Saudi Arabia, Iran and a three-way tango

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If India is serious about being everyone’s ally in the Persian Gulf, it will have to engineer a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran

In a deft diplomatic dance last week India simultaneously hosted Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the defence minister of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran—arch rivals on opposite shores of the Persian Gulf. This, of course, is not the first time that India has danced a three-way tango.

In May 2012 at the height of the US-Iran spat, New Delhi managed a similar feat hosting US secretary for state Hillary Clinton (on a mission to persuade India to reduce oil imports from Iran) and an Iranian business delegation led by Yahya Al Eshagh (seeking to increase trade with India). Earlier too, India adroitly managed the participation of Iran and Iraq at the height of their bitter war, at the 1982 Asian Games. Clearly, India has admirably managed to maintain its goodwill even between adversaries.

As foreign minister Salman Khurshid justified with a hint of pride in a speech in Bahrain last December: “This mutually beneficial engagement is based on a clear-headed assessment of our national interest and our bilateral complementarities. Our successful efforts to upgrade our relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iraq are an illustration of this approach.”

While India’s finesse in equivocating its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran is tactically sound, it is a timorous option and has serious strategic limitations for its long-term interests in the region. For instance, how could New Delhi really convince both Riyadh and Tehran that its strategic partnership with both is not a zero-sum game? Besides, the deep Iranian and Saudi mistrust of each other would ensure that any strategic or intelligence cooperation either one has with India would be limited by the mutual suspicion of the two Gulf powers.

India’s balancing approach was well suited for a time when the US underwrote regional security in the Gulf. Today, however, as India’s stakes rise in the region and Washington tilts away from its erstwhile Saudi ally and attempts to pivot to Asia-Pacific, such a balancing act will leave India bereft of a real strategic partnership in the region.It also leaves the door open for China to extend its influence.

China’s efforts to cultivate Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner date back to the late 1980s when it sold nuclear-capable Dong Feng 3 missiles. According to recent revelations China has replaced these ageing missiles with the even more formidable solid-fuel Dong Feng 21 missiles, which could target Iran. On a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi outlined Beijing’s four support policy to Arab states in general and Riyadh in particular. In doing so, China has also signalled a tacit containment policy vis-à-vis Iran.

In contrast, India’s unequivocal endorsement of the Geneva accord on Iran’s nuclear file between the UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany is likely to rankle in Riyadh. Ironically the accord may even weaken India’s negotiating position with Iran. While India supports the agreement with Iran because it allows for normal oil imports, the sanctions actually worked in India’s interest. They compelled Tehran to favourably consider India’s call to develop Chabahar (a crucial entrepot giving access to Afghanistan and Central Asia) after nearly a decade of stalling. Moreover, the sanctions forced India and Iran to trade in rupees, which provided a fillip to correct the balance of trade, which was heavily skewed in Tehran’s favour.

If India does not want to choose sides and is serious about being everyone’s ally in the Persian Gulf, it will have to engineer a rapprochement between the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran. That might be an impossible step even for the master of the three-way tango

This column first appeared in Livemint, on March 2, 2014.