India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh visited Iran recently. Their goal was to revive the massive, strategic Indo-Iranian projects tied to the Chabahar port and transport hubs, part of which Iran recently decided to proceed with alone, and to counter arch-rival China’s growing strategic ties with Tehran.
But the visits could not have been timed more poorly: As New Delhi continued its outreach towards Tehran, the Gulf was embarking on a historic embrace of Israel, driven in large part by the shared animosity among those countries towards Iran.
Israel’s newfound friendship with the Gulf states now poses both opportunities and challenges for India. Yet, so far, New Delhi has shied away from addressing them – insisting, instead, on hewing to its traditional policy of non-alignment, which is sometimes expressed as "non-involvement."
But the geopolitical opportunities for New Delhi from this reconfiguration of Mideast alliances are plenty. For years, India has tried to gain entry as a full member into the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – the collective platform for 57 Muslim-majority countries – in a bid to counter Pakistani influence in that forum. Pakistan has long rallied support within the OIC against Indian initiatives on the international stage, including even at the UN.
But India no longer needs to worry about the OIC. The Muslim world is now split between the Arabs and the rest, thanks to the new ‘cold war’ of the Middle East between Iran and the Gulf states. While the Arab world is looking for allies against Iran, the non-Arab world – led by Turkey and Pakistan – is trying to pull together to push back against the Arabs.
In recent times, Iran has joined the latter group; the Gulf outreach towards Israel is part of the Arab counter-effort. Not surprisingly, therefore, the recent Arab-Israeli deals have been vehemently criticized by Iran, Turkey and Pakistan.
Signs of this split were evident to India long before the recent Arab-Israeli thaw. In the aftermath of the lockdown in Kashmir and the introduction of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, Iran was unusually vocal in criticizing New Delhi, alongside Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia. By contrast, the Arabs were noticeably quiet – and on occasions, even supported the Modi government.
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Yet the real geopolitical consequence for India is going to be in Afghanistan – New Delhi’s big state-building project.
During his visit to Iran, Indian Defense Minister Singh spoke to his hosts about the future of Afghanistan after the U.S.-Taliban deal, which legitimized the Taliban’s participation in the Afghan political system. Indians have long believed that Iran sees the Sunni Islamist Taliban as a security threat the same way India does, thereby opening up doors to collaborate with Tehran on preventing the return of Taliban rule.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among the few countries that recognized their regime. On the other hand, Iran had been vocally critical of it.
But it now looks like those positions could get switched. Iran has torn into America’s recent deal with the Taliban for legitimizing the militants. Yet, as Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin recently pointed out, Tehran has been steadily building its own ties with the Taliban for about a decade.
Their relationship transformed from enmity to cooperation when they joined forces to fight against ISIS and its infiltration into Afghanistan in its border region with Iran. More recently, intelligence reports have claimed that Iran is supplying the Taliban with missiles. And U.S. intelligence recently said that Iran paid bounties to the Taliban for targeting American troops in Afghanistan.
As Afghan stakeholders negotiate with each other in the wake of the U.S.-Taliban deal, Iran is likely to try to step up its relationship with the Taliban, particularly as Tehran moves closer to Pakistan within the Muslim world.
For New Delhi, all this is bad news. The Taliban pose the single biggest security threat to Indian ventures and interests in nearby Afghanistan, and New Delhi also fears that the return of the Taliban – under the close influence of Pakistan – will add to rising militancy in Kashmir. A nexus between Iran and Pakistan in Afghanistan is only going to make things worse.
Yet, on the other side of the Muslim world’s divide, there could be opportunities. While the Gulf had infamously maintained ties with the Taliban during its time in power, that relationship began to sour even as Iran started getting closer to the Taliban. As Rubin points out, the slide began in 2009: That year, the then-Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz expelled the Taliban’s political envoy Tayyib Agha, after the latter refused to publicly denounce Al Qaida.
Qatar’s role as the interlocutor in America’s recent talks with the Taliban did not help warm Gulf states’ attitude: Qatar is currently blockaded by other Gulf states as a result of long-running tensions, not least Qatar’s relatively warm relations with Iran. As a result of all this, the rest of the Arab Gulf states have found themselves side-lined in Washington’s peace-making efforts in Afghanistan.
But this could now make the Arabs potential allies for New Delhi in Afghanistan, particularly if they want to push back against Iran and Pakistan collaborating there. With its single-minded focus on containing Iranian influence in any region, the Gulf could be open to joining hands with India in countering the Taliban in Afghanistan. The strategic convergence is made even more viable for India as ties between Pakistan and the Gulf – especially Saudi Arabia – sour fast.
But all this would depend on how New Delhi behaves in the months ahead. Like all foreign policy calculations in the Middle East, India’s influence would now depend on how useful it can make itself to the warring parties – either to Iran or to the Arab Gulf states.
With growing convergence between Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, New Delhi is going to find it tough to win any favors from Tehran – either in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Iran won’t volunteer to help India contain the rise of the Taliban, when it has been so invested in the militant group’s ascent. And neither will Iran prioritize developing Indian strategic assets and infrastructure in West and Central Asia in preference to Tehran’s increasingly cosy ties with Pakistan and China (despite that being the prime motivation for India of the Chabahar projects).
Pakistan is the only nuclear-armed state in the Muslim world today, and as it finds itself isolated in the Middle East, Iran is going to look for more help from Islamabad in the regional balance of power.
On the other hand, while the Arabs have been increasingly forthcoming with geopolitical support to New Delhi in recent times, India will find it difficult to keep them engaged without offering them any support in return against Tehran.
Having spent millions of dollars each year on the Chabahar project since 2016, India is understandably unwilling to jeopardize its investments by taking sides in the Middle East. But as the Muslim world splits, India’s objective of cultivating Iran as a strategic ally against Pakistan and China in Central Asia, while sustaining essential economic and political ties with the Gulf, is no longer feasible.
As Iran joins hands with Pakistan and China – and the Taliban threatens to dominate Afghanistan once more – India could get geographically boxed in. New Delhi needs to build a strong outer circle of allies to safeguard its own strategic interests. That opportunity now lies with Israel and its new friends in the Gulf.
Mohamed Zeeshan is editor-in-chief of Freedom Gazette and a writer for The Diplomat. He has previously served as an adviser to the Indian delegation to the United Nations in New York and worked as a consultant to governments in the Middle East. Twitter: @ZeeMohamed_