As India walks a fine line with Iran and Saudi Arabia, it must seek reconciliation between them too.
Two important visitors to the capital last week, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, underlined the extraordinary opportunities and challenges that await India in a region that does not always get the political attention it deserves in New Delhi.
As the principal source of our rapidly growing energy imports, a major trading partner, and an important destination for expatriate labour, the weight of the Gulf region can only continue to grow in India’s national security calculus. Meanwhile, the growing political rivalry and sectarian tension between the region’s two most important countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran, is destabilising the Gulf and undermining the subcontinent’s security environment.
The positive tone in India’s conversations with Crown Prince Salman and Zarif should not mask considerable asymmetry in Delhi’s ties with Riyadh and Tehran. India’s relations with Saudi Arabia have seen significant expansion since the visit of King Abdullah in 2006 and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s return visit in 2010. Over the last decade, Delhi’s traditional wariness about Riyadh has yielded to political warmth, with Saudi Arabia offering effective cooperation in countering terrorism, opening the door for defence engagement and signalling neutrality in India’s disputes with Pakistan.
If India’s relations with the Kingdom are better than ever before, its ties with the Islamic Republic have been set back over the last decade because of Tehran’s conflict with the international community over its controversial nuclear programme. Sanctions against Tehran resulted in a decline in India’s oil imports from the country and constrained its ability to expand economic ties with Iran. Fortunately, greater flexibility on the part of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has raised hopes for ending the nuclear dispute and lifting international sanctions.
But the very prospect of a nuclear reconciliation between Iran and the US has generated deep concerns in Saudi Arabia, which fears Shia Iran is out to destabilise the Sunni Arab kingdoms. As Riyadh and Tehran both look to India to improve their regional and international positions, Delhi has a delicate balancing act at hand. Both countries are critical for India’s energy security. Over the near term, Saudi Arabia will loom larger in India’s economic calculus, but Iran’s long-term potential is immense.
Both have a big influence in shaping the evolution of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the coming years. Delhi will be right to avoid being drawn into the disputes between Riyadh and Tehran. But a responsible Indian approach to the Gulf must include a quiet effort to encourage the Kingdom and the Republic to seek an enduring reconciliation.