An extraordinary event occurred in Washington a few weeks ago. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) held a “special event” to enable two speakers to formally announce the end of a 75-year enmity between their countries. They were Anwar Majed Eshki, a retired Saudi general, and Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN.
This unlikely pair has come together due to the threat they perceive from an unshackled Iran. Their purpose was to warn the US that pursuing the nuclear deal with Iran would estrange it not only from Israel but all its staunchest allies in the Arab world. This was apparent from the seven-point plan for peace and stability in the Middle East that Eshki unveiled. Its first point was achieving peace between Israel and the Arabs. Its second was “regime-change in Iran”. Three of the remaining five proposals added up to a militarisation of the Gulf to face the threat from Iran.
For one of the first times in its history, the audience was not allowed to ask questions at a CFR event. This made the CFR a party to its purpose, instead of remaining an independent forum. Since the CFR has been the main platform for the articulation of US foreign policy for the past 94 years, its sponsorship has underlined how badly President Barack Obama is isolated from mainstream American thinking and how unlikely it is that any agreement would survive his exit.
But the real purpose was to make Iran, not Obama, take fright and harden its position on the lifting of sanctions to the point where it, and not the US or the EU, is held responsible for the failure of negotiations.
Eshki and Gold announced that Israel and Saudi Arabia had held five secret meetings since the beginning of 2014 to forge their common strategy, but did not mention that the two had already signed an agreement at the end of February that gave Israeli warplanes permission to fly over Saudi Arabia on their way to Iran.
There is now a danger that if the deal falls through, Israel would take advantage of the wave of disappointment and fear that will sweep through the West to launch a military strike on Iran and force the US to join in. Should this happen, the war that follows will not leave India unscathed. But what should be worrying New Delhi even more is the claim that one of the secret meetings had been hosted by India. This makes India a party to the Israeli-Saudi conspiracy.
Delhi may have been sucked into this trap unwittingly, out of a desire to repay Riyadh for extraditing terrorism suspect Zabiuddin Ansari ( Abu Jundal) in 2012. But to have done this in 2014, when the strife in the Middle East had morphed into a vicious, brutal, unprincipled and nakedly sectarian bloodfest, reveals an inability to gauge the consequences of its actions that casts grave doubt on its capacity to pull its weight in international affairs.
India is home to almost 200 million Muslims, of whom 50 to 60 million are Shia. The main communal violence in British India occurred not between Hindus and Muslims, but between Sunnis and Shias at Muharram. Partition ended this conflict in India. The almost complete absence of Muslim sectarian strife during the past 70 years is one of the reasons why, unlike in Pakistan, every sect in Islam thrives and grows unhindered in India, why neither the Deobandi nor the Barelvi schools of Sunni Islam gives any shrift to extremism, and why almost no Indian Muslims have joined al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.
This is a heritage that needs to be cherished not only for its own sake, but to ensure that India continues to thrive in peace in the years ahead. To do this, it needs not only to avoid being bracketed as a partisan in the Middle East’s sectarian strife, but to be seen as a champion of every secular, modern and humanist force within the Muslim world.
Not only did it fail to do this when it was a member of the UN Security Council, but today, it is notably silent on the rise of the IS and has preferred not to seek retribution by going to Iraq and Syria’s aid.
India is unaware of its responsibility to Islam in the wider Muslim world because its governments and media have turned Indian Muslims into what John Pilger has aptly described as “unpeople”. Today it still has a sliver of a chance to redeem itself by coming out strongly in favour of the Iran deal, by sustaining the Bashar al-Assad regime with food and medicines and by strongly censuring the invasion of Yemen.
Jha is a senior journalist and author.