Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 07, 2022
Baghdad can figure in India’s energy calculations more significantly given the geopolitical developments in recent times.
Why Iraq needs more attention in India’s West Asia policy calculus As the crisis in Ukraine, a renewal of tensions between Moscow and Washington, and Europe’s internal fissures maintain a strong hold on global geopolitical discourse, events taking place in West Asia, as always, offer an interesting glimpse into a consistently evolving regional dynamic for India. As the global interest remains fixated on Europe, the recent suspension of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran being hosted by Iraq in Baghdad is notable. The talks were critical for a variety of reasons, including those that were transnational in nature and not just about regional rivalries and flashpoints. For a long time now, Iraq has been one of the top two suppliers of oil to India, along with Saudi Arabia. Baghdad’s prominence in India’s energy security calculation is not new but geopolitically has always been underrepresented due to its transactional nature. While many in the West were surprised at India’s continuous trade with Moscow to purchase cheap oil on the sidelines of the Ukraine conflict, the thirst in New Delhi for energy security, which feeds into domestic stability, is always palpable as a state that imports more than 80 percent of its annual oil needs. And this is precisely the reason behind the now infamous embrace between Iraq’s erstwhile dictator Saddam Hussein and India’s then Foreign Minister Inder Kumar Gujaral in 1990 when the former invaded its neighbouring state of Kuwait, marking the start of the first Gulf War. For a then coy New Delhi, engaging Hussein was not taking sides, but protecting interests by maintaining a safe supply of oil from the region at acceptable financial costs and evacuating its vast, economically volatile migrant population that worked in the Gulf.

While many in the West were surprised at India’s continuous trade with Moscow to purchase cheap oil on the sidelines of the Ukraine conflict, the thirst in New Delhi for energy security, which feeds into domestic stability, is always palpable as a state that imports more than 80 percent of its annual oil needs.

Iraq, despite its vast oil wealth, remains a political work in progress. Sandwiched between the heightened regional rivalry between a Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, Iraq is an ethnic middle ground between these two political and theological power blocks. The almost decade-long Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s and the catastrophic 2003 invasion by the US, following the 9/11 terror attacks further fragmented any chance for the state to regain its economic momentum and political stability. The rise of terror groups such as ISIS (Daesh in Arabic) further dented the nation’s prospects significantly. It was not very long ago that Indian imaginations were held by the case of 39 missing Indian workers in Iraq at the peak of the so-called Islamic State’s carnage in the country, all of whom were officially declared dead in 2018 by the Indian government. Earlier, in 2014, India had reportedly barred young Muslim males below the age of 30 from taking a pilgrimage to Iraq to try and control youths from joining ISIS, as part of its counterterrorism strategy. Iraqi pilgrimage sites such as Karbala and Najaf are important to India’s Shia Muslims, who make up around 13 percent of the total 14 percent Muslim population of India (third biggest in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan) out of 1.4 billion citizens. Iraq’s attempts to bring Riyadh and Tehran to sit across the table were pushed by now former Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. The interests behind these talks were not based on any overarching wish for Al-Kadhimi to become a peace broker, but a consensus between all three parties to try and not make Iraq a battleground going forward. The initial efforts by Al-Kadhimi seemed to be fruitful, on the surface at least, as both parties saw the exchanges in positive light. At one point, reports also suggested that the Saudis may look into re-opening their embassy in Tehran which has remained closed since 2016. While the prospects of reopening of the missions slowly tempered out, the arrival of Iranian diplomats in Jeddah in January 2022 to reopen Iran’s representative office to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was seen as a positive development.

India had reportedly barred young Muslim males below the age of 30 from taking a pilgrimage to Iraq to try and control youths from joining ISIS, as part of its counterterrorism strategy.

Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Harold Wilson is known to have coined the famous idiom, that ‘a week is a long time in politics.’ In the 2020s, Wilson’s hypothesis can perhaps be shortened to a 24-hour period. In October 2022, Iraq got a new President Abdul Latif Rashid and Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani. The Saudis, Iranians, and Americans, all three have a history of influencing who leads Baghdad. As per Iraqi political arrangement, a Kurd as president, a Shia as Prime Minister, and a Sunni as head of Parliament is an unofficial structure. More recently, pro-Iran influence zones, including the likes of Kataib Hezbollah, blamed for targeting US interests in Iraq, had been pushing to gain a stronger foothold in the Iraqi political process while other influential local political movements, such as the Sadrists led by one-time militia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, pushed back. Al Sudani’s recent trip to Tehran saw a protest-embroiled Iranian leadership pushing Baghdad to act more in Iran’s strategic interests while also entrenching further into Iraq economically. From an Indian perspective, much of Iraq’s troubles have rarely filtered down south, specifically towards places such as Basra, where much of the oil is shipped out using the Persian Gulf and the volatile Strait of Hormuz. While energy security for a country like India is dependent on creating an expansive and varied supply chain, geopolitical developments of the recent past, along with sanctions against states like Iran, Russia, and Venezuela, could make feeding the Indian economy’s voracious appetite for energy challenging. Iraq had benefitted immensely after India had stopped importing oil from Iran, with tensions rising between Tehran and Washington over the nuclear deal negotiations. With increasing sanctions and oil caps targeting Moscow also coming into play, the volatility of both oil supply and oil price is only going to increase in the coming months, and perhaps even years.

While energy security for a country like India is dependent on creating an expansive and varied supply chain, geopolitical developments of the recent past, along with sanctions against states like Iran, Russia, and Venezuela, could make feeding the Indian economy’s voracious appetite for energy challenging.

This offers a good window for New Delhi to expand its engagements with Baghdad, with the last significant high-level visit being that of former Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar calling in the Iraqi leadership in 2016. While Iraq remains a politically complex case, India’s energy interests in the country are significant and will continue to remain so in the coming decade as hydrocarbons are to remain central in fuelling Indian economic growth despite an energy transition being underway towards alternative fuels. India’s engagement with Iraq has been quiet and transactional, however, as a top-three supplier of oil, and with significant headwinds expected in global energy security along with China’s slow yet steady investments to solidify its own energy security for the future, a renewed outreach to Baghdad will be well-timed and useful if executed in the very near future.
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