Protecting energy supplies
It is often forgotten that large numbers of Indian soldiers under the flag of the British Commonwealth, and later under the auspices of the United Nations, patrolled or fought in the Middle East. Indian civil servants also played an important role in carrying out British, not Indian, policy in the Middle East. The British administration of India coincided with the beginning of British hegemony over much of the Middle East. Geoffrey Kemp asserted that Britain ruled the Middle East “from Bombay, not Cairo” (interestingly enough, after independence and until the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, Indian observers criticized their country for deciding its Mideast policy in Cairo, the seat of the Arab League, rather than in New Delhi).54 Indians contributed significantly to the Allied war effort in the Middle East during both World Wars. A memorial site in the Haifa Indian Cemetery honors the hundreds of Indian soldiers who fell in the fight to liberate the city from Ottoman rule in 1918, and, every year, the Indian Army commemorates “Haifa Day,” the day when the Ottomans were driven out of the city. There is widespread “amnesia” among Indians about their nation’s past military involvement in the Middle East, because having provided soldiers to the British Empire is no source of national pride.55 One of Britain’s main military objectives in the Middle East was to secure the oil wells. Today, protecting energy supplies remains a major concern – not of Britain, but of Asia. India has, since the 1950s, participated in several UN peacekeeping operations in the Middle East. It provided military personnel to the first UN peacekeeping operation in the Suez Canal, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gaza Strip between 1956 and 1967. India also supplied military observers to the UN peacekeeping observation missions in Lebanon, Yemen, and on the Iran-Iraq and Iraq-Kuwait borders. As of 2016, Indian soldiers were participating in seven UN peacekeeping operations, including on the Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon borders.
In the post-Cold War era, India’s strategic doctrine and foreign policy underwent several major shifts as it painfully adjusted to the disappearance of the Soviet Union, a close friend and major military supplier. It has also had to adjust to the emergence of the United States as the only superpower in the reconfigured international system. India’s friendship with its Mideast neighbors has not suffered from the major changes in the country’s strategic doctrine and policy. India has, in recent years, multiplied high-level visits to Mideast countries in order to promote long-term friendly and cooperative political ties with key energy suppliers. India has also multiplied the number of invitations to leaders and officials of Mideast countries to visit New Delhi. Among the highest-profile visits was that of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in 2006 as the guest of honor at the Republic Day Parade.
India has developed significant defense and security ties with several of its Mideast key partners apart from Israel, including in particular, the UAE, Iran, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Naval cooperation is the main focus of India’s defense ties with the Persian Gulf. Strengthening naval ties with Persian Gulf countries aims at improving the security of both energy and other trade flows in the Indian Ocean. India does not want to depend entirely on the United States to safeguard the Indian Ocean’s shipping lanes. This cooperation helps India to extend its reach beyond the Indian Ocean. In particular, India and the Gulf countries have a mutual interest in boosting cooperation against maritime piracy, especially in light of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, which has risen significantly in recent years. India’s overall naval strategy is also partly driven by its anxiety over China’s String of Pearls strategy – its quest to increase its influence along the sea routes of the Indian Ocean. Beyond naval cooperation, India has forged close defense and security ties with Persian Gulf countries to fight the rise of criminal activity, money laundering, and illegal arms trading, between the two regions, as well as in the field of counter-terrorism. India has a high-stake interest in seeing the Persian Gulf move toward political modernization and religious moderation, and away from becoming more entrenched as a bastion of international terrorism and religious extremism.
Nothing guarantees that India’s policy of forging closer political and military ties with Mideast countries, much less “strategic partnerships” – an exaggerated phrase that has been used repeatedly to describe India’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran – will succeed in ensuring the safety of energy supplies and other economic flows, especially in times of crisis. In fact, such a policy has, in the past, proven ineffectual for other countries.
In the second decade of the 21st century, one cannot yet speak of a major Asian power projection into the Middle East, comparable to those of Western powers in earlier decades. The crucial question is whether, when, and how India and China will inject their own power into the Middle East, as Middle Eastern oil is indispensable to their very survival. A part of this question is whether India and China will compete, perhaps clash or cooperate, with the other major powers in the Middle East, particularly the United States and Russia. Various long-term scenarios are possible, depending on whether the recent reduction of America’s commitments and military presence in the Middle East turns out to be permanent, or whether America will reassert its power in the region. India and China’s entry into the Middle East will likely have consequences for their relations with many countries, including the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Arab countries, and Israel, and quite possibly with one another. A large swath of the region already suffers from a power vacuum, at least temporarily. It is uncharted waters, which Asian energy importers are not yet well prepared to navigate.
India’s increasing energy dependence on the Middle East could also have a number of positive effects on the region’s stability; its nurturing and expansion of economic, military, and political ties with the Middle East may allow the Indian leadership to exert stronger influence on the region’s affairs, and, in the medium to long term, strengthen India’s international power status. At the same time, however, there is a risk that India will be unwillingly drawn into the Middle East’s local and regional disputes without the ability to wield hard power comparable to that of the United States.
Facing the tension between Iran and the Arab world
The paramount regional tension in the Middle East is between Iran and the Sunni Arab countries. Iran has been extremely important to India for a long time, far beyond energy interests. Although it yielded to U.S. pressure and quietly reduced its oil imports from Iran, as well as its exports of refined petroleum products, India refused to completely sever ties with Iran when international sanctions against Tehran were still in place. When Indians speak of Iran, they think of hundreds of years of cultural influence that have shaped an Indian language (Urdu), Indian poetry, art, music and more. Iran is also seen as India’s primary economic and geographical gateway to Central Asia. Besides, Iran is no threat to India; on the contrary, it serves as a regional counterweight against (a potentially hostile) Sunni Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. India like Iran is extremely concerned about the future of Pakistan’s neighbor Afghanistan. India fears that both these countries could fall into extremist hands. On the other hand, India is uncomfortable with many Iranian policies and public declarations even if it refrains from making its criticism public. “Iran is a headache,” commented one Indian policy adviser.
A serious Iranian military threat against the Arab Gulf, which provides most of India’s oil and is also strategically critical to India in terms of trade, labor and political links, would severely test India’s priorities. As writes P.R. Kumaraswamy, one of the leading Indian experts on India’s Middle East policies, “when it comes to Iran, New Delhi can ignore pressures from Washington and political noises from Israel. But it cannot afford to ignore Arab fears, concerns, and anxieties.”56
This is why Modi’s first, finely calibrated visits to the Middle East have been so significant. He went to Iran in April 2016, shortly after his Saudi Arabia visit. He strengthened political and economic ties with the Arabs, but also security links in part because some Indian Muslim extremists had been joining ISIS. In Iran, he agreed to finance the building of Chabahar port, which is less than 100 km away from a major Pakistani port. It will allow India a new gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia, eliminating the need to pass through Pakistan.
Some have suggested that there has been a “recalibration” of India’s priorities in favor of the Gulf Arabs.57 Certainly, Modi has initiated a more “activist” foreign policy than his predecessors, not only on the world stage — he has made dozens of visits to countries near and far — but also, prudently, in the troubled Middle East. Perhaps Iran was not pleased with what some called India’s “tilting” toward Saudi Arabia, but it got enough out of Modi’s visit to not show any discontent publically. But Pakistan was almost certainly unnerved. Modi reinforced India’s position against Pakistan with two indirect strategies. One was forging an ever-growing alliance with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s erstwhile supporter, the other was investing in Iran, Pakistan’s neighbor, in order to diminish Pakistan’s geostrategic assets.
No harm came to Israel as a result of Modi’s first major political and economic initiatives in the Muslim Middle East. Israel is more concerned by its Western friends and allies’ investments in Iran. Modi’s state visit to Israel will likely take place later in 2017, and if there has been an Indian “tilting” toward the Arab Gulf countries, it was very much in line with Israel’s own discreet efforts toward the same countries, which feel threatened by Iran.
Containing Middle Eastern solidarity with Pakistan
Apart from protecting energy supplies, there is another major reason for India to seek close links with all the Muslim countries of the Middle East. That reason is Pakistan. Pakistan and India have been locked in a bitter rivalry since partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Partition was a very traumatic experience for the population of both countries, which has remained imprinted in their collective memory and continues to resonate and impact the bilateral relationship. Since partition, India and Pakistan have fought three major wars, two of them over the territory of Kashmir, which remains the core issue of contention between the two countries. From the first 1947-1948 conflict onward, Pakistan has led continuous efforts to internationalize the Kashmir issue and gain global endorsement of its position. It has attempted to rely on Muslim solidarity to gain the support of Mideast countries, painting the Kashmir conflict as a fight of India against Muslims and Islam. During the first decades of India’s independence, the need to contain Muslim solidarity with Pakistan became one of the major factors underlying India’s Mideast policy. During the Cold War, India courted the Muslim Middle East in an attempt to weaken Pakistan’s diplomatic and economic links in the region. India hoped to benefit from Arab or Iranian support in the Kashmir conflict; or, at least, it wanted to neutralize Pakistan’s influence in the region and offset Pakistani propaganda designed to present India as anti-Muslim.
Since the early 1990s, however, Pakistan has been a much less significant factor in India’s relations with the Middle East. It became clear to India that even its most enthusiastic support for Arab causes did not, and would not diminish Arab support for Pakistan whenever it clashes with India. To a great extent, this realization came after Pakistan succeeded in putting the Kashmir issue on the agenda of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and secured passage of several resolutions unfavorable to India. Besides, although Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s could almost be considered India’s equal in capabilities and power, the balance of power has now significantly shifted in favor of India. Accordingly, the need to contain Muslim solidarity with Pakistan has become much less urgent.
Yet, the impact of India’s rivalry with Pakistan on India’s Arab policies has not altogether disappeared. It will continue to play a role, albeit a more limited one. There is a complex, rarely openly admitted, triangular relationship between India, Pakistan, and Iran that focuses on the Shia minorities in India and Pakistan. The treatment of the Shia minority in Pakistan has been, and continues to be, brutal, with hundreds, probably thousands, of them killed and maimed in horrific suicide and other bombings by Taliban and other Sunni extremists. This has created enormous resentment in Iran, the self-appointed global guardian of Shia Islam, and has favored a closer engagement with India. As for India, it is essential to ensure that Iran, Pakistan’s other strong neighbor, never supports Pakistan against India. This helps to explain, among other reasons, why India treats its Shia minority with great care and consideration. It is also why India feels that it can never break completely with Iran. Indo-Iranian ties are meant to serve as a powerful counterweight to Pakistan and to the upsurge of Sunni Islamic extremist groups throughout South Asia. India’s cooperation with Iran to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan has the goal of disrupting Pakistani attempts to regain influence over Afghanistan. India’s financing of the port at Chabahar in Iran must be seen in this context. Pakistan, in turn, wants to expand its regional clout, in order to reduce that of India. To a certain extent, in moving closer to Iran the Indian leadership has also given expression to India’s resentment that the U.S. has never fully supported it against Pakistan and has maintained close security ties with Islamabad.
Pakistan is still seen by India as a hereditary enemy. Notwithstanding the unending promises to improve relations, the pain of partition and Pakistani threats to put an end to India or Hinduism are not easily forgotten. Many Indians regard the Kashmir problem as insoluble – it weaves too many complex issues together. Others believe that this problem will slowly disappear over time. Terrorist acts committed by Pakistani militants on Indian soil have provoked strong anger, and countries that support Pakistan today, or have in the past, have caused a roiling resentment in India. This means that any move by Israel toward Pakistan (including those invented by Pakistan to disturb Indo-Israeli relations) could impact badly on Indian attitudes toward Israel.
The Israel factor: Balancing the links with the Muslim Middle East
India fully normalized relations and began major cooperation with Israel only several decades after it had begun developing close ties with Arab and Muslim countries. The fear that establishing relations with the Jewish state would harm Indian interests in the Arab and Muslim world was one of the key factors motivating India’s hostile posture toward Israel during the Cold War. When India normalized diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, its parallel move into the broader Middle East accelerated, but it had not anticipated that its dependence on Mideast oil would grow so fast and so extensively. In other words, India’s establishment of relations with the Jewish state in 1992 was neither positively nor negatively linked to its growing ties with other countries in the region. Rather, it was the result of unrelated geopolitical factors, particularly the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower. As time passed, however, India’s relations with Israel became increasingly linked to its general Mideast plans and policies, though not always in obvious ways.
In the early period of normalization, India feared adverse Arab and Muslim reaction to its rapprochement with the Jewish state and sought to balance friendly steps toward Israel with “similar gestures” toward the Muslim Middle East.58 Under the government of Indian Prime Minister Rao (1991-1996), meetings with senior Israeli officials were thus generally preceded or followed by similar meetings with the Palestinian leadership. In late January 1992, just days before initiating full diplomatic relations with Israel, Rao held confidential talks in New Delhi with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in an apparent effort to placate his reaction to the move. The Indian government stepped up gestures of friendship toward its Muslim and Arab partners throughout the 1990s, at least partly to mitigate their concerns over rapprochement with Israel. This trend continued, although to a much lesser extent, into the first rule of the Hindu BJP government (1996-2004).
However, the responses of the Muslim Middle East to the expanded India-Israel ties have remained “muted almost to the point of indifference.”59 Even Teheran has refrained from making public statements decrying these expanded ties. Mideast countries have proved unwilling to “hold their relations with New Delhi hostage to Indo-Israeli ties.”60 In fact, the most meaningful improvements of India’s relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia happened in the two decades since normalization with Israel. And so, gradually, from the late 1990s, Indian leaders have become less inhibited in expanding ties with Israel and have remained “unconcerned about the erstwhile drive for balance.”61
Kumaraswamy argues that Indo-Israeli relations have in fact “forced key states of the Middle East to take India seriously.”62 Prime Minister Modi’s government did not wait long after the election of 2014 to significantly enhance India’s relations with Israel with a number of fast, dramatic steps. India uncharacteristically refused to condemn Israel’s 2014 Gaza incursion and abstained, for the first time, at least once, from voting against Israel in a UN forum. Perhaps most importantly, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee made a highly visible state visit to Israel in October 2015, the first of its kind. He emphasized the growing friendship between the two countries as well as India’s wish to expand relations with Israel in every sector. However, just before coming to Israel, he visited Jordan and the Palestinian territories, where he emphatically reiterated India’s support for Palestinian aspirations. He seemed to return to India’s traditional balancing pattern – with one major difference: he did not attack Israel from Amman or Ramallah. In August 2015, India’s Foreign Minister Ms. Sushma Swaraj visited Egypt to boost bilateral relations, but also to reassure the Arab world that India’s “unwavering” support for Palestinian rights would not change. Only a few months later in January 2016, Swaraj visited Israel, where she made similarly enthusiastic statements on India’s friendship with Israel. These statements, professing friendship for both Palestinians and Israelis, represents a new and visible of phase of India’s Middle East balancing act, which began already under the Congress Party’s rule.
To understand Arab and Iranian reactions to India, one has to remember the place of India not only in Arab and Iranian history, but also in the Arab and Iranian imagination. Arabs and Iranians have known India as a neighbor for a much longer time than they have known the West – two thousand years or more. They know that India, with its huge population, will forever remain its neighbor. This cannot be said of the West. In turn, India may feel less compelled than the West to appease Arab, Iranian, or other Muslim grievances at the expense of third countries, for example Israel. India has no colonial past in the Middle East, and hence no guilt feelings with regard to the Muslim world. This might facilitate an Indian political role in the Middle East.