Saturday, January 25, 2014

IS: Securing India's Interests in Middle East

Adil Rasheed, Independent Security Analyst, New Delhi

Published on Indian Peace and Conflict Studies Website on June 16, 2014

The rabbit hole of Iraq springs up bizarre and devastatingly new challenges for the US even a decade after its invasion of the country. The embarrassment does not end there. The US is now forced to re-enter the quagmire and may fight alongside its arch-enemy Iran, much to the chagrin of its most ardent allies in the

region – the Arab Gulf states and Israel.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a new virulent strain of Wahhabi militancy, recently took control over the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit and according to some regional commentators threatens to rejig the region’s entire post-Ottoman shebang. Strangely, a large part of the ISIL’s forces comprises remnants of Saddam’s so-called secular regime – particularly the Naqshbandi Army operating under the command of the fugitive Ba’ath Party leader Izzat al-Douri. In response, Shiite militants have answered the call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in their thousands, raising fears that Iraq might soon disintegrate on sectarian lines.

These unforeseen events in Iraq follow other extraordinary developments that are fast transforming the geopolitical landscape of the region. Signs of a possible détente in relations between the US and Iran have taken the world by surprise. The six oil-rich Gulf monarchies that constitute the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been particularly outraged by the so-called US ‘double-cross’, with Saudi Arabia being so incensed that it refused to take the UN Security Council seat to which it was elected. The country has even warned of a major shift away from the US and is seeking to build an Asian pivot for a new security architecture.

The US-GCC relationship first came under strain in 2011, when Washington sided with democratic forces that deposed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and then recognised the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi. Fissures widened following the US’ inaction in Syria and its ‘neutrality’ during the Bahrain uprising, which confirmed GCC fears that Washington was no longer the guarantor of Gulf security. The last straw was the surreptitious nuclear deal with Iran last November, which apparently did not consider taking Gulf countries into confidence.

Thus, the trust is breached and the 40-year-long ‘oil-for-security’ pact seems past its sell-by date. The phenomenal increase in the US’ shale oil and gas production has helped the superpower outgrow its ‘addiction to Middle East oil’, allowing it to act more independently in the region. This has impaired confidence in regional security arrangements, which could have far-reaching implications for West Asia and the world.
For its part, India would have to continue walking a diplomatic tightrope between Iran and the GCC, building on the trust and goodwill it has earned among all sides in a volatile region. Interestingly, the early signs of thaw in the US-Iran relations augur well for New Delhi, as this had been a major point of contention in Washington-New Delhi relations. India has maintained diplomatic ties with Iran and both have shared geostrategic interests, particularly in Afghanistan and Central Asia. A breakthrough in the US-Iran negotiations could also allow India to increase its oil imports from the Gulf country – which are currently limited by the sanctions regime. There is also ample scope for trade and cultural exchanges. 

Still, a wide gulf exists between Washington and Tehran as the present thaw could dissipate any moment.

Moreover, any changes in regional relations should not come at the expense of India’s historic and strategically important ties with the GCC states. West Asia supplies over 62 per cent of India’s oil imports, most of which come from Arab Gulf countries. Moreover, the over 6 million-strong Indian Diaspora in the GCC states has created deep human links between the two societies. While 70 per cent of Indian expatriates in the GCC are blue collar workers, over 20 per cent are professionals. They remit about $30 billion to India every year.

Additionally, the GCC countries view the emergence of Indian economy with great interest. With the rise of major non-OPEC oil producers such as Russia and the US, the Gulf is looking toward the Indian and Chinese markets for sustainable demand. Again, following 9/11 and the 2008 global recession, Gulf capital is increasingly seeking investment out of the West. A significant degree of cultural comfort and confidence in India’s property rights protection and rule of law (unlike China’s) makes India an attractive investment destination. However, the policy paralysis that dogged India’s previous administration proved disappointing for some corporations. It is hoped that with the coming of a strong, new leadership in New Delhi, India may finally be able to meet expectations.

However, the security architecture of the Gulf remains a major concern for India. With the US influence in retreat, India needs to actively engage with the GCC, Iran and Iraq to secure its vital trade and energy interests. In cooperation with other Asian powers such as China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia, it should initiate building a durable, non-hegemonic security architecture which ensures stability and peace in the region.

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