India tiptoes to the new Middle East

Posted in India | 21-Jun-08 | Author: M K Bhadrakumar| Source: Asia Times

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) shakes hands with Chief of India's ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi before their meeting in New Delhi June 18, 2008.

DELHI - The Middle East took a great leap forward this week to the post-George W Bush era. Israel's dramatic shift of glance to the forces of political Islam sums it up. "Today we have concurrent peace negotiations with both the Syrians and the Palestinians and there is no logical reason why there should also not be talks with the Lebanese," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Israel's announcement hinting at peace with Hezbollah followed hours after agreeing a landmark truce with Hamas in Gaza. Separately, Israeli and Lebanese politicians confirmed a deal in the making between Israel and Hezbollah regarding the exchange of prisoners. The deal, brokered by Germany, may be announced next week.

Shifts in regional setting
The cynics may argue that Olmert is diverting attention from the corruption scandals that threaten to hound him out of power. True, clever politicians resort to such tactics. The hardcore realists may say Israeli public opinion militates against parting with the Golan Heights and that the Gaza truce is too fragile to be enduring. True, there is no indication Israel feels strong enough for peace with Syria or that Hamas has "changed its skin", to borrow Olmert's words.

All the same, Israel's proposal for peace talks with Lebanon signifies a turnabout from its clamor to isolate rather than engage Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah. At a minimum, Israel recognizes that the strategy of isolating Hamas has not worked. The deal with Israel elevates Hamas' status in the region.

Most certainly, the declining influence of the Bush administration in the Middle East is a contributory factor in the Israeli thinking. Regev mentioned a "changed constellation" in the Middle East. The Washington Post newspaper has reported on the likelihood of Olmert meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a conference in France in July, "a move that would be likely to further weaken US efforts to isolate Syria".

The "changed constellation" also pertains to the ground reality that Bush faces a stalemate over the Iran nuclear issue. Bush is left with the option of coercive diplomacy in the nature of drumming up international pressure against Iran and to leave matters to the new president in the White House in January. Even an ardent supporter of Israel like John Bolton, former US envoy to the United Nations, is forced to admit that an American military strike against Iran is conceivable only during the post-election period between November and January, but that too is a long shot.

As for Israel, it cannot and will not attack Iran without full American backing, which, given the domestic environment in the US and Bush's low credibility in the region, is unlikely. The result is, as Time magazine sums up, "Israel can only huff and puff, hoping new sanctions on Iran will do the trick."

Meanwhile, the foreign policy panel that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama constituted includes former secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeline Albright, who have been vocal about engaging Iran. Addressing the panel on Wednesday, Obama outlined a "pragmatic" foreign policy in contrast with what he described as the "rigid ideology" of the Bush administration.

To sum up, a new Middle East is struggling to be born, which is, paradoxically, a legacy of the Bush era, except that it happens to be far different from what the US president had in mind. Israel, of course, isn't alone in coming to terms with the "changed constellation" in the Middle East. Countries like India also are called on to quickly readjust.

India revives ties with Syria
India has reached out to its long-lost friend in the Arab world, Syria. Assad is on a five-day visit to India. Indian briefings said Assad's visit "further consolidated the excellent relations" between the two countries but steered a cautious line that does not offend the US or Israel.

Regarding the Arab-Israeli problem, the Indian briefing said, "The need for progress in the various tracks of the peace process, early implementation of various UN resolutions and the need for greater involvement of all significant regional and international participants were discussed. In this regard, noting recent developments, the two sides agreed to stay in close consultation on the next steps in the peace process."

The diplomatic objective of Assad's visit, from Delhi's perspective, is to revive India's links with all sides in the Middle East and keep options open at a time of change. A need arises to balance India's strong ties with Israel. Syria's articulate Expatriates Minister, Bouthaina Shaaban, who is a member of Assad's entourage, stated in Delhi that Syria hoped India's growing ties with Israel would not be at the cost of its historic links with the Arab world. Bouthaina pointedly said, "The Arab world always looked up to India as a country that seeks peace and dignity ... We trust that India will stand in support of justice. It cannot stand with occupation, it cannot stand with genocide. That's what has happened to the Arab world ... We believe India will stand by the Arab people."

Indeed, Delhi has some delicate balancing to do. India's ties with Israel have been extremely productive, especially the bilateral security cooperation and military-to-military ties. The relationship with Syria looks anaemic in comparison. During Assad's visit, two agreements were signed relating to investment protection and double-taxation avoidance and a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in agriculture.

But at the same time, India realizes that the US policy of isolating Syria has not worked and a new president in Washington may seek a change in policy. With Iraq lying in shambles, Syria's weight in the Arab world is increasing. Delhi decided that it is prudent to pick up the threads of its ties with Damascus, which went through an indifferent patch in the recent years when India's regional policy in the Middle East focused on rapidly building security cooperation with Israel and harmonizing with Washington's regional strategy.

India's overture to Iran
A similar rethink towards Iran is also apparent. Delhi has disengaged from Bush's vitriolic takes on Iran and underlined that the most effective way for solving the Iran problem is by way of addressing it through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "without the accompanying cacophony of recrimination and threats of violence", to quote Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Clearly, India visualizes that the US engagement of Iran is a matter of time and is revamping its own policy, which took a battering in recent years when under US pressure Delhi voted twice against Iran in the IAEA over its nuclear program.

But Iran is a far tougher customer than Syria. Mukherjee, therefore, reserved some fine words for Iran in a major policy speech he delivered at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi last month. He described Iran as a "significant role-player in regional and world affairs".

Mukherjee explained, "I believe that engagement with Iran is important. Such engagement can play an effective role in promoting peace and stability in West Asia, particularly in Iraq and Palestine as also in Syria and Lebanon, while supporting the regional and global effort in combating extremism and terrorism. In this regard, I must mention that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan. The international effort under way there would also benefit from greater engagement with Iran."

He spoke effusively. The speech followed Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's brief stopover in Delhi in April. Mukherjee is scheduled to visit Iran for the second time in six months, in July. The broad thrust of this flurry of activity is to place Delhi as a player in West Asia, which it regards as a "part of India's extended neighborhood" and where, as Mukherjee put it in his Abu Dhabi speech, "We need to look collectively at the common regional challenges we face - political, economic and social and discuss these issues and find solutions together."

In short, Delhi foresees a collective security system for the region in which India "extends its hand of support and cooperation to the countries of the [Persian] Gulf and calls upon them to set up vibrant partnerships with us".

The impetus for such forward thinking also comes out of an unspoken factor- China's growing profile in the Middle East.

Anxieties regarding China
China currently imports 40% to 50% of the oil it consumes, out of which close to 60% comes from the Middle East. The dependence is expected to rise to 70% by 2015. "Therefore," as Professor Weiming Zhao of the Middle East Studies Institute of the Shanghai International Studies University recently wrote, "China has a significant interest in the Middle East, and any changes in the situation there will affect China's energy security. It is only natural for energy factors to play a role in China's policy toward the Middle East. Although China's opposition to the Iraq war and to the use of force to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue is not purely based on considerations of energy security, this is a key factor. In a word, energy diplomacy constitutes an important part of China's diplomacy."

Weiming concluded, "Therefore, it will remain the basic posture of China's diplomacy for a long time to come to pay more attention to the development of the situation in the Middle East, to be more concerned with Middle East affairs and to establish closer relations with Middle East countries."

Delhi is learning to manage China's growing Middle East influence. The Indian petroleum minister is currently visiting Saudi Arabia. Mukherjee visited Riyadh in April. A visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in the cards. Saudi Arabia, which is India's principal supplier of oil, aims to double its oil exports to China in 2008. By 2010, Saudi exports to China are expected to touch 1 million barrels a day, which would place China as Riyadh's number one destination for its petroleum.

Again, China has an agreement with Iran to buy 250 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas over a 30-year period and to develop Iran's Yadavaran oil field, which has the estimated potential to yield 150,000 barrels a day over a 25-year period.

China also takes great care to develop energy cooperation with the US. The fourth round of the China-US Strategic Economic Dialogue held in the US this week focused on the two countries taking "shared responsibilities" on energy issues on the basis of developing "a lot of converging points of interest", exploring "broad cooperation prospects with great mutual complementarities", tapping the "tremendous business opportunities involved" - to quote from a People's Daily commentary.

The commentary pointed out that in the energy sector, "China and the US are not only each other's stakeholders but construction partners ... the US has become the nation to be involved in the most cooperative items in China's petroleum industry. Persevering, unremitting efforts made by both sides have enabled such kind of cooperation to be imbued with an increasing global significance ... By working hand in hand, China and the US are meant not only to have common interests but to bear their shared responsibilities."

Equally, India sizes up China as a rival investment destination for sovereign wealth funds (SWF) of the oil-fired economies of the Persian Gulf. The cumulative value of SWF in the Middle East currently is estimated to be in the region of $1.5 trillion and is expected to triple or quadruple in the coming five to 10 years if oil prices remain at their current high level.

Apart from foreign markets, the funds make direct investments to help develop the local market. According to experts, $1.9 trillion worth of investments were either on the way or had been announced for the next seven years in the oil-and-gas producing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The GCC groups Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.

Mukherjee pointed out in his Abu Dhabi speech that India's sees itself as an "important partner" for the funds as an investment destination besides seeking to partake of the development of the services sector in the GCC countries "as contractors, sub-contractors and as contributors of human resources".

India must size up Islamism
But India's approach to the new Middle East must tackle an ideological dimension. Unlike China, can India, which has a large Muslim population with deep cultural links with the region, afford to stand aside from the battle for political ideas in the Middle East?

Iraq has transformed as a religious government. Several streams of Islamist activism have appeared in the region, but the Indian perceptions narrowly focus on the fringe manifestation, al-Qaeda. The mainstream Sunni Islamist movement is the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates such as Hamas, which are essentially non-violent movements with a quasi-legal political presence willing to become part of democratic life.

The mainstream Islamists spearhead mass movements that will not fade away. They are there to stay on the political landscape of India's "extended neighborhood". Hamas and Hezbollah have demonstrated that, given the opportunity, they are capable of making pragmatic political choices. Israel is way ahead of India in sizing up Islamism. With the distinct possibility of an Obama presidency in Washington, India needs to make haste in tiptoeing to the new Middle East. Plainly speaking, there is a lot of catching up to do.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).