The controversy over Iran’s nuclear program has expanded beyond just U.S.-Iran conflicts. The EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, Catherine Ashton, called the nuclear talks that took place in Istanbul on April 14-15, 2012 as “constructive and useful.” But the outcome of these talks can have varied repercussions. What is at stake for the Arab nations? And how does this situation play out for India? Talmiz Ahmad, India’s former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, shares his views on the situation that is unfolding in West Asia with Gateway House’s Alisha Pinto and Azadeh Pourzand.
Q. How does the Middle East view the developments with Iran?
All the countries of the Gulf and West Asia are deeply concerned about what they see as Iran’s attempts to expand its influence in different areas of the region. The approach of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, until recently, was moderate and accommodative in order to ensure that political and economic engagement with Iran continued. However, last year, they saw in the Bahrain demonstrations, which had calls for a constitutional monarchy and even a republic, a direct Iranian “interference.” The GCC monarchies believed that this was part of a larger intrusive effort to expand Iranian and even Shia influence across the Gulf and West Asia.
Given the high stakes involved, the GCC countries have decided to confront Iran’s ambitions in different theatres in West Asia – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. In this effort, not surprisingly, the GCC has obtained very strong support from the United States and Israel. For several years, they have been pursuing a strong anti-Iranian approach, largely articulated in terms of Iran’s nuclear ambitions but basically emerging from a broad strategic competition with Iran across West Asia.
What are the implications for India if Iran is attacked?
I do not believe that a military assault upon Iran is likely in the near future. Much of the sabre–rattling we see in certain sections of the United States is aimed at appeasing domestic constituencies, and in Israel is done to avert focus from the expansion of its settlements in the occupied territories and its responsibility for retarding the peace process.
An assault upon Iran is likely to provoke immediate retaliatory action from Iran across the region, targeting the GCC’s energy and desalination facilities. We can anticipate a prolonged period of violence, insecurity and instability for the region and the international community. India’s energy and economic interests will, of course, be very seriously affected by these events.
How then, should India position itself?
There are two aspects of the present West Asia scenario: first, the challenge posed to entrenched political authorities by disgruntled local populations in different parts of the region and, second, the decision of GCC leaders to confront Iran’s “hegemonic” aspirations across West Asia – a position that finds favour in the U.S. and Israel. Both these factors have convulsed the region into a state of insecurity and uncertainty.
India has very high stakes in the security and stability of the Gulf and West Asia: the Gulf is the source of over 65% of its oil imports; the GCC is its largest trade partner in terms of economic groupings; and over 6 million Indians live in the GCC countries remitting over $30 billion to their home states annually. At the same time, as explained below, India’s ties with Iran have very substantial energy, economic and geopolitical value. Hence, India’s interests lie in promoting peace and stability in the region.
As it seeks to define a new strategic role in the region, India has several factors in its favour: it has historic and cultural ties with the principal countries of West Asia. India is a model of a democratic, multicultural polity which has had considerable economic success and technological achievement. Above all, India has a tradition of being non–intrusive, non–hegemonic and non–prescriptive in its interactions with other countries. Hence, the Gulf countries have conveyed an interest in a deeper Indian engagement with the region. Thus, the Riyadh Declaration, concluded in February 2010, called for a strategic partnership between India and Saudi Arabia covering political, security, energy, economic and cultural areas.
However, a strategic Indian role in West Asia is likely to be effective only if it brings together other principal players who have a similar interest in the security and prosperity of the region. As of now, the BRICS countries, which have just begun to jointly address regional and global political issues, seem to be best placed to develop and pursue such a strategic role in the Gulf and West Asia.
How will India’s engagement with Afghanistan be affected by a possible attack?
As the date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan comes closer, different interest groups – domestic, regional and international – will seek an advantageous position for the new phase of competition and conflict in the country. India has every reason to be concerned about the Afghan situation since it believes that a radical Pakistan-Taliban nexus will be a source of heightened extremism and terror in South Asia and the Gulf. In this context, India has built up a strong strategic relationship with Iran to counter the resurgence of the Taliban in Kandahar and Kabul and to ensure that the Afghan constitution is upheld. An attack on Iran is likely to disrupt this approach and provide an opportunity for the Pakistan-Afghan radicals to pursue their political agenda.
An Indo-Iran alliance would not just confront the spread of radical elements but would also be the pivot to promote and consolidate energy, trade and investment connectivity between South Asia and Central Asia. This would be significant for the revival of the “new silk routes” of the 21st century encompassing all of Asia.
What do you think of the multilateral efforts being made to engage with Syria?
While many Syrians do have legitimate political and economic grievances, the principal area of concern is the extensive military support being provided by outside elements to ensure that the local dissatisfaction evolves into a civil war scenario. There are reports of logistical centres at different points on the Syrian border where weapons have been stockpiled and training in subversion is being imparted. There are also suggestions that non-Syrian militants, perhaps from Libya, are working in tandem with Western special forces to exacerbate violence in Syria, to prepare the ground for Western military intervention on the lines of what was done to effect regime change in Libya.
There are several reasons why it has not been possible to replicate Libya in Syria so far: first, the bulk of the Syrian armed forces remain unified and loyal to their country and government, and, second, the government continues to enjoy substantial domestic support. In this scenario, the effort being led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan assumes considerable importance. It is directed at ending violence by demilitarizing various parts of Syria and, in due course, preparing the ground for political reform. Unfortunately, as of now, external support for local and foreign militias continues and, hence, the present ceasefire may not hold.
The durability of the ceasefire is of crucial importance. While external support to armed militants would certainly invite government retaliation and end the ceasefire, an alternative scenario is also possible: at the recent “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul, it seemed that the opposition was being encouraged to pursue negotiations with the Syrian government which could eventually lead to President Assad’s exit, thus bringing about regime change peacefully.
How effective has the response been by other GCC countries to their own Arab Spring-related protests?
Bahrain and Oman are the two GCC countries that experienced public demonstrations, with demands for political and economic change. The demonstrators at Pearl Square in Bahrain were dispersed by security forces following Saudi military intervention in the country on 14, March, last year. Later, the iconic Pearl Square, symbolizing GCC unity, was pulled down. Over the past year, there have been some initiatives by Bahrain’s royal leadership to initiate talks with opposition groups but no real progress has been achieved with regard to national reconciliation.
In the case of Oman, the Sultan intervened quickly to defuse the agitation and address some of the immediate concerns of the demonstrators – raising minimum wages, salaries and unemployment benefits of government employees, revamping the council of ministers to get rid of “corrupt” individuals, and actively pursuing policies to expand the employment of Omani nationals.
In Saudi Arabia, some unidentified opposition groups had called for major public demonstrations on March, 11 2011, describing it as the “day of rage.” This initiative fizzled out as no public demonstrations took place. At the same time, the King announced in March 2011, a liberal financial package to increase employment opportunities through expanding or upgrading projects in education and health, estimated at $135 billion, to be spent over the next five years. However, there are still occasional reports of demonstrations in some Shia-majority towns in the Eastern Province as well as demonstrations by small groups of women in Riyadh demanding the release of family members from detention.
Movements in favour of political reform in Kuwait predate the Arab Spring by several years. At present, several opposition groups are demanding the end of royal monopoly over political power, with the selection of the Prime Minister from the National Assembly and severe limitations on royal prerogative.
As of now, the GCC leaderships seem to have decided to use their financial resources for large economic projects and welfare measures for different sections of society, with no steps being contemplated in the area of political reform.
Talmiz Ahmad was the Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. He writes and lectures frequently on political Islam, the politics of West Asia, and energy security issue, and has written several books.
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