Author : Kabir Taneja

Originally Published 2023-03-23 12:29:04 Published on Mar 23, 2023
The China-brokered Saudi Arabia-Iran deal puts the spotlight on New Delhi’s ties with Tehran
China’s West Asian peace diplomacy a reality check for India
The diplomatic thaw brokered between Saudi Arabia and Iran has propelled China further into global power tussles. Beijing ran away with the top prize based on diplomacy work largely done by regional states by leveraging its influence with Iran. However, the implications of China’s role are far reaching. Arguably, India’s political and diplomatic outreach in West Asia has been much bigger than China, with New Delhi operationalising both geographic proximity and deep cultural history between the regions. India has not commented on the Saudi Arabia-Iran thaw other than saying that it was aware of reports about such an agreement having been reached, and that it has always stood for diplomacy and dialogue. While many in West Asia have often highlighted that India is in a good position to act as a mediator in some of the region’s conflicts, New Delhi has baulked at such an idea, at least in part rooted by its official position of not supporting third-party mediation on Kashmir with Pakistan. However, this deal puts an interesting spotlight on India’s relations with Iran. While New Delhi has developed a much-celebrated outreach with the Arab world, now made easier thanks to the Abraham Accords that normalised relations between the two. Sanctions also made it significantly difficult for India to either fasten or upscale its developmental activities at Chabahar Port, a strategic investment designed to embolden both India’s energy security and trade links with Central Asia. Over time, other institutions such as the joint India-Iran shipping company, IranoHind, also seized operations in 2012. Economic relations have suffered, as India both, struggled with sanctions against Iran but also saw an opportunity to build closer ties with the US by playing its part in promoting talks between the P5+1 states and Tehran over the latter’s nuclear programme, which eventually led to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. These supposed gains made in Washington by India were dented when then US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. Even though economic relations have taken a backseat, strategic interests in Iran for New Delhi remain palpable, and gain even more significance following two major political events. First, the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, following a botched US withdrawal and subsequent collapse of the State in 2021. Second, the geopolitical shocks set in motion by Russia’s war against Ukraine, which led to closer military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, while Russia also slowly drifted towards China for both economic and political support. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Tehran in July 2021 to meet then President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, an odd precedence in diplomacy but also being just a month before the collapse of Kabul occurred, seems almost prophetic today in its intent. While India’s closeness with the US is undeniable today, specifically in the Indo-Pacific, in Central Asia, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Moscow-Tehran-Beijing club may well be the powers with most influence for the foreseeable future. New Delhi’s geographic realities, despite a drastically increased threat from China, will push to engage with these very actors on its Western front, specifically on security and counter-terrorism-related issues. A recent visit of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to Moscow and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin shows that Russian access with the Taliban, Central Asia, and its view of the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation remains critical in Indian security thinking. By association, Iran remains geographically critical for Indian interests. While India has concentrated on the Arab world largely due to economic opportunities, China’s capacity to influence both Iran, and possibly even Russia in the coming time, may push New Delhi to revisit its ties on how best to economically engage with Tehran despite its challenging geopolitical realities. China’s role as peacemaker in West Asia still needs to play out as many unanswered questions remain. Whether or not it is a success or failure, Beijing has aired its intent and New Delhi will have to readjust some of its positions in the region.
This commentary originally appeared in Deccan Herald.
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Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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