Modi and the Middle East

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is in tears. A nation of 85 million weeps. Western analysts say that Iran plots revenge carefully. But revenge is not always a dish best served cold.

Iran has already said that it will hit U.S. military targets. It also knows that it has a small window of opportunity while the world still sympathizes with it and would tolerate a retributive attack. Already the big powers–France, Germany, and the U.K.–are calling for deescalation. But Iran feels that it has to escalate once before the world can ask for deescalation, fairly.

PM Modi’s hugplomacy has worked wonders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, inveterate foes of Iran. But even they have been counseling the U.S. for restraint, well before General Soleimani’s assassination. And PM Modi has fostered a bromance with Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who though outwardly happy that Soleimani is gone, still feels uneasy as to what’s coming next.

Everyone frankly is on edge.

Iran was India’s neighbour prior to 1947. We have a millenia-old relationship with Persia. There is much in common in our language, food and culture. PM Modi visited Iran in 2016, where he met the supreme leader.

Recently the UAE, and even the Saudis, have supported our cause in Kashmir. That is due to PM Modi’s artful diplomacy. But traditionally the only Muslim country that has supported our cause in Kashmir has been Iran, as far back as in 1994, and that was due to then-PM Narasimha Rao’s Machiavellian diplomacy.

India is a Hindu-majority country in which a large Sunni-Shia population resides in peace with each other. Such is not the case in the Middle East. There the Sunnis and the Shias collide. And then three religions–Islam, Judaism, and Christianity–too go at it against one another there.

India has to play an active role in the Middle East. It is one step away from us. Only PM Modi can lead this initiative. This initiative cannot be done over the phone. It has to be done in person, and that too only by PM Modi, because he is one person much of the Middle East trusts.

Unfortunately India is mired in inner conflict. PM Modi seems to be occupied with that. He needs to regain the mojo of his first term, when he travelled the world and befriended almost every world-leader of consequence.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE plan to invest about $70 billion in an oil refinery in India. The Chabahar port that India has developed jointly with Iran stands to gain India billions of dollars in trade. Indian goods may not be good enough for the West, but for Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics they are good and cost-effective.

The Saudis and the Emiratis can always pull out of the oil project. And Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has gone on record as stating as recently as 2018 that Iran has created hurdles in the way of Chabahar.

Perhaps the one country in the Middle East that India has leverage over is Israel. India is the biggest importer of Israeli arms in the world, often buying equipment worth billions of dollars a year. India does not seem to have much influence over the U.S., but yes, Israel, it certainly has great bearing over the U.S. and Donald Trump.

PM Modi has a bromance going on with Netanyahu. General elections are due in Israel however. But whoever wins them will perforce be close to India.

So India has a superb relationship with Israel, a great relationship with the Sunni Gulf States, and a so-so relationship with Iran and the U.S. Iran still, because of historical links and because it doesn’t want to remain isolated in the world, would like to further its relationship with India.

There lies the opportunity for PM Modi. The time is ripe for him to travel to the Middle East and bring to bear his considerable people skills there. He should engage in shuttle diplomacy between the Sunni Gulf States, Iran, and Israel. The Middle East is India’s backyard. Because of oil, sectarianism and religion, it is a region that promises to stay combustible for as far as the eye can see. PM Modi must play an active role in helping calm the Middle East. If he won’t do it, who will?

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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