Can India Weather the Middle East Strategic Alliance?

Hasan Alhasan

New Delhi may never have felt more vindicated in its Middle East policy than it does today. Its close ties with all the major powers in the Middle East, including Israel, Iran and the Gulf monarchies, have shielded its interests from the region’s geopolitical fluctuations. Yet, going forward, the region’s increasing polarization, of which the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) is but the latest manifestation, poses a considerable challenge for New Delhi.

Signs of this are becoming visible. Less than a week after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif left New Delhi on January 9, Israel’s National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat flew to the Indian capital to lobby Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the growing Iranian threat in Syria. As the region plummets further into conflict, India is likely to face greater pressure from its partners to take sides.

Since the early 1990s, India has adopted a strategy of building diverse relations across the Middle East. Having suffered tremendous economic losses and diplomatic embarrassment following the 1990-1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War, India decided to lessen its dependence on Iraq and seek a broader set of partnerships in the region. Accordingly, India normalized relations with Israel in 1991, built closer ties with Iran during the terms of Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami in the 1990s and early 2000s, and bolstered relations with the Arab Gulf monarchies in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War.

So far, India’s diverse portfolio of relationships has served it well. India has stayed mute on the Gulf dispute involving Qatar, having obtained reassurances from all sides that its citizens would remain safe. As a result, the crisis has had a relatively small impact on the Indian diaspora in the Gulf, and unlike other players, India’s neutrality has allowed it to avoid being dragged into the fray.

Another example is India’s neutrality on the Syrian conflict that has placed New Delhi in a unique position as a potential mediator. Incidentally, India was set to host the second India-Arab Dialogue in early February, during which progress on negotiating Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League was expected (although the conference has now been postponed due to an apparent scheduling conflict with the EU-Arab League Ministerial in Brussels on February 4). The Gulf monarchies hope that by offering Syria a way back into the Arab fold, they might be able to loosen Iran’s grip over Damascus, however dim the prospect. Bahrain and the UAE have led the way by reinstating diplomatic missions in Damascus.

Finally, despite its close ties to Israel and the Arab Gulf monarchies, India has secured a strategic foothold at Iran’s Chabahar port. On January 7, the Indian government announced that its state-run ports operator, India Ports Global, had taken over operations at the port. India intends to use the port, which overlooks the Gulf of Oman, to bypass Pakistan in its trade with Afghanistan and connect its economy to Central Asia.

However, the region’s growing polarization seems poised to place India’s ability to juggle its various relationships in the Middle East under serious strain. The Trump administration hopes that the Middle East Strategic Alliance, or MESA, will bind the Gulf monarchies, Jordan, Egypt and, unofficially, Israel into an alliance against Iran. In a speech delivered at Cairo University on January 10, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaimed that MESA would serve “to confront the region’s most serious threat,” an obvious, if implicit, reference to Iran. Pompeo also made several references to the Gulf monarchies’ growing proximity to Israel. The Gulf monarchies view Tel Aviv as a potential ally against an expansionist Iran.

Moreover, the US’s deployment of an aircraft carrier group, the USS John C Stennis, in the Gulf since December has raised temperatures in the Gulf. The move is intended to signal greater American assertiveness against Iran and its ballistic missile program. For India, however, the move raises tension in an area close to its port in Chabahar, potentially frustrating its bid for greater connectivity into Afghanistan and Central Asia via Iran.

Further west, Israel’s confrontation with Iran has taken a devastating turn in Syria in recent months. On January 21, Israel launched a series of airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian targets around Damascus in response to what it said was an Iranian missile fired at the Golan Heights. Israel had previously launched a round of airstrikes against Iranian forces in May last year in retaliation for rocket attacks launched from Syrian territory. When coupled with a strategic alliance such as MESA, volatility in Syria and potentially Lebanon means that a limited military conflagration is now more likely to escalate into regional conflict.

Unless the region sees a dramatic reversal in trends, India’s three-decades-long approach to the region may finally run its course. India will weather the storm, but its policy of holding the proverbial stick from the middle, however, might not.

Hasan Alhasan is a researcher at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where his work focuses on Indian foreign policy in the Middle East. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the office of the first deputy prime minister of Bahrain.

AFP PHOTO/SAUDI ROYAL PALACE/BANDAR AL-JALOUD