Countries in the West Asian region were created through agreements, settlements, and declarations and in some cases evolved out of revolutions. The references are made to the Sykes Picot agreement signed between the United Kingdom and France to have individual controls on different parts of West Asia; the Balfour declaration of 1914 which saw the creation of Israel and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which brought change in Iranian political structure. The region since then has been facing political, socio-economic and security challenges as a result of the rivalries between the nations. The West Asian region is engulfed with protracted conflicts most prominently the Palestinian-Israel conflict, civil wars recently in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and sectarian divides between Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. This political stauis is present since half a century.
The political and socio-economic transformation of the region is in its incipient stage and not much has been achieved in that area. Even though, post-Arab Spring countries have realised that domestic challenges need to be addressed and more importantly the state-civilian relations requires a reorientation. However, not much has been achieved since the onset and offset of the popular uprising and some countries like Syria and Yemen are still under conflict situation and recuperation will take a long time. Hence, it will not be wrong to say that the Arab Spring suffered a still birth! The Palestinian-Israeli conundrum does not seem to end even though the issue has subsided to a large extent with Iran emerging as a probable and possible threat to the Arabs and Israelis alike.
There is a deepening divide between Iran and Saudi Arabia and many proxy wars are being fought on the Shia-Sunni lines. Along with proxy war against Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Iran has been accused of doing the same with the Arabs. The Persian state has allegedly armed the Houthi rebels through arms and ammunitions against the Hadi led government in Yemen. Turkey is rising as an important player in the region and has been showing interests in Syria and Iraq. In addition to the regional powers, West Asia is also a ground for great power interventions since historical times. The European, American, Russians and most recently Asian countries have marked their presence in a big way. However, post-World War II, the US has been the big boss with its naval and military bases in most of the Arab countries and shares cordial relations with Israel as well. The US has also been instrumental in bringing peace and stability in the region even though some nations have criticised its actions during the Iraq war, in Syria and others. However, while enjoying the status of a unipolar power for long it has tried to check the Iranian influence in West Asia by imposing sanctions, sided with the opposition and protestors during the Arab uprising in throwing the regimes out as well as checked the Arab antagonism towards Israel.
It is noticeable that how these regional and international players shape and change the geopolitics of the Middle East. President Trump has time and again given indications on decreasing his country’s stakes in the region and has called for regional solutions to the problems. Prior to his decision to move out US troops from Syria has reset the stage for other international and regional players to play their power game and have further made the situations complex. The change from uni-polar world order to multi-polar one, therefore, is very evident in the Middle East.
Other challenges that West Asia faces are in the form of proliferation of radical extremists groups, Da’esh and its future (military defeat, skewing and restriction of territory for the same has taken place but the ideology prolongs and that is a threat to the region), terrorism, piracy and its affect on sea lines of communication (SLOC), drug and human trafficking especially from North Africa. Apart from traditional threats there are non-traditional threats engulfing West Asia in the form of acute water scarcity, food insecurity, social marginalisation of certain identities and women. Added to these, the rentier state framework has itself become a challenge and does not suffice the aspirations of the youth who have called for a new social contract since the Spring. Moreover, the spillover affect of over-dependence on hydrocarbons has begun to show its negative effect on Climate Change Hence, diversification of economy is one of the biggest concerns for predominantly Muslim world. The technological revolution globally and social media intervention in the Arab world has made the citizenry aware of the socio-political freedoms enjoyed by people elsewhere and hence played a major role in reshaping the regional order, the consequences of which were seen during the near decade old uprising.
Given these circumstances, special case of Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Iran needs to be delved into and the events unfolding therein require a detailed analysis. The first three are in an unstable situation currently and the fourth one has a major role to play in these countries as well as is re-emerging as a possible threat in the wider regional context.
Various peace measures have been taken to end the Syrian conflict which escalated since 2011; the major ones being the UN brokered Astana peace process and Sochi agreement of 2018. The former was launched in January 2017 by Russia, Iran and Turkey to maintain a ceasefire while the latter was initiated by the Congress of the National Syrian National Dialogue in January 2018 and was a representation of all the stakeholders in the Syrian society. However, the two agreements should also be seen against the backdrop of pursuing regional aspirations by the players. The US has realised that it has exhausted much of its human and capital resources in the country and therefore has indicated of an exit. But is the US really exiting? And what will be the implications of its exit?! It is viewed that after American pull out, Russia, Syria, Iran and Turkey will be busy pursuing their objectives in the country. The Sochi agreement on the other hand has called out for a buffer zone in Idlib-Afrin region. Hence, it is not clear as to if the developments in Syria to end the conflict is a political stalemate or a political arrangement by the stakeholders in order to have a control on specific regions in the country?
Yemen, on the other hand, is witnessing various stakeholders major ones being the Hadi government and the Houthi rebels; this has led to a state of chaos along with military stalemate. While the Saudi led Hadi government has a limited control in the country there are many new players who are emerging like the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS; of all Houthis have the maximum control. Iran has been accused of supplying arms and ammunitions to the Houthis and is allegedly waging a proxy war against its Sunni rivals. The crisis has turned into the worst humanitarian crisis in the century and thousands of people are killed, injured or displaced. During 2016 to 2018 the country also faced the worst cholera outbreak in years. The Houthi bombing of Al-Hudeidah port – the only port from where food, water and humanitarian supplies could enter the country – has worsened the situation further. After the bombings by the Saudi led coalition on civilian areas and US involvement in supply of weapons to the coalition were disclosed in the international media and Saudi alleged involvement in Khashoggi controversy etc has surfaced, the US Congress has been pressurizing Saudi Arabia to resolve the crisis by negotiating with the Houthis. Peace in the country will require political accommodation between the Hadi government and the Houthis through a federal polity and international intervention and support is required for the same.
Political stability has yet not been achieved in Iraq post the ouster of Saddam Hussein by the US. There is an immediate need to bring all the communities together and end the sense of discrimination felt by the Sunnis. The general elections held in May 2018 resulted in a mixed verdict and hence did not have much impact. This led to difficulty in government formation and the violence in Basra wherein firing of rockets towards American diplomatic mission further complicated the process. However a relaxation was achieved in the form of military defeat of ISIS in Mosul but the radical ideology still persists and might resurrect soon. The rising Kurdistan aspirations have further destabilised the situation. The questions that need an immediate answer are whether the bloodletting in the region been enough? And is there a Westphalian arrangement in Iraq wherein different stakeholders have a hold on different parts of the country?
The region will further attract international intervention and a draw amongst the disgruntled elements is the need of the hour. The areas which require immediate concern are energy security, maritime security and security of the SLOCs. The growth of radical and fundamentalist ideologies requires a check along with a control on sectarian conflict and terrorism.
The nuclear capable Iran is emerging as a threat in the region to the Sunni Arab nations. After Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) the decade long sanctions on the country were lifted during Obama administration and that helped Iran in regaining and strengthening its economy. However, President Trump re-sanctioned the Persian state after his announcement to withdraw from JCPOA. This affects Iran’s ability to trade in US dollars and its oil sector. However, US sanctions have limitations and Iran has shown its willingness to deal with nations in respective currencies. Given the situation, countries like India are forced to make a choice if they want to deal with Iran bilaterally.
It is noteworthy that Iran is a revisionist power and its influence in the region is not acceptable to Saudi Arabia and Israel who perceive a threat in the Persian state. Post-sanctions the regime is weakened but unlikely to change. However, with rising pressures from the international communities, the Persians will have to moderate their behaviour.
Both the countries have divergent world views and while Iran is part of Central Treaty Alliance (CENTO), India is the leader of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Post-1990s Iran under President Rafsanjani has shown some pragmatism and this is the time when India saw some areas of convergence with the state especially with respect to oil trade and influence in Central Asia. However, there are some threats to this convergence of interests in the form of Afghanistan Taliban, instability in Iraq, and most importantly Pakistan trying to block Indian outreach to Central Asia. These challenges are further complicated by animosity exhibited by the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and UAE towards Iran and Iran’s own destabilizing behaviour.
Given these challenges what should be India’s primary objective while dealing with Iran? It has to start with peace and stability in the region, Indian exercise of strategic autonomy in the region, its ability to influence Iran’s behaviour and most importantly to preserve its own economic and political space in Iran.
Key Features of the Changing Regional Order
With regard to the rising complexities in the region it is important to delve into the current situations. It is to be noted that the regional powers like Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel are weakening. Added to this, the Trump administrations engagement with the Middle East is transactional and he is reluctant to invest further in it and has called for the region to take responsibilities of their actions. There is an increasing sectarian divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the two have resorted to proxy wars.
The rising Iranian influence has given a chance to the Saudis and Israelis to converge and the former has softened its attitude towards the latter. There is also an emergence of Saudi-UAE security cooperation outside Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The blockade against Qatar over its alleged relations with Iran and favouring radical groups can also be seen in the context of alienation of Iran. Saudi Arabian aspirations led by MBS for socio-economic and political reforms to better its domestic affairs and dilution of Palestine-Israel conflict due to Israel leveraging on Iranophobia are some of the major developments in the West Asia today. Another interesting turn of events is Russia’s re-emergence as an assertive actor in the region and Turkey’s new regional policy, its increasing tensions with the US and the Kurdish issue. The region also witnesses an increasing engagement of Asian countries particularly China and India.
Hence, the viable options to promote peace and stability in West Asia will require a deeper understanding of the problems facing the region, requirement of inclusive Regional Security Dialogue and any arrangement needs to be based on geopolitical realities. Moreover, the options have to be region wide, regionally led, and inclusive.
The Regional Security Dialogue envisaged should be conceived with focus on regional interests by or in concert with the region. It also needs to be based on constructive engagement amongst regional and extra-regional actors and finally should take into account all political and economic concerns.
Indian Interest in the Middle East
Finally, when it comes to India’s strategic interests, New Delhi has both security and economic interests in the region. While the former focuses on fighting terrorism and extremism the latter is required to increase trade and energy relations. Another important components of interest to India is its near to 8 million expatriates, religious and cultural links. The Indian expatriates because of their non-interventionist approach and skills are highly preferred in the region. More importantly, India has never tried to have a preacher attitude towards the entire Middle East. This aspect of Indian diplomacy is highly regarded. Therefore, peace and stability in the Middle East is essential and in Indian interest. However, being an emerging power globally India’s contribution in the region should be and will be on its own terms. New Delhi has shown added interest in West Asia and has given indications of its shifts from ‘Link West’ policy to ‘Act West’ policy by building strong economic and security ties with most of the countries in the Middle East. It has increased its interactions with the region and this is more prominently visible in its growing high level visits to and fro the region in last three years. It has signed defence and security cooperations with most of the countries in the region; to name a few with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, Qatar and Jordan. These cooperations are aimed at countering terrorism. Most importantly, if India wants to increase its regional clout its approach towards Middle East should continue to be non-prescriptive and non-interventionist.
Report on the talk delivered by Ambassador Sanjay Singh, Former Secretary East, on the 20th February 2019