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GCC-Iran Rivalry and Challenges for India in the Gulf

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  • November 26, 2010
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Air Marshall Inamdar

          External-Prof. Ramakrishnan (JNU)
          Internal- Brig (retd) Rumel Dahiya & Ms. Princy Marin George

    India has huge interests in both Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in terms of securing energy supply, protecting interests of the Indian diaspora, enhancing trade and investment, fighting against piracy and more recently trying to forge strategic partnership with the region. The rising profile of China in the region is another concern for India.

    GCC-Iran relations have been marked by competition and rivalry. Both have engaged in ideological conflicts over Shia-Sunni divide, territorial disputes, presence of the United States in the region, Iranian nuclear programme and Saudi-Iranian relations which has in many ways steered the relationship. This has posed some challenges for Indian foreign policy in the Gulf region in recent times. India's proximity to one of these players does not augur well with the other. In his paper, Dr. Prasanta Kumar Pradhan has argued that the political, ideological and strategic conflicts between Iran and the GCC pose challenges for India in pursuing her interests in the region.

    He identified five major issues of contention and discussed them in his presentation.

    Ideological rivalry:
    After the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini openly declared, “Our revolution is not limited to the boundaries of Iran. Economic and political difficulties should not compel our officials to forgo the principal task of exporting our lofty Islamic Revolutionary goals…The true meaning of export of our revolution is to awaken the Muslims and their governments so that they can change themselves and not allow their precious resources to be plundered by anti-Muslim outsiders." By outsiders he meant the Sunnis. The conflicting relations between Iran and the GCC have also aggravated the existing Shia-Sunni divide in the region.

    Iranian Nuclear Programme:
    The Iranian nuclear weapon programme has raised concerns in the minds of the GCC rulers. Initially they recognized Iran's rights for a peaceful nuclear programme. When evidence emerged about a clandestine programme intended for producing nuclear weapons, the GCC countries started to support IAEA efforts and looked at the involvement of the UN Security Council as a positive development to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capability. If Iran becomes successful in making nuclear weapons, it would not only shift the balance of power in the region in favour of Iran but also multiply the threat perceptions of the GCC countries. The threat perception is the natural outcome of the Gulf Arab countries' perception of Iran as a hegemonic power and the Iranian eagerness to spread their influence into the region.

    Territorial disputes:
    Iranian occupation of three islands namely, Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb in the Gulf which are claimed by the UAE is another issue of contention between the GCC and Iran. To add to the worries of the GCC, Iran has built a port in the Abu Musa Island. In August 2008, Iran opened two administrative offices in Abu Musa which, it claims, are to help ship registration and maritime rescue. In a statement, GCC Secretary-General Abdurrahman Al-Attiyah “strongly denounced Iran's opening of two administrative offices on Abu Musa Island, which belongs to the UAE and is occupied by Iran.” The GCC fears that this will give Iran greater control of shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.

    Presence of the United States:
    Iran alleges the GCC countries of inviting the US to the region and has also alleged them to be the “puppets of the Great Satan”. The possibility that Iran could produce nuclear weapons is a nightmare for the USA. Apart from the nuclear programme, the US’ threat perception of Iran is dominated by the Iranian support of terrorism, and its WMD and missile capabilities. Iranian threat perception is understandable as Iran feels itself surrounded by US military forces.

    Saudi-Iranian relations:
    Iran has called the Al Saud regime un-Islamic and openly called for its overthrow. Ideological rivalry, Saudi allegation of Iran flaring up its Shia population in the Eastern Province, Iranian allegation of Saudi Arabia flaring up its Sunni population, regional power struggle between the two, Iranian nuclear programme, close Saudi-US relations etc. have strained Saudi Arabia's relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia's support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 further deteriorated the relationship. Saudi Arabia has also questioned the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme and has supported the USA in imposing sanctions against Iran.

    India's interest in GCC countries:
    For India its relationship with GCC represents its varied interests in the economic, political and strategic fields. The Gulf region has been the main source of India's energy needs supplying around two- thirds of India’s total energy requirements. The Gulf region has been a lucrative market for Indian manufactured goods including textiles, spices, food products, electrical goods and machineries and IT products. India's five million strong work force in the GCC countries is also an important link. India looks at the GCC countries as partners in tackling terrorism.

    India's interest in Iran:
    Iran’s geopolitical and strategic location, long coastline along the Gulf, and its influence over the Strait of Hormuz makes it an important country in the region. Iran has the third largest proven oil reserves and second largest proven gas reserves in the world. India eyes Iranian gas for its long term energy security. India, Iran and Afghanistan are discussing to develop the Chahbahar route through Melak, Zaranj and Delaram which would facilitate regional trade and transit, including Afghanistan and Central Asia. Another potential area of cooperation between India and Iran is in maritime security. India supports an Iranian nuclear programme for peaceful civilian purposes but is against the nuclearisation of the Gulf region which will have severe implications for the region in future.

    Challenges for India:
    US presence and strategic cooperation in the Gulf and the US-Iran conflict pose a serious challenge for India. India cannot fully support US policies in the region, nor can India completely oppose them. India would require the support of the USA in the region to further its interests.

    China's growing economy and thirst for energy has driven its policies in the Gulf. Bilateral trade between China and the GCC topped US $ 70 billion in 2008. China has been using the conflict between the GCC and Iran in the best possible manner. Despite voting against Iran at the IAEA over the nuclear issue, China has managed to stabilize its relations with Iran. China is viewed by Iran as a counterweight for the USA in the region. On the other hand, China is viewed by Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries as an important trade partner and a big power in Asia.

    GCC-Iran rivalry is deepening in Iraq. India should build its ties with Iraq but this is taking a lot of time because of the unstable political situation and the social situation.

    India is highly dependent on the Gulf region for its energy security as it imports about two thirds of its energy requirement from the region. As the issue of energy is directly related to the regional political conditions and the warmth of the bilateral relations between the countries, it becomes important to take the relationship up to level of stability. India has huge interests in GCC and Iran and this makes it important for India to calibrate its policies so as to ensure supply of oil from both GCC countries and Iran.

    Dr. Pradhan pointed out that the conflict between Iran and the GCC countries has severe regional implications which would also affect India's interests in the region. He suggests that the growing Indian interests and influence in the region should be complemented with a sound policy for dealing with the two major powers. For India, dealing with the USA in the Gulf is a political and strategic challenge while China primarily remains an economic rival. A peaceful and stable Gulf region is in India's interest and India needs to carefully nurture its policies in the region.

    The following issues were raised: It was suggested that Iraq being an important factor in the Iran-GCC conflict that aspect too needs greater analysis. Second, the differing visions of the security of the Gulf need to be incorporated. Third, the notion of Gulf regionalism needed attention. It was pointed out that after US military intervention in Iraq, even Saudi Arabia was offended. India on the other hand is emerging as a balancer with China playing an important role in the region.

    It was also pointed out that the definition of the Gulf is very conflicting as Iran would like to call it Persian Gulf while the GCC would call it Arabian Gulf. Second, the Diaspora is extremely important and India used to have a diaspora in Iran where its treatment was not good. The importance of Israel was highlighted and democratisation of GCC was emphasised. Unlike Indian diaspora in the US who are viewed with pride, Indian diaspora in GCC are viewed as a source of responsibility. However it is this diaspora which has acted as a catalyst in strengthening India's relation with the GCC.

    Report prepared by Pallavi Pal, Research Intern, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi