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Jerusalem Calling

S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 20, 2016

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bilateral visits to the United Arab Emirates (August 2015), Saudi Arabia (April 2016) and Iran (May 2016) are an affirmation of the government’s continuing efforts to correct the anomaly of limited high-level contacts with West Asia. Despite the significant stakes India has in the region, high-level contacts have been few and far between. The previous prime ministerial visit to the UAE, for instance, was 35 years ago, while Dr. Manmohan Singh’s 2010 visit to the Kingdom, India’s biggest energy source, occurred after a gap of 28 years. High-level interactions between India and Israel have equally been limited, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s September 2003 visit yet to be reciprocated.

    India-Iran interactions have been a bit more frequent, with Singh visiting Tehran for the NAM Summit in August 2012, while Atal Bihari Vajpayee made a bilateral visit in 2001. President Mohammad Khatami was the Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations in 2003, while his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited India in April 2008. Modi also met with President Hasan Rouhani in July 2015 at the side-lines of the Ufa Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), during which he was extended an invitation to visit Tehran. Modi’s upcoming visit to Tehran therefore reciprocates the bilateral visit of Ahmadinejad in 2008.

    It was only on May 17 that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) announced that the prime minister would be visiting Iran on May 22-23. The visit assumes significance given that it comes nearly 10 months after the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed to by Iran and its key interlocutors. The JCPOA successfully capped a decade-long process of finding a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear imbroglio. Given that India was a significant Iranian oil importer, it was uniquely affected by the unilateral ‘secondary’ sanctions measures targeting Iran’s oil exports imposed by the US and the EU.

    As a result of these sanctions and a blanket EU ban on the import of Iranian oil by its member countries (effective from July 2012), India remained one among six countries that continued to import Iranian oil; the others were China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Tukey. But the volumes of such imports declined drastically. In 2009-10, for instance, Iranian oil accounted for 13 per cent of India’s total imports (in terms of both quantity and value). This declined to about six per cent in 2014-15. Sanctions also affected the payment mechanisms for Iranian oil imports. India and Iran are expected to come to an understanding regarding the transfer of more than USD 6.5 billion owed to Iranian oil companies during Modi’s visit.

    The JCPOA not only removed restrictions hindering the purchase of Iranian oil, but also held out the prospects of an increase in Indian investments in the Iranian energy infrastructure, and progress on efforts to bring to fruition projects like Chabahar. Modi’s visit follows the visit of Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in April 2016, while Transport and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari had visited in May 2015. Pradhan had visited Chabahar too, as will Modi, reiterating India’s resolve to translate into reality its long-held commitments to help develop the port to better cater for India’s regional needs. Gadkari had indicated in December 2015 that Indian companies could possibly invest as much as Rs. 200,000 crore (nearly USD 30 billion) in the Chabahar Special Economic Zone.

    Modi had visited Saudi Arabia from April 2-3, 2016 (on his way back from Washington after attending the Nuclear Security Summit), a visit which incidentally was also announced by the MEA only on March 22. The Prime Minister was presented the Kingdom’s highest civilian honour by the Saudi King. The visit was a reaffirmation of the importance of ties with Riyadh, which is the biggest energy source for the country. India-Saudi relations had hit a few rough edges in 2015. A diplomatic row followed a September 2015 incident involving cruel treatment meted out by a Saudi diplomat posted in New Delhi to his Nepalese maids. Another incident involved injury suffered by an Indian maid working in Saudi Arabia, whose hand was allegedly ‘chopped off’ by her employer. In a tweet on October 9, 2015, Foreign Minister Swaraj called the injury the maid had suffered “unacceptable”.

    Apart from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and now Iran, Modi had visited Antalya, Turkey for the G20 Summit in November 2015. The stage is therefore now set for his possible visit to Jerusalem in the near future. Swaraj had in May 2015 indicated that Modi would visit Israel, ‘though no dates have been fixed’. The absence of an Indian defence ministerial visit to Israel, despite the significant defence linkages, looks even more jarring. To be sure, robust institutional interaction does take place between the national security establishments of the two countries. As many as eight chiefs of defence staff from either side have visited the other country. However, Israeli officials and policy makers have often expressed the desire for greater interactions at the highest political levels. During the visit of Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna in January 2012, his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman (now incoming Defence Minister) hoped that such visits would be more frequent.

    Modi’s visit to Jerusalem would fit the pattern of a pro-active foreign policy agenda being followed by the government. The prime minister, for instance, has visited nearly 40 countries since he took office, while the foreign minister has visited seven countries of the West Asian region between September 2014 and April 2016. In contrast, UPA Foreign Ministers Salman Khurshid and S.M. Krishna made a combined total of eight trips to the region during the entire second five-year term of the Congress-led coalition from 2009-14. Further, a Modi visit to Israel would be a reaffirmation of the ideological connect that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always advertised it shared with the Jewish state as well as with its muscular national security choices. It has to be pointed out though that full diplomatic relations were established by a Congress-led government and nurtured subsequently by both Congress as well as BJP governments.

    Modi visiting Jerusalem on top of his visits to Dubai, Riyadh and Tehran would be a re-affirmation of India’s diplomatic ability to pursue multiple national interests by manoeuvring between countries who have difficult or non-existent relationships among themselves but who share important relationships with India. It is pertinent to note that while Vajpayee hosted Sharon in September 2003, he had also received Khatami in January that year. Two months after hosting Sharon, Vajpayee went to Syria in November 2003 for the first such visit by an Indian prime minister in more than 15 years. Given the robust Israeli help in meeting India’s defence needs for the past two decades and more, it remains to be seen if Modi would extend an invitation for Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister to be a Chief Guest at one of the three Republic Day celebrations during the remainder of his present term.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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