Current Situation in West Asia and India’s Dilemma

February 22, 2012
Event: 
Round Table

DG Dr. Arvind Gupta
The changes and challenges faced by the world today are enormous and daunting, and there is a need to deal with these in an interconnected way. The dramatic unfolding of the situation in West Asia over the past year poses a challenge to India in terms of a political response. It calls for a quick rethinking of our foreign policy not just from a long term perspective but also to address the challenges in a tactical manner. The challenges did not appear on the scene without warnings. We have been dealing with nuclear issues for about a decade. Apart from this, the post-9/11 scenario brought forth other issues that added to the dilemma and changed the situation in West Asia—the rise of Shia influence, the Iranian nuclear issue, tensions between Iranians and their Arab neighbours, tensions between Iranians and Israelis, and the Arab Spring.

India’s interests are interspersed with all these developments. These have entangled India’s policy so much so that responding and dealing with them within set parameters has become difficult. The interconnectedness of these issues makes it difficult for India to accept any side or position. Moreover, the recent bomb blast in New Delhi targeting Israeli embassy personnel has added further to the existing dilemma as to how India should articulate its stance on the West Asia imbroglio.

With this background, the participants of the roundtable sought to answer the following research questions:

  1. What are the dilemmas facing India in dealing with the present crisis in West Asia?
  2. How should India mitigate these dilemmas?
  3. Did India make the right move when it abstained on the Libyan resolution and supported the West on the Syrian resolution?
  4. How should India balance its foreign policy towards Iran vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia; Iran vis-à-vis Israel; and Iran vis-à-vis the US?

Ambassador S.K. Bhutani
Our foreign policy decision in terms of East Asia, the West, etc., is set, which is not the case when compared to the West Asian region. Amongst the three revolutions that have been witnessed within the region, the third revolution triggered by the self-immolation of the fruit seller in Tunisia sent out a new message. It was a revolution showcasing the rising expectations and demand for participatory democracy. However, our response to the crisis in the region is confused.

In the case of the Gulf, a military solution to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power is not a feasible one. This is the same case with the Western solution of strangling the Iranian economy. Within Iran, there is a fragmentation of the elite. The leadership is divided, wherein the Ayatollah [Khamenei] and President Ahmedinejad are at loggerheads. The West’s aim is to use the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the P5+1 in order to pass a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution against Iran. India should not get involved in this debate because the Iranian interest will be taken care of by China and Russia. It is not the principles, but our interests that should matter.

Therefore, the question arises: What are India’s interests? Iran is beneficial to us for three important reasons: oil and gas, access to Afghanistan, and access to the Caspian Sea. The Afghanistan advantage fits into the large perspective for India, that is, in order to break the two fronts that we face in terms of conflict—Pakistan and China. India should not be a partner to other powers in containing Iran; rather our role should be to double our relationship with the latter. We should develop a constructive relationship with Iran and protect our country’s strategic interests. We should also work harder to develop relations with the Gulf States, especially those states that are not in favour of India developing relations with Iran by citing our purpose as being to maintain relations with both sides. However, its internal developments and politics makes it difficult to predict the direction Iran might take.

What do we do with the non-Gulf Arab states? Syria is a difficult case in point. Here, India should take a constructive humanitarian view and offer to send a non-official medical mission to both sides, or, at least, make such announcements. This will take the immediate pressure off from the Indian government and give them time to think up a response. In Egypt, the signs are positive and there are fewer contradictions to be resolved. The statement from the Muslim Brotherhood of 21 February, assuring the US that the peace treaty with Israel will be maintained if aid continues, and positive feedback from the US Senators’ visit to Egypt, all point in this direction. Egypt faces a lot of internal strife between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood along with unemployment, dip in tourism, and capital flight, etc. This, therefore, presents India with an opportunity to go in. During the protests at Tahrir Square, one of the demonstrators’ demands called for Egypt to adopt the Indian model. Hence, we need a non-official level study to probe this further, which should include the intelligentsia—academic institutions and/or the press. Moreover, we should not choose sides but try to live with all of them.

Ambassador Ishrat Azziz
All the problems that India is facing in the region are not bilateral in nature—be they with Israel, Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), etc. The root of the problem lies between the actors within the Gulf region, and in this they want to drag India into taking sides. The positive aspect is that India does not have a colonial relation or “cornering and controlling” relation with this region. All the countries in the West Asian region have strategic problems with each other—the Shia-Sunni divide (led to strategic gains to outside powers), Iran-Israel tensions, and Shia Iran’s problem with Sunni-Saudi Arabia, etc. However, India has to give this region its due importance due to meeting its energy needs. Thus, the economic factor becomes the most important factor in not hindering our relations with this region. We must note that though effective military power is regional, economic power is global. The other aspect of great importance is the 6 million Indians that work in this region and form an area of immediate concern to India.

Moreover, the GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, have expressed desire to develop strategic relations with India. The problem, however, is that developing strategic relations with the GCC will put us in a bind vis-à-vis dealing with Iran. The tension between GCC and Iran will affect Indian relations with either of them. For India, two countries that matter above others—amongst those who possess nuclear arsenals, share common border with it, and are beset with internal problems—are Pakistan and China. Hence, Iran possessing nuclear weapons does not affect us directly, as it is our neighbour’s neighbour. Rather, our immediate concern should be regarding our policy and stand on the issue, and what we should do to substantially prevent Iran’s nuclear programme. Moreover, we have to formulate policy for both the long- and the short term, especially for the latter, as it is difficult to meet contingencies that India faces now with regard to this region. Voting in the UNSC should be avoided as much as possible. However, neutrality in certain situations is not an option as our image as an emerging power demands that take a strong, positive stand. And this is our dilemma.

There will, eventually, be pressure on India. But we should not be seen to be taking sides because of, for instance, the influence/interest of the USA, Israel, and the West. We can justify the Syrian vote because the Arab League is the conscience keeper of the Arab world. However, regarding Iran, we should stand firm in stating that the IAEA should be the agency that should deal with such matters. If an anti-Iran resolution or a resolution perceived by Iran as against it comes up for vote in the UNSC, India must abstain and avoid taking sides. If it is proved that Iran has enriched to higher percentages other than for peaceful purposes, then India might have to take a stance.

Discussion from participants

One of the discussants, Dr G. Balachandran, said that, firstly, the military option against Iran is not ruled out yet. Secondly, there is going to be no diplomatic solution to this issue at all. The only solution during the negotiations is, one, suspension of enrichment and, two, to assure IAEA that there are no hidden facilities in Iran. The question is: if Iran possesses a nuclear bomb, will it do to Israel what Pakistan is doing to India, that is, use the possession of a nuclear bomb for doing anything in a non-nuclear way. In this case, Israel has to weigh the option of military solution or not. The belief that is going around is that in case the Iranian government does not change its position, then Israel will choose a military solution. Then India, as a bystander, has to make arrangements to procure oil and gas from other sources if the Gulf region goes for war, apart from evacuation arrangements for its nationals working in the region.

Cdr. S.S. Parmar said that the Shia-Sunni divide is a factor and a strategic problem in this region that India has to take into consideration. Ms Ruchita Beri emphasised that we cannot ignore that Iran is an emerging regional leader in the light of the decline of US power in the region.

Dr. Meena S. Roy said that Iran is a burning issue wherein the world is divided as to how to deal with it—it is also a ‘catch-22’ situation for India. India cannot afford to distance itself from Iran because of Afghanistan, though the argument points to the fact that the USA is more important than Iran. If we are looking at a symptomatic treatment of the problem, then the US position becomes important. However, as part of this region, we cannot afford to distance ourselves from Iran. How India deals with Iran is a real question for the fact that India tries to balance its relations with Israel, USA, and the other regional actors, particularly China and Russia, who are clear about their positions. Russia and China support Iran by seeking non-intervention. In terms of military intervention in Iran, within the USA there are divided opinions. A long-term study, as pointed out by Ambassador Bhutani, on the Caspian region should also be pursued as it is China’s next target. For India, it is possible to get into this sector. At the same time, we should explore options of cooperating with China in this region, and not just competing with it.

Dr. Roy also stressed that work needs to be done on internal dynamics within Iran. However, she said that change within Iran is not likely to come soon under current the circumstances when there is increasing pressure from external forces to isolate Iran. People within Iran will resist any kind of pressure and thus such a situation is likely to strengthen the current regime.

Mr. Samuel Rajiv felt that there is space for a constructive role for India in the resolution of the Iranian issue, along with other regional groupings like GCC and countries like Turkey. Currently, powers that are intervening in the Iranian nuclear debate are the Western ones. Gp. Capt. Krishnappa suggested that India should weigh the option or assess the cost of voting for or against, or abstaining when the UNSC vote comes on Iran. Dr. Kalyanaraman inquired about the advantages we can derive from India leaning towards the GCC and Saudi Arabia with particular reference to Afghanistan and its transition.

Ms. Shebonti Ray Dadwal asked if there was much pressure from Saudi Arabia or from any of the GCC countries vis-à-vis India to cut-off relations with Iran. Also, what is the need for adopting an ‘either-or’ policy? India’s relations with Iran are strategic, apart from being related to oil, and with the GCC the relations are largely economic in nature. So, she suggested, India should deal with them from these perspectives. In terms of our energy needs, we need not depend on Iran for energy per se. Yet, going by past experience, Ms Dadwal cautioned that India should learn its lessons from the 2005 resolution wherein relations between Iran and India soured. The implications need to be studied. As for the spare capacity of Saudi oil, one needs to bear in mind that its spare capacity is only 2 million barrels a day if oil from Iran is cut off. Moreover, till the present global economic crisis comes to an end, a military solution to Iran is not a likely option.

The common agreement amongst the participants at the roundtable was that relations with Iran must not be abandoned by taking sides. India’s stand should, instead, be guided by its national interests. Moreover, as Ambassador Bhutani cautioned, India’s response to the current situation cannot be merely guided by the past. According to him, we have to clearly understand motives behind certain occurrences, especially in terms of the recent bombings in New Delhi; it can be a person(s) or group(s) whose motive is to disrupt India’s relations not just with Israel but also with Iran. Ambassador Bhutani pointed out that India should pursue a constructive role wherever possible; where not, it should step aside. Ambassador Azziz said that if ever clear evidence of the compliance of any country’s/party’s involvement in the recent bombings in India is brought forth, then India should follow the due course of law. Moreover, he said that if India takes an anti-Iran stance at the UNSC without adequate justification, then it can spell trouble. The discussants emphasised that thorough research on Iran should be carried to get adequate information and data so as to form an informed picture of the evolving situation.