Prime Minister Narendra Modis visit to Saudi Arabia, his second to a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state, indicates a shift in Indias broader West Asia policy. Aimed at elevating Indias political profile in the region, Modis visit supplements other high-level ministerial visits to Oman, Bahrain and the UAE.
While the Modi administration has expanded Indias diplomatic footprint in the region, engaging also with Israel, Egypt and Turkey, political interaction with Iran seems to be lagging behind. Even though there is an element of surprise in the Saudi Arabia visit, as Israel was speculated to be Modis first West Asian stop, Iran finds no mention in his diplomatic calendar for the coming year.
Ties with Iran in need of political boost
Since coming to power, Modis outreach to Iran has been patchy at best, despite Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarifs visit to India in August 2015 and the overall optimism on bilateral relations after Irans nuclear deal came into force. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankarsvisit to Tehran in June 2015 after Iran rejected Indias bid to develop the Farzad B gas field,highlighted that the lack of diplomatic activism could cost New Delhi some vital energy projects. What followed was significant course correction from the Indian government, with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also raising the issue of the Farzad B gas field at the India-Iran Joint Commission Meeting in December 2015. Timelier is the announcement of oil minister Dharmendra Pradhans visit to Iran on April 9-10, aimed at concluding a deal on the gas field.
The momentum that Pradhans visit could bring to economic ties with Iran was expected after Zarifs visit. The Iranian minister invited India to develop the second phase of the strategically vital Chabahar port and operate it. He also extended economic opportunities worth $8 billion in Iranian infrastructure projects. For its part, New Delhi sent Transport and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari to Tehran in May 2015 to ink a memorandum of understanding pledging $85 million towards the Chabahar port project. However, Irans request for an additional $150 million line of credit is caught up in delays, and the pressure on New Delhi is mounting with Chinese investors lining up to win the lucrative project.
Ties with Iran, therefore, remain in want of a political boost, with high-level engagement limited to Swarajs and Modis meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Oraganisation summits in September 2014 and July 2015, respectively.
Even though the political neglect of Iran may be more perceptible under Modi, the preceding Manmohan Singh administration also did not shower much attention on Tehran.
While the UPA governments indifference towards Iran could have been a part of its limited regional policy, this was also the period in which New Delhi institutionalised security partnerships with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However, the Singh administration maintained a greater balance and despite pressure from the US to downscale relations with Iran, Singhtravelled to Tehran in 2012 to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit.
Strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia
New Delhis efforts to bolster ties with Saudi Arabia are likely a function of some urgent imperatives. Linkages between Indias internal security and the strength of its relations with the Gulf are becoming increasingly pronounced. Counter-terrorism cooperation has emerged as a fundamental pillar of the India-Saudi Arabia partnership, with swelling numbers of Indians joining ISIS ranks and multiple threats to the safety of Indian citizens in the Gulf. Riyadhs support to New Delhi in securing the release of Indians held hostage by ISIS and in evacuation efforts in Yemen indicate the urgency of deepening this partnership.
The rising emphasis on Saudisation in the Kingdoms domestic policies is also a critical driver of Indias outreach to Saudi Arabia. The institutionalisation of efforts to increase employment among Saudi youth through the Nitaqat Law, for instance, has already forced a chunk of the Indian workforce out of the country. As such policies become the norm in the GCC states, their domestic repercussions necessitate that New Delhi leverage its relations with the Gulf monarchies.
Another important dimension of Indias engagement with Saudi Arabia is Pakistan. Pakistan has long shadowed the maturation of Indias ties with the GCC. However, just as Modicapitalised on the strain in UAE-Pakistan relations, an elevated Indian profile in Saudi Arabia will give him another opportunity to restructure relations between the subcontinent and the Gulf. As Pakistan attempts to restore ties with Saudi Arabia after a brief period of tensions, it is vital for India to step-up the strategic component of Indo-Saudi ties and deepen economic and security complementarities with the Kingdom.
Maintaining the balance
The extension of the Saudi-Iran rivalry and the deteriorating security situation in the region will challenge Indias West Asia policy. However, New Delhi must resist any pressure to moderate relations with Iran given its geo-strategic importance to India. Iran is critical not only to Indias connectivity to Central Asia and Europe but also to Chinas ambitious one-belt-one-road project. Thus, there will be greater demands on New Delhi to upgrade its Iran policy.
As Tehran warns New Delhi about unnecessary caution in its approach to Iran, it is imperative for the Modi administration to ensure parallel levels of engagement with Riyadh and Tehran. —
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