Amid India’s Balancing Act With Iran, Is a Postponed Visit Good News?
India will have to carefully juggle its relations with Sunni Gulf powers on one hand and Iran on the other.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian, who was to have visited Delhi this month on his maiden official visit, has since postponed his trip because his Indian counterpart, S Jaishankar, has tested positive for COVID-19. The visit was expected to focus majorly on Afghanistan and connectivity. In spite of the hiccups in bilateral relations towards the end of the last administration headed by then-President Hassan Rouhani, a reset was evident when External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar became the first foreign leader to call on Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi in July last year soon after his election victory, and then within a short span of time paid a second visit to Tehran to attend Raisi's swearing-in ceremony that took place on 6 August 2021.
Taliban & Connectivity Are Key Reasons For the Reboot
The primary reasons for rebooting relations was the ascendancy of the Taliban majorly through violence and US capitulation, and for connectivity to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Eurasia through Russia and the Caspian Sea. While once-foe Tehran now enjoys cordial relations with the Taliban, sufficient disquiet persists in Iran, given that the Taliban, despite their assurances, have continued to target the Shia Hazara minority in Afghanistan and failed to establish a broad-based government that would include Tajiks and Shia, who have ethnic, linguistic and religious affinity with Iran.
On this, Iran and India share common concerns, and Iran was one of the participants of the November 2021 regional security meet that India hosted and which included the five central Asian countries and Russia as well.
Yet another strong imperative for India to pursue ties with Tehran is connectivity. Given Pakistan’s obdurate refusal of transit passage and the chaos in Afghanistan, India is betting big on two major trade routes through Iran to access the markets and goods of landlocked Central Asian countries, Russia and Eurasia: through the Chabahar port on Iran’s eastern coast and the International North-South Transport Corridor from Iran's western port of Bandar Abbas.
The Houthi Missile Attacks
However, it is just as well that the meeting has been postponed, coming as it would have under the shadow of the Houthi missile attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, India’s two other major strategic partners in the region. Yemen’s brutal war reached the UAE for the first time when Iran-backed Houthi rebels launched a drone attack on an Abu Dhabi National Oil Company facility, which took the lives of two Indians and one Pakistani worker.
Since then, there have been regular announcements of Houthi-launched missiles being intercepted by the UAE. The Saudis, too, have been facing a barrage of missiles and drones from the Houthi rebels (including a major one on an Aramco facility in 2019, which disrupted oil supplies for a while) since the Saudi-UAE led coalition of nine Arab countries launched a war on Yemen in 2015 to reinstate the internationally recognised government of President Abu Mansour Hadi, which had been chased out by the Houthi rebels. Yemen turned into a major arena of a proxy war between the Saudi-UAE led Sunni coalition and Iran, with no exit in sight yet. A few days prior to the drone attacks, the Houthis had hijacked a UAE-flagged vessel, whose crew included seven Indian nationals.
Though the attacks by the Houthis come as a mystery since the UAE and Iran had been working towards a rapprochement in recent days, UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al Nahyan was in Tehran in December 2021 to meet President Ebrahim Raisi and his counterparts.
Saudi Arabia, too, has been in talks with Iran against a background of gradual American withdrawal from the region and resumption of negotiations for a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian nuclear deal from which the previous US administration of President Donald Trump had pulled out.
India's Ties With the UAE and Saudi Arabia
One plausibility is that Iran no longer has the influence it had on the Houthis and does not control the narrative currently. But that still does not explain why Iran-backed Iraqi militias should be targeting the Saudis now. It is, therefore, also quite possible that even as on the one hand, Iran engages in talks with its Sunni rivals, it on the other hand is stepping up the pressure on them in a show of strength as it continues negotiations for the revival of the JCPOA. As such, the United States on 4 February restored sanctions waivers to Iran to allow international nuclear cooperation projects.
Meanwhile, India's ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been burgeoning over the past decade, particularly under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Not only do they host the largest Indian ex-pat communities in the Gulf region, whose remittances constitute a significant part of India’s economy, but they also form a vital pillar of India’s energy security.
As strategic partners, India’s ties with them today encompass a wide range of cooperation, including in the political, deference, security, economic, trade, and counterterrorism fields. India is part of the new Middle Eastern quad that is beginning to take shape, together with the UAE, Israel, and the US.
The very next day after the Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), S. Jaishankar, in a telephone call with his UAE counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, condemned the attacks, calling them "unacceptable " and "against all civilised norms". While India has not taken any official stand in the Yemen conflict, it has aided Abu Dhabi by facilitating its treatment of the Yemen war wounded. At the United Nations, UAE representative Lana Nusseibeh, flanked by India's permanent representative T.S. Tirumurti, both of whom are currently serving on the UN Security Council as non-permanent members, condemned the “attacks against civilians and civilian facilities in the UAE” by the “terrorist Houthi militias”.
A More Opportune Time
The UNSC issued a strong condemnation of the attacks. Amb. Tirumurti on his Twitter account wrote "The Press Statement issued by UN #SecurityCouncil reaffirms our collective will to call out this heinous #TerrorAttack, where two Indians tragically lost their lives. As conveyed by EAM @DrSJaushankar to UAE counterpart, India condemns this terror attack in strongest terms."
The drone attacks have dented the image of the UAE as a peaceful place and a safe haven in the volatile region, something that the sheikhdom has so assiduously been cultivating for decades.
The deaths of two Indians in the attack is a metaphor for how entwined the destinies of both countries have become. The UAE is a major stakeholder in Jammu and Kashmir's economic development, thereby helping India's case. Peace and stability in the Emirates is, thus, as much of a necessity for India as it is for the Emirates.
That is why India will again have to do a fine balancing act to juggle its relations with Sunni Gulf powers on one hand and Iran on the other. Hence, it is just as well that Abdollahian 's visit has been postponed. A large Iranian trade delegation is in the UAE. Meanwhile, Iran-US negotiations on the JCPOA have entered their final stages. A positive outcome may impact the region more favourably. Abdollahian's India visit may come at a more opportune time.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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