By Talmiz Ahmad
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s triumphant foray into West Asia nearly two years ago, that encompassed the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar, now seems a distant dream. The four joint statements concluded during these visits had identified India as a “strategic partner” of these disparate countries competing for regional influence with each other, and had laid the basis for a constructive and substantial Indian political, economic and security role in West Asia.
The engagement in Tehran had been particularly dramatic: Then, the Indian, Iranian and Afghan leaders had signed the tripartite agreement that would link the Chabahar port, to be developed and managed by India, with Afghanistan, providing a direct political and strategic link to sustain India’s interests in that country.
There are concerns that the momentum of these path-breaking initiatives has faltered, with limited progress being made in implementing many of the agreements concluded by Indian and West Asian leaders.
The regional scenario now presents new challenges for Indian diplomacy. Bloody conflicts continue in Syria and Yemen, while the Saudi Arabia-Iran confrontation displays acrimonious rhetoric and even dangerous sabre-rattling. The situation has got further complicated with Saudi Arabia mobilising the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain in imposing a comprehensive embargo on its fraternal neighbour, Qatar, for questioning the confrontation with Iran and reliance on US President Donald Trump as a partner in shaping this posture.
Trump had made Riyadh his first foreign destination as president and, in return for lucrative defence contracts, firmly allied himself with the Saudi-led Sunni political and military alliance against Iran.
This reflects the visceral animosity that Trump and his security chiefs have for Iran, seeing it as a “malign force” that is responsible for terrorist activity across West Asia. The Trump presidency has committed itself to rolling back Iran’s regional influence and even promoting regime change.
Towards this end, the US president has removed restrictions on weapons supplies to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, and has approved lethal US bombings in both Syria and Yemen. Talk of war against Iran is being promoted by Right-wing lobbies. This has found a happy echo in Saudi Arabia whose powerful crown prince views the confrontation with Iran in stark sectarian terms.
Some observers believe that India, by distancing itself from Iran and recently hosting the foreign minister of the Saudi-backed Hadi government in Yemen, Abdulmalik Abduljalil Al Mekhlafi, is pursuing positions in line with the US approach.
This assessment makes little sense. From the Indian perspective, conflict in West Asia would be a very dangerous development since it would jeopardise its crucial and abiding interests in terms of its energy security, trade and investment prospects, and the welfare of its eight million-strong community in the region.
India has no reason to share the US’ hostility towards Iran: The US position is largely a product of domestic US interest groups, particularly the neo-cons and politicians beholden to them. India, on the other hand, knows that Iran is both the target of and the enemy of jihad.
Iran is crucial for India’s strategic interests: The Chabahar port enhances India’s regional, economic and political presence, balancing as it does the Chinese at Gwadar, just 80 km away. Again, road and rail links from Chabahar will connect India with Afghanistan, Central Asia, and, through the International North-South Transport Corridor, even Russia and west Europe. These connectivities will balance China’s Belt and Road Initiative and make India a role-player in Central Asian and Eurasian politics.
Saudi Arabia’s confrontation against Qatar shows the futility of its aggressive posturing. It has in fact encouraged Iran and Turkey to rush to Qatar’s assistance, calling into question the entire basis of the kingdom’s simplistic sectarian approach to regional competitions.
India’s recent interaction with the Yemeni foreign minister has hardly any political significance, since the sponsors of the Hadi government, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are pursuing a political settlement that will exclude Hadi and bring former president Ali Abdullah Saleh back into the national mainstream.
West Asia is a part of India’s neighbourhood. India’s ties with this region go back several millennia; it is also the region where its crucial interests are at stake.
What the region desperately needs is not more conflict, being encouraged by the Trump presidency, but the balm of diplomacy that would promote engagement and dialogue. India should re-visit the joint statements signed two years ago and shape a diplomatic initiative to respond to the desperate call for peace from the region.
Hindustan Times, July 25, 2017