India's interests and capabilities extend well beyond the sub-continent. This essay is part of a series that explores the geopolitical dimensions, economic ties, transnational networks, and other aspects of India's links with the Middle East (West Asia) -- a region that plays a vital role in India's economy and its future. More ...
An examination of the roots of the Saudi-Iran estrangement reveals a comprehensive narrative of deep-seated suspicion, fear and vulnerability on the part of Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic, and a strong sense of competition emerging from historic grievances and contemporary politics on the part of Iran. Hence, as of now, there is hardly any space for the two contending countries to engage with each other to address mutual concerns, pursue confidence-building measures and shape areas of cooperation.
There is a widespread view, both in the United States and in West Asia, that the U.S. under the Obama administration was slowly but surely disengaging from West Asian affairs, so that its primary responsibility would be to intervene only if there is a genuine “existential” threat to any of its allies, Israel or the Gulf Arab states, from external aggression. For the rest, the president indicated that he would like regional states, and extra-regional powers with an abiding interest in regional security, to stop being “free-riders,” and play a proactive role to promote stability in West Asia.
In spite of policy confusion exhibited throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, as of now it does not seem that the Trump administration will pursue approaches in West Asia that would be significantly different from those of its predecessor. While candidate Trump was hostile to Iran and swore to review the nuclear agreement, he also insisted that Saudi Arabia (among other American allies) justify its value to U.S. interests and assume greater responsibility for its own security. He praised the Russian president, showed little sympathy for the Syrian rebels and prioritized the fight against ISIS.
The possibility that the U.S. might disengage from West Asia has opened opportunities for other countries that are concerned about protracted regional instability to intensify their links with the region. China, with its substantial energy and economic ties with West Asia, has responded to this opportunity with an upswing in interactions with the Gulf countries in recent years. These have included visits to Beijing of the Bahraini king, the then Saudi crown prince, and the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the Kuwaiti prime minister in May 2014.
China’s principal interest in West Asia has been to consolidate energy links and expand commercial ties. Now, the “One Belt, One Road [OBOR]” project has significantly increased interest in China in expanding its trade and investment links and its logistical connectivity with this crucial pathway to Europe, through the land route from the Gulf and the sea route through the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and beyond.
China has also been active in Iran. It signed an MOU on defense cooperation with Iran in October 2015, encompassing technical fields, intelligence, cyber-space and terrorism. More importantly, Iran is a junction on the OBOR project, on both the proposed land and sea corridors, and thus its participation is crucial for the success of this ambitious endeavour that, when completed, will transform the economic and strategic landscape of the world.
This scenario of U.S. disengagement from West Asia has opened opportunities for countries concerned about regional stability to intensify their links with the region. China, with substantial energy and economic ties with West Asia, has responded to this opportunity with alacrity.
Given its crucial interests, China cannot be indifferent to the turmoil in West Asia. In January 2016, just after the signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran, President Xi Jinping undertook a tour of the Gulf that included visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran. Besides his important bilateral interactions, he delivered a substantial address at the Arab League headquarters. To address the region’s security problems, the Chinese president recommended the rejection of the use of force, “zero-sum” mentality and “spheres of influence.” He insisted that solutions be sought within the region and not imposed from outside. He suggested a two-pronged approach of “dialogue and development” within the region, founded on respect for "national conditions" (i.e., historical, cultural and societal factors that shape the national ethos).
India’s Recent Engagements in West Asia
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew out from Doha on June 5, 2016, he completed an unprecedented Indian diplomatic engagement with the countries of the Gulf: in just ten months, he had visited the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar; and he hosted Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the U.A.E. Armed Forces.
During these engagements, the prime minister's interlocutors expressed their admiration for India’s economic achievements and pledged to become partners in India’s developmental efforts, with the U.A.E. even setting aside a fund of $75 billion to invest in India’s infrastructure sector. They also expressed anxiety about the threat from terrorism and pledged to work closely with India to combat it, not only through strong armed action but also by countering radicalization through promotion of a moderate religious discourse espousing peace, tolerance and inclusiveness.
Enhancement of defense ties — ranging from frequent dialogue between senior officers and training, to joint military exercises, maritime operations, and supply and development of arms and ammunition — was given central importance by all the countries visited by the prime minister. Defense cooperation has been complemented by the countries agreeing to intelligence-sharing, counter-terrorism operations, capacity-building and adoption of best practices and technologies among the security agencies on both sides.
The prime minister’s visit to Iran was particularly significant in boosting bilateral ties and in terms of the projection of India’s strategic interests in West and Central Asia. While energy will remain central to the bilateral relationship, the leaders of India and Iran envision much broader ties. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani noted that his country was “rich in energy” while India had “rich minds,” factors that, operating in tandem, would yield achievements in frontier areas such as ICT, bio- and nanotechnology, and space and aerospace.
The two countries then signed the Chabahar port development agreement as well as the trilateral trade and transit pact with Afghanistan. The trade and transit corridors will enable India and Iran to contribute to Afghanistan's economic development and its stability. The corridor will then go across north Afghanistan to all the Central Asian Republics, ending at the Kazakh capital, Almaty. The Chabahar corridor is complemented by the India-supported International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) that goes north-westwards from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to Azerbaijan, Russia and Europe. The new transportation links have rightly been described by Mr Modi as a “corridor for peace and prosperity for our peoples.”
Again, every one of the joint statements contained a sub-text that poses a challenge for, and imposes a new responsibility on India; namely, how to shape an Indian role to promote security in the Gulf.
Most of the countries see India as their “strategic partner,” a status that represents shared values, perceptions and approaches on matters of security concern. Thus, the joint statement with the U.A.E. spoke of “shared threats to peace, stability and security,” and agreed to a “shared endeavor” to address these concerns, which is founded on “common ideals and convergent interests.” It also spoke of the need for the two countries to establish a “close strategic partnership” for “these uncertain times,” and called upon them to “work together to promote peace, reconciliation, stability … in the wider South Asia, Gulf and West Asia.”
Similarly, the joint statement with Saudi Arabia talked of the two countries’ responsibility to promote peace, security and stability in the region. It noted “the close interlinkage of the stability and security of the Gulf region and the Indian sub-continent and the need for maintaining a secure and peaceful environment for the development of the countries of the region.” In Tehran, Mr. Modi noted that India and Iran “share a crucial stake in peace, stability and prosperity” in the region, and concerns relating to “instability, radicalism and terror.” The two countries agreed to enhance cooperation between their defense and security institutions.
Prime Minister Modi’s interactions with the principal countries of the Gulf have affirmed the acceptance of India as a credible player in the security scenario of this troubled region, and have prepared a fertile soil for an initiative to promote regional peace and stability.
It is proposed that India and China, given their deep and abiding interest in West Asian security, pursue a joint diplomatic initiative to promote stability in the region.
A Two-nation Initiative for Regional Security
Given that Saudi Arabia has deep apprehensions about Iran’s “hegemonic” intentions in the region and the threat it perceives from its neighbor, any initiative to help ensure regional stability would need to address the Kingdom’s specific security concerns. Now that the nuclear agreement has been reached, the sanctions regime is being eased and Iran is poised to enter the regional and global mainstream, it is likely to respond positively to a diplomatic initiative that would appeal to its pragmatism, without asking it to compromise its basic principle of seeking a new order.
What does the proposed diplomatic initiative entail? Its most important initial effort would be to urge a more accommodative approach by Iran and Saudi Arabia in three theaters of ongoing conflict.
First, in Syria, the two-nation initiative would propose that Iran support the peace process to obtain an arrangement in Syria that would maintain the integrity of the country, promote a multi-denominational and federal order at home, and a reasonable transition period after which President Bashar al-Assad should give way to an alternative, more acceptable, leadership and a constitution that gives due space for Kurdish aspirations within the national polity. Such an arrangement, while it would not meet the maximalist agenda of either the Kingdom or Iran, would end the bloodshed in the country and enable the structuring of a united front against the Islamic State.
Second, in Yemen, the accommodation would have to come from Saudi Arabia, since Iran’s role and interests are at best marginal, whatever the Saudis may believe. Here, the two nations would urge the Saudi side to include the Houthis in their country’s political and economic order and given access to resources when the country’s federal system is organized. This initiative would bring the military stalemate to an end and open the way for humanitarian aid to reach the beleaguered people. Iran on its part would have to accept that Saudi Arabia has legitimate security interests in Yemen, with which it shares a long border; Iran has respected this so far and has not provided large-scale assistance to the Houthis to avoid the possibility of a direct confrontation with the Kingdom.
The third and most difficult arena for the two-nation diplomatic initiative will be Iraq. Here, the sponsors of the initiative would have to urge Iran to accept the systematic dilution of the sectarian discourse and putting in place by the Haidar Al-Abadi government of a genuinely composite political order. This will involve the dismantling of the lethal and vengeful Shia militia and the gradual strengthening of the national army. A united Iraq will be more effective against the Islamic State, while accommodating the Iraqi Kurds in a federal system. The latter should help to dilute demands for a united region-wide Kurdish state which will be strongly resisted by the regional states and attempts to promote it will seriously disrupt the region’s geopolitical order and condemn the region to long-term ethnic conflict.
An integral part of the two-nation effort will be to encourage the principal participants to play down and in time eliminate references to sectarian identity and the sectarian divide from their discourse. Another aspect of the initiative will be that it will not include in its mandate any reference to the domestic affairs of the regional polities concerned.
The initiative would be greatly facilitated if two “basic rules,” suggested by Gary Sick, veteran diplomat and West Asia expert, are accepted by the contending parties at the outset: one, that using non-state actors and terrorist groups should be “categorically prohibited”; and, two, no participant should “interfere in the internal crisis in any regional country.” This would certainly generate goodwill and create the right atmosphere for purposeful interactions within the framework of the initiative.
Once progress is made in respect of these contentious issues, it will be possible to put in place platforms for dialogue and consultations among the regional neighbors. These would initially be informal discussion fora, which in time could get institutionalized, and common positions developed on matters of shared concern so that mutual understanding and confidence will increase. Special envoys and national security advisors of the three sponsoring countries would be available to facilitate communication and smooth over differences or misunderstandings.
A Regional Collective Security Framework
These confidence-building initiatives would only be a prelude to a larger, more ambitious enterprise: the realization of a regional collective security arrangement. Over the last two decades, several proposals have been presented, both by Saudi and Iranian leaders and by Arab and western academics. However, none of these proposals could move forward because the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) countries obtained their security through their alliance with the United States, the region’s hegemonic power that was deeply hostile to Iran. Now, with the U.S. viewed as increasingly disengaged from the region, the regional scenario is much more propitious for the promotion of new security order in West Asia.
The proposed collective regional security arrangement would have three attributes:
1. The effort will be entirely diplomatic in character; since the balance of power approach would not form part of this initiative, there would be no question of any of the parties offering to play a military role to maintain or promote regional security.
2. The attempt of the sponsors of the collective security arrangement will be to strive to make it as inclusive as possible, bringing in all regional and extra-regional states with a stake in regional stability.
3. The diplomatic process would inevitably be incremental as it would take time for old suspicions and mistrust to wither away; in this transition period, the participants would retain their existing security alignments.
At this point, we need to address certain issues that could be viewed as jeopardizing the shaping of this two-nation initiative. The first relates to the unresolved differences between India and China, both bilateral and those emerging from India’s concerns about China’s strategic ties with Pakistan and its muscular assertions in the South China Sea. These problems are serious, but they need not stand in the way of cooperative efforts regarding Gulf security, since both countries have substantial and abiding stakes in the stability of the region.
Another objection that could be raised is linked with India’s place in the shifting global alignments as emerging powers like Russia and China are challenging the West-dominated global scenario and are seeking to shape a new order that accommodates their interests. Though successive Indian governments have maintained close ties with the U.S., and attempts are being made to co-opt India into a broad “democratic” alliance to restrain China’s ambitions, India’s past record would suggest that it is unlikely to join any global alliance, and that “strategic autonomy” will remain the underlying principle defining its foreign policy positions. Thus, while India may have reservations about some aspects of China’s regional postures, it remains a strong advocate of a multi-polar world order, and in fact works with China and Russia in BRICS and other fora to challenge the West-dominated political and economic global system.
Why is the India-China likely to succeed when earlier efforts have failed? In recent years, as the Obama administration grew disenchanted with military interventions, its credibility as an effective role-player in regional affairs took a nose-dive: the G.C.C. countries were dissatisfied with the U.S.’s accommodation of Iran on the nuclear weapons issue, while Iran remained unhappy with the U.S.’s reluctance to lift sanctions and promote bilateral ties more enthusiastically. Iran therefore turned to Russia as its partner in reshaping West Asian politics. Hence, all the diplomatic effort expended by the U.S. administration to support peace processes in the region were unsuccessful.
In contrast to the United States, India and China would be approaching West Asia with no negative baggage and no historical biases, coupled with a solid reputation for their non-prescriptive and non-intrusive approaches in their foreign engagements. Again, unlike the U.S. and other Western powers, neither would be suspected of wanting to promote regional confrontations and both would be viewed as totally averse to military conflicts.
Such an initiative, shaped and promoted by India and China, is likely to enjoy considerable credibility in Tehran, since the two countries are non-Western, are advocates of a multipolar world order, and attach a high value to their ties with Iran. Again, since both countries have close ties with Saudi Arabia and the other G.C.C. countries, the initiative will have considerable resonance in Arab states as well.
Above all, it should be noted that this initiative will not just be confined to promoting mutual trust between the estranged Islamic giants; it will seek to shape the framework of a new regional security order to replace the earlier U.S.-led order. Since 1979, the American approach to West Asia has been characterized by recourse to military force, culminating in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The Asian initiative will bring to the region, for the first time in a century, a non-military approach to regional security that is based on the active participation of the regional states themselves as key role players, but would not exclude other nations, including Western countries, that have a stake in regional security.
 For details, see Talmiz Ahmad, “Turmoil in West Asia: The Sectarian Divide Shapes Regional Competitions,” IDSA Monograph Series No. 50, April 2016, Institute of Defence Studies and Strategic Analyses, New Delhi
 For an Indian perspective on OBOR, see Talmiz Ahmad, “Who’s Afraid of One Belt, One Road?,” The Wire, June 3, 2016, accessed December 27, http://thewire.in/2016/06/03/one-belt-one-road-shaping-connectivities-and-politics-in-the-21st-century-40388/.
 “Working Together for a Bright Future of China-Arab Relations.” Speech by President Xi Jinping at the Arab League Headquarters, Cairo, January 21, 2016, accessed December 27, 2016, http://english.cntv.cn/2016/01/22/ARTIadCQDyVQjG0ADCkR2tcl160122.shtml (5 December, 2016).
 “Historic Chabahar Port deal inked by India-Iran PM Modi calls it ‘corridor of peace and prosperity,” Zeenews.india.com, May 24, 2016, accessed December 27, 2016, Zeenews.india.com/news/india/historic-chabahar-port-deal-inked-by-india-iran-pm-modi-calls-it-corridor-of-peace-and-prosperity_1888332.html.
 Joint Statement between the United Arab Emirates and the Republic of India, August 17, 2015, accessed December 27, 2016, http://www.narendramodi.in/joint-statement-between-the-united-arab-emirates-and-the-republic-of-india-253654.
 India-Saudi Arabia Joint Statement during the visit of Prime Minister to Saudi Arabia, April 3, 2016, accessed December 27, 2016, http://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/26595/IndiaSaudi_Arabia_Joint_Statement_during_the_visit_of_Prime_Minister_to_Saudi_Arabia_April_03_2016.
 The distinguished Iranian writer, Sayyid Hossein Mousavian, has urged Iran “to acknowledge and take steps to alleviate the legitimate security concerns of the GCC states.” [“Saudi Arabia Is Iran’s New National Security Threat,” The World Post, June 3, 2016]. Similarly, another Iranian commentator, Hossein Bozorgmanesh, has recommended: “Iran must also choose to encourage its regional allies to engage in interaction and establish close ties with Sunni Muslims.” [“Possible Solutions to Iran-Saudi Differences,” Iran Review, February 1, 2016, accessed December 27, 2016, www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Possible-Solutions-to-Iran-Saudi-Differences.htm.
 See Richard Falk, “Yemen pays price for Saudis’ sectarian paranoia,” September 21, 2015, accessed December 23, 2016, www.middleeast.net/columns/yemen-pays-price-saudis-sectarian-paranoia-1288005160; and Thomas Juneau, “Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: a limited return on a modest investment,” International Affairs 92, 3 (2016): 647, accessed December 5, 2016, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-2346.12599/full.
 Gary Sick, “Is Saudi-Iranian De-escalation Possible?” Meibriefing.com, June 9, 2016, accessed December 27, 2016, mebriefing.com/?p=2362.
 Regarding Iran, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, is quoted as saying that the nuclear deal was never seen by the Obama administration as the harbinger of a great U.S.-Iran rapprochement. She states: “It was far more pragmatic and minimalist. The aim was very simply to make a dangerous country substantially less dangerous.” See Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic (April 2016) 17, accessed December 23, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine….
 Patrick Cockburn describes the U.S. war in Iraq “as an earthquake whose aftershocks we still feel. It energised and expanded existing conflicts and confrontations such as those between Shia, Sunni and Kurd; Saudi Arabia and Iran; countries opposed to US policy and those favouring it.” See Patrick Cockburn, The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East (London, UK: Verso, 2016) 2.