As their confrontation with Tehran escalates, the Gulf Arabs are dismayed by Delhi’s inability to engage with their profound security concerns about Iran. Worse still, they see a Delhi that is politically passive on the Arab front and strategically active on the Iranian side. Three factors that may explain, in part, this strange Indian duality are the ideological legacy of India’s Middle East policy, bureaucratic politics and the absence of a real debate on the relative weights of Iran and the Arab Gulf in the scale of India’s national interest.
India’s foreign policy has long had trouble responding to intra-Arab and intra-Muslim conflicts in the Middle East. In India’s post-War imagination of the region, there were only two major contradictions — one between Israel and the Arabs and the other between the West and the Middle East. There was no room in this Indian schema for the internal schisms — ethnic, religious and sectarian — that have always been part of the region’s history.
Delhi’s grand narrative in the Middle East has been inherently incapable of dealing with the conflicts that unfolded from the late 1970s along multiple axes. Consider, for example, the following current conflicts in the region: Saudi Arabia and Turkey (Arab versus non-Arab), Saudi Arabia and the UAE versus Qatar (Arabs against Arabs), Saudi Arabia and Iran (Arab versus Persian, Sunni versus Shia), and the struggle of the 35 million Kurds for a homeland (ethnic nationalism that is pitted against Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran that host Kurdish minorities).
When the Islamic revolution in Iran during 1978-79 was followed by the Iran-Iraq war, both Baghdad and Tehran turned to India for help. But Delhi’s policymakers were paralysed. It was easier to criticise Anglo-American interventions and offer lip service to the Palestinian cause than navigating the internal contradictions of the Gulf.
Part of India’s ideological legacy in the region is Delhi’s temptation to divide the region into “secular and non-secular” regimes. Delhi’s tilt towards Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war is often explained in these terms. But it does not account for the fact that the “Islamic” Republic of Iran is shoring up the “secular” regime of Assad. More broadly, the imposition of India’s values and concerns on a region whose societies were structured very differently has terribly distorted Delhi’s policy towards the Middle East.
Second is the problem of bureaucratic politics. India’s ability to deal with the conflict between the Gulf Arabs and Iran is impaired by the decision to put them in separate boxes at the operational level. There is a Gulf unit in the MEA that deals with the Arab side and Iran is clubbed with another dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is no surprise that the PAI division gets a lot more attention than the Gulf unit.
The PAI division is handled by the foreign secretary on a daily basis and gets continuous high-level attention from the external affairs minister and the prime minister. The Gulf division has become a backwater handled at lower levels of South Block’s bureaucratic and political hierarchy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to correct this by travelling more frequently to the region and trying to elevate the quality of engagement with the Arab Gulf. But Delhi is a long way from a coherent strategy that can cope with the confrontation between the Gulf Arabs and Iran.
That brings to the third factor — Delhi’s tendency to privilege long-term geopolitical expectations from Iran over the far weightier current relationship with the Gulf Arabs. On all the current economic indicators — supply of hydrocarbons, size of the migrant workers, hard currency remittances, trade and mutual investments — Iran offers no serious comparison with the Arab Gulf. Parts of the Arab Gulf are also emerging as modern financial and innovation hubs that offer great possibilities to India. Iran is nowhere in that game.
On political issues too, the intensity of cooperation with the Gulf Arabs — on counter-terrorism, defence engagement and military exchanges — outweighs that with Iran. While a section of the Arab leadership has begun to talk about promoting moderate Islam, Iran remains wedded to pan-Islamist ideas on foreign policy. Some of the Gulf Arabs are now ready to help extend India’s naval reach in the Western Indian Ocean in a manner that Iran really can’t.
To be sure, India has important interests in Iran — as a gateway to Central Asia, as an energy source, a market, and its critical role in shaping the future of Afghanistan. But Iran’s role as an energy supplier, a transit nation and the size of its market will remain badly constrained in the near term by its closed economy, a growing confrontation with the US and a deepening internal political crisis. India, which collaborated with Iran against the Taliban in the late 1990s, must now deal with reports of Tehran cosying up to the Afghan insurgents.
As political realists, the Gulf Arabs do understand that India has interests in Iran. They are also aware of deep differences within the Arab ranks. They are not expecting India to take sides. They would think Delhi, like other major powers, will play both sides of the street. What they would like to see is a less mercantilist India that is ready for political play.
While Delhi focuses narrowly on its own interests — energy security, welfare of migrant labour, counter-terror cooperation — it tends to recoil from any political discussion of the existential challenges to the Arab Gulf. The costs of this blind spot in Indian diplomacy could turn out to be rather high. The time is now for Delhi to begin a substantive political engagement with the Arab Gulf on all issues that threaten to destabilise a vital region in India’s neighbourhood.