Here's how the Modi government is bridging the gulf with West Asia
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic offensives in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, plus India’s western neighbours Pakistan and Afghanistan are unusual exercises to set new terms and conditions for India’s engagement with the Persian Gulf
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic offensives in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, plus India’s western neighbours Pakistan and Afghanistan are unusual exercises to set new terms and conditions for India’s engagement with the Persian Gulf. Modi has visited Tehran in an environment where the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has reached breaking point, involving several irreconcilable issues. Interestingly his Iran visit has attracted little attention from the GCC’s official and semi-official media.
Now, the most frequently asked question among the strategic community will be how Modi is going to manage his relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran, where he has been putting in equal efforts.
Iran’s domestic dynamics
Iran’s Syria policy is on the verge of turning into a domestic political issue with the increase of dead bodies of Iranian military advisors and militants coming from Syria, although under strict media control. Former Iranian President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s criticism of Iran’s Syria policy and its support to Hezbollah reveals only half of the story. Rafsanjani is the wealthiest Iranian politician and his conciliatory politics, girded by business interests as well, have brought Iran and Saudi Arabia closer during his presidency. But the power structure in Iran is so complex that taking a radical position on Saudi Arabia or Syria will be seditious.
Much of the Syria policy is controlled by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei under whose control the most powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operates. An elected president can do little to approve/veto the decision-making of the IRGC and its external operations in such countries as Syria and Iraq. IRGC-controlled media outlets are extraordinarily harsh on the US and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, while the elected government is engaged in more conciliatory politics to end Iran’s political and economic isolation.
In recent months, as reformists are gaining ground in the Iranian political system, hardliners are working a different plan to bring former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in to challenge Hassan Rouhani. Also the public appearance of the top commander leading IRGC’s Iraq and Syria operations General Qasem Soleimani indicates that he is being projected as the next presidential candidate by some sections of hardliners.
Rafsanjani and his supporters are the ones who had made Iranian Revolution popular beyond sectarian lines across the Muslim world, despite strong resistance from many Sunni governments. Today, both hardliners and reformists are well aware that Iran’s Syria policy has made Tehran extremely unpopular among the Sunni masses across the world, limiting Iran’s once non-sectarian soft power. Iran has no ability to bring Sunni and Shia rivals together in Iraq, Yemen or Syria, leaving much of the peace process to Russia.
India’s Persian Gulf policy has been facing ‘balancing act’ situations since the 1979 Iranian Revolution had changed the basic dynamics of regional security. India, once an equally close friend of all regional powers, had to deal with several sets of balancing acts which include Iran versus Israel, Iran versus the US, Iran versus Iraq and Iran versus Saudi Arabia. From an Iranian perspective, Iran too faces the difficult situation of balancing between India and Pakistan, and between India and China. Any balancing act in this complex web of Iran’s global and regional engagement to avoid a zero sum game has been the central strategy, albeit with limited success. Former prime minsiter Manmohan Singh’s Iran visit to attend the Non-Alignment Movement 2012 Summit had received disapproving remarks from the White House administration that said that Iran does not deserve high-level presence.
In today’s deeply divided Arab and Islamic world, where sectarian, ideological and strategic fault lines are more hostile, West Asian countries are approached not by a uniformed response, Modi government is in effort to strengthen its relations country to country, instead. In India, there is growing clarity about the common interests between India and different regional powers, and countries’ individual capacity to influence regional politics. If Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE open up India’s Arab opportunities, Iran provides the most promising entry points to Central Asia and Afghanistan where Indian trade will routed through Iran’s Chabahar port. In this sense, Iran has to be integrated in India’s South Asia and neighbourhood policy where India and Iran have unlimited opportunities to go together.
India's deepening relations with the Gulf countries are shaped primarily by India’s effort to diversify its secured energy imports, safety and welfare of its more than five-million-strong diaspora, and more importantly, security and counter-terror cooperation. India’s trade relations, despite having reached a record high volume are yet to explore new opportunities. If Iran is India’s Gateway to Central Asia, the GCC is a gateway to entire Arab region spread from Levant to Arab Maghreb.
It is unlikely that the regional security issues, Syrian civil war, the Yemen crisis or the Saudi-Iranian rivalry can significantly contribute in defining India-Iran relations. For obvious reasons, India’s position on Syria and Yemen crisis is different from Iran’s. India understands the complexity of the regional rivalries. For example on Syrian crisis; ‘cessation of violence from all sides, Syria-led conflict resolution and political reforms to be introduced by the Bashar al-Assad regime’ has been India’s top priority. India has been discouraging all sides from considering the use of military force as the means of solution to the overstretched civil war.
At one conference at the Indian Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, minister of state for external affairs, General VK Singh had advocated maintaining ‘discreet contacts with the key members of the Syrian Opposition’ and had even offered ‘assistance in implementation of any agreement between government and opposition’. Similarly on Yemen crisis, India’s natural support is for the UN-sponsored peace dialogues recently held in Kuwait. India-Iran counter-terrorism cooperation does not necessarily clash with India-Saudi Arabia counter-terrorism cooperation. In fact, there is a significant progress between India and GCC states on counter-terrorism measures and India has successfully taken custody of many terror-accused Indian nationals.
In the backdrop of an ongoing struggle between Iran’s reformists and radicals, future of Iran’s regional policies will be defined by the one who will replace Iran’s supreme leadership. Any change in Iran’s complex power structure will help to decide the terms and conditions of Iran’s normalisation of relations with its Arab neighbours. India’s Persian Gulf policy has seen a clear separation between Iran’s role in its Arab neighbour and its far more constructive role in Central and South Asia.
That the Modi government has found a formula to avoid the pressure of ‘balancing act’ is the most likely reason behind his hitherto successful Persian Gulf policy.
The author is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
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