India’s West Asia relations are no longer viewed through the Israel-Palestine prism
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s widely publicised trip to Israel in July was labelled as “de-hyphenating” the traditional vector of Israel-Palestine in Indian strategic thinking in West Asia, without damaging relations with Arab states. The final outcome of this reorientation, however, will be determined by the Iran question.
Historically, India has perceived Israel as an apartheid regime. Despite the latter’s drawn-out courtship, it was a weakening of old structures that ushered new ideas in Delhi’s decision-making and, in 1992, mutual security considerations became salient. Since then, cooperation and trade have improved steeply, especially in defence. At the same time, India has maintained support for the Palestinian cause. Despite not making the customary stopover in Ramallah during his trip, Mr. Modi had welcomed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Delhi in May. Conversations with diplomats in the region together with the relative quiet across Arab states to Mr. Modi’s unprecedented visit reveal that India’s West Asia relations are no longer viewed through the prism of Israel-Palestine, but the changing security landscape in the region pertaining to Iran.
A reordering of the political order in West Asia, which is today assertively led by Saudi Arabia and regards Iran as an existential threat, is becoming apparent. The assumption in some sections of the international community, that India’s ties with Israel naturally negate the South Asian power’s relationship with the Arab nations, specifically of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is misguided. Indeed, Mr. Modi would not have made the visit to Israel had he calculated that such a trip would antagonise the Sunni Arab leaders who have shown concrete interest in India’s growing market and improving regulatory environment. India, in turn, looks to the region to quench its constantly expanding thirst for natural gas and crude oil. It seems that Arab leaders are willing to tolerate their allies cooperating with the Israelis, as long as they support their repudiation of Iran’s regional interests. Since the Iran nuclear deal, insecurities among Tehran’s rivals, supported increasingly by the Trump White House, have gone into overdrive. That the Iranian leadership is fully aware of these shifting dynamics was on display in the days leading up to Mr. Modi’s Israel visit.
Twice in the space of 10 days, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei linked the plight of Muslims in Gaza, Yemen, and Bahrain, with, unexpectedly, those in Kashmir. The timing and frequency of his comments, right before Mr. Modi’s Israel visit, cannot be disregarded as mere coincidence. The Iranians will have been aggrieved by the visit coupled with India’s unambiguous pro-Riyadh tilt. Despite this, ties between India and Iran will not be severed any time soon, but run on an independent track. Indeed, they are currently developing the geopolitically valuable Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman together. But rising economic stakes in Delhi and a new regional order will mean that India cannot maintain its traditionally neutral position in West Asia for long. This approach will be stress-tested as soon as India desires a concrete regional strategy beyond tactical visits. Mr. Modi’s visit to Israel then represents a concrete indication of a reorientation of Indian foreign policy in the region, which, in the long term, will not be able to sidestep the increasingly contentious Iran question.
A version of this article appeared first in The Hindu on August 4th.