Mounting friction sparks new concerns

G. Parthasarathy examines the escalating tensions causing political uncertainty in India’s oil-rich western neighbourhood

Faced with an economic downturn as its annual growth rate fell to 5% in 2019 and its exports declined, India is becoming ever more concerned at the prospect of rising oil prices and increasing political uncertainty in its oil-rich western neighbourhood.

The assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in a drone strike at Baghdad Airport stunned countries across the world. The killing was all the more shocking as Soleimani was visiting Baghdad to discuss ways to ease Saudi-Iranian tensions, with Iraqi assistance and cooperation. The attack also came at a time when Iranian influence in Shia-dominated Iraq was being strongly backed by powerful sections of the orthodox Shia clergy in Iraq.

India is well aware of problems which countries in its neighbourhood face in their diplomacy with Iran, especially given Tehran’s radical, regional and global outreach. Interestingly, American, Indian and Iranian interests coincided when it came to ousting the Taliban from power after 9/11. The Taliban was ruthless in dealing with Afghanistan’s Shias (Hazaras) in the days leading up to the 9/11 attacks. India and Iran were then cooperating extensively to provide military and economic assistance and support to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. India’s Special Envoy to the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, Satinder Lambah, played a key role in bridging differences between the US and Iran during the UN-sponsored Conference on Afghanistan in December 2001. The Bonn Conference led to diplomatic contacts in Geneva between the US and Iran, whenthey agreed to collaborate in the transition from Taliban rule.

A serious dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one hand, and Iran on the other, is crucial for peace in the region

The Iranian delegation to these talks in Geneva was led by a young rising star in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qasem Soleimani.

American and Iranian interests did coincide peripherally when President George W. Bush chose to invade Iraq and unseat President Saddam Hussein, who was duly executed by the Iraqis. That American action was responsible for the establishment of a majority Shia-dominated regime in Iraq. General Soleimani played a key role inenhancing Iranian influence in Iraq, particularly in the ground fighting to eliminate ISIS.

At the same time, Iran spread its wings across West Asia, arming and training Shia militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.It also created problems for Israel on its borders with Syria and Lebanon. Soleimani played a major role in backing Shia militias in Syria and joining hands with Russia, to ensure that American-led efforts to unseat the Assad regime in Syria were defeated. This substantially damaged American and Israeli influence in Syria and even in Lebanon. Iran has succeeded in building a virtual ‘Shia Crescent’, in partnership with Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the process, it has confronted and challenged the powerful US-Saudi alliance in the region and provoked Israel to confront it.

India welcomed the long and difficult negotiations initiated by then US President Obama, together with other major powers, to conclude a wide-ranging agreement to end nuclear and other sanctions on Iran. The Iran nuclear deal cleared the deck for normal trade and economic ties with Iran, a resumption of trade in petroleum products and the upgrading of the country’s Chabahar port, which linked India with Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. India and Afghanistan jointly negotiated with the Trump administration to get a waiver to its sanctions for this project.Moreover, given the fragile state of existing communications to Zahedan in Afghanistan, India agreed to build a rail line between Chahbahar and Zahedan. This project will need a separate waiver of American sanctions, which is going to be tough to negotiate.

The assassination of General Soleimani will inevitably make the US position more tenuous across the Middle East. The demands for a total US withdrawal from Iraq will become more vociferous.After the American setbacks in Syria, domestic pressure will also grow for a withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan.

Iran has succeeded in building a virtual ‘Shia Crescent’ in the Middle East
Iran has succeeded in building a virtual ‘Shia Crescent’ in the Middle East

After endorsing the Resolution of the Iraq Parliament for immediate and total withdrawal of American forces, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has pulled back, saying that any withdrawal would only involve US combat forces, not training and logistical support. The minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds would be uneasy with Iraq’s armed forces being dominated by the Shia clergy. Butthese pressures are only going to lead to a divided and weak Iraq, constantly under pressures from rival powers like Iran and the US.

These realities will also, hopefully,compel regional powers and the international community to work more closely to restore stable peace and security in the oil-rich Persian Gulf Region.  After the devastating attack on Saudi Arabia’s strategic oil facilities, quite evidentlyinitiated by Iran, there are constant fears of small incidents triggering off a wider conflict.A serious dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one hand, and Iran on the other,is crucial for peace in the region. The process already underway to pave the way for reducing tensions between these Arab Gulf states and Iran, for which General Soleimani was visiting Iraq, needs to be taken forward.

As the Trump administration prepares for presidential elections in November, it is determined to get its troops out of Afghanistan before the poll. At the same time, it has tied itself in knots over its hostility to Iran. All this has been accompanied by a more assertive role by Russia which, together with China, has recently carried out joint exercises with the Iranian navy in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. At the same time, ArabGulf States including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain – which depend on a US military presence for their security – are not likely to relish any talk of an early US withdrawal from the region.

India, whose Western Fleet has direct ties with the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, would favour an inclusive negotiating process to ease tensions across its western Indian Ocean neighbourhood, like the recent initiative proposed by Russia.

G. Parthasarathy, a career Foreign Service Officer, is currently Chancellor of the Central University of Jammu and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He previously served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office

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