the region has always been generous in this regard but the thawing of the international sanctions regime against Iran subsequent to its nuclear understanding with the West and the emergence of the terrorist enterprise ISIS have shaken up regional alliances and opened up new opportunities for international actors, novice and veteran. Among these new entrants, India is a tentative power with a light footprint in the region but whose growing economic potential will inevitably push it to form more substantial relationship with its near neighbours.
Foreign policy abhors dynamism. It is often viewed with suspicion as it usually means a change in too many variables in a short time for the community to keep up with. Henry Kissinger’s overtures to China in the early 1970s are one example and a more recent one is President Barack Obama’s perseverance in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. With Delhi and the Middle East, the leg irons come with three cuffs: the stability of oil supplies, $35 billion in remittances from the seven-million-strong Indian diaspora in the region, and the hope that friendly relations with the Islamic world will yield indirect benefits in suppressing Pakistan’s terrorist ways. Valid concerns though they may be, India has not been served well by those restrictions and events over the past two years may hold some hope for a readjustment.
Looking to recover from decades of economic sanctions, Iran seems India’s most obvious gambit in any new outlook on the Middle East. The benefits of a cosy relationship with Tehran have been spelled out several times since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed – for Iran, it would increase sales to what is already its its second largest client for crude oil and the potential of a gas pipeline between the two countries, via Pakistan or undersea, promises a very lucrative relationship. This arrangement is obviously beneficial to India who is looking to emerge as a major regional crude oil refining hub but in addition, Delhi hopes that its automobile industry, IT sector, and pharmaceutical companies will also make inroads into the Iranian market. It works to Delhi’s advantage that Tehran’s interest in partnerships with Western companies and their technology will have to take a back seat as the plummeting price of oil has made some of it out of reach for now.
The value of Chabahar is economic as well as strategic for both states though sanctions have caused India to drag its feet on the project until now. However, the strategic dimension has diminished of late: any ambition Delhi might have harboured about squeezing Islamabad by encircling it with India-friendly regimes in Kabul and Tehran seems unlikely to come to fruition as both governments are more worried about the emerging threat of ISIS in the region. It is rumoured that Iran has actually started funding and supplying the Taliban against ISIS over the past few months. Sentiments in Afghanistan are not dissimilar – Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, formerly of the Northern Alliance that India and Iran both supported, has called for Russian assistance in arming Afghanistan against the rising threat of ISIS. Together with Iran, China, the United States, and Pakistan, Dostum is also hoping to negotiate a peace with the Taliban. With Indian investments and aid coming in trickles, neither Kabul nor Tehran are willing to bet with India and stand firm against ISIS as well as the Taliban.
Unhappy with the United States’ emollient approach to Iran, Saudi Arabia has been reconfirm old alliances as it forges new ones. In this, it has had some extraordinary tactical success with Israel, who is just as worried about residual Iranian nuclear potential, and some unexpected failure with Pakistan who recently shied away from participating in the US-backed, Saudi invasion of Yemen. Furthermore, Pakistan has, over the years, moved from supporting a transitional government in Damascus to firmly opposing the overthrow of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Riyadh sees this as ingratitude on Islamabad’s part considering how the Arab monarchy generously bankrolled the Islamic republic’s covert nuclear programme in the 1980s and provided generous economic assistance whenever needed.
Although the Pakistani military has several times in the past served as the Arab monarchy’s sword, a relationship that goes back to the early 1960s, Islamabad is wary of getting caught in the sectarian crossfire between Riyadh and Tehran lest it brew trouble at home. Saudi Arabia has the same leverage on Pakistan that it does on the Islamic republic’s larger Hindu neighbour – over two million diaspora that send over $18 billion in remittances. Realistically, however, this threat is overplayed: expelling hundreds of thousands of workers can only be a gradual move and will in the short term have a downward impact on the economy of all concerned. Moreover, trade between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is heavily skewed by the former’s import of oil from the latter; Iran would be only too glad to make up any disruptions as it battles for a greater market share. Pakistan’s reliance on the House of Saud has reduced since China has taken a more active interest in bankrolling its South Asian client for strategic as well as economic reasons.
Perhaps as a sign of its displeasure, Riyadh has reached out to India. Just days before Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia last month, Riyadh announced sanctions against four individuals and two organisations in Pakistan involved in financing terrorist operations. In conjunction with the three terrorists – Fasih Mehmood, A Rayees, and Zabiuddin Ansari – Saudi Arabia extradited to India four years ago, some have wondered if this is the beginning of a deep-seated change in the kingdom’s views on South Asia. They did not need to wonder for long – a couple of days after Modi’s visit, Riyadh joined Islamabad in voicing support for the right of the Kashmiri people to self-determination. The monarchy seems only interested in using India as an occasional jab to its Islamic ally rather than a durable relationship. One option for India is to similarly develop closer ties with the kingdom’s uneasy neighbours – Qatar and Oman come to mind – as its own leverage. In the meantime, playing up the Saudi card will keep the pressure on Islamabad.
Despite its flowery language about Israel and the Jewish people, India’s new alleged bonhomie is yet to show itself in any meaningful way. There has been little change in the South Asian state’s voting pattern at the United Nations; in fact, it recently endorsed an embarrassingly anti-Semitic UNESCO resolution much to the disappointment of Jerusalem and the pro-Israel lobby at home. The Jewish state’s newfound congruence with the most influential Arab power – the one with the deepest pockets, at least – gives India room to develop relations across a broad spectrum of interests, from defence, counterterrorism, and nuclear energy to medicine, agriculture, and education without fearing an immediate Muslim backlash. Modi’s delay in visiting Israel stands as a symbol of all that is wrong with the relationship – goodwill, converging interests, and sweet words that do not, as is usual with India, amount to much in substance.
Truth be told, India will not amount to much in West Asia in the foreseeable future despite its hydrocarbon bill – it lacks the defence technology, economic power, social capital such as universities and think tanks, diplomatic investment, and military boldness that the region demands. In all fairness, the South Asian democracy has a gargantuan task at home, rebuilding its economy, institutions, and military power after nearly seven decades of socialism and weak democracy, to offer others much support. Yet if Delhi shrinks from seizing opportunities, however slim, to realign its neighbourhood to its interests, it may wake up to an even more adverse environment tomorrow. Between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Israel, there exists an opportunity for India to begin emerging as the regional power that it always obliquely boasts of being. Delhi must not hesitate to re-imagine West Asian geopolitics and invest decisively and meaningfully in projects that will enhance its interests. Although the region looks bleak, there has been no time in recent years when it was as susceptible to realignment as it is now.
This post appeared on FirstPost on May 11, 2016.