After his highly successful visit to Riyadh last April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s just concluded trip to Tehran has proved that he understands the importance of maintaining good ties with two the sworn enemies of the Islamic world to further India’s interests - Iran and Saudi Arabia, writes Vivek Shukla
Riyadh must be feeling uncomfortable with Modi’s successful trip to Tehran where he has signed a series of agreements. Nonetheless India expects Saudi Arabia to restrain Pakistan from allowing its territory to be used by terrorists targeting India.
But first thing first: The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Tehran should go a long way in bettering the strained ties between the two old friends. Iran has been sulking since India’s vote on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). India’s negative vote at the IAEA against Iran’s nuclear record couple of years back greatly hurt Iran. After a series of agreements, including on Chabahar port, it now looks that the Iran’s leadership is ready to forget the dark chapter in the history of bilateral ties between the two countries.
India signed on a historic deal to develop the strategic port of Chabahar in Iran and has agreed on a three-nation pact to build a transport-and-trade corridor through Afghanistan that could help halve the time and cost of doing business with Central Asia and Europe. Experts are of the view that developing the Chabahar port would be crucial for India because it will not only allow New Delhi to bypass Pakistan and access global markets but also counter China’s expanding influence in the Indian Ocean region. Chabahar is only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean region. It is just 100 km away from Gwadar port in Pakistan that is being developed by China.
Further, Modi and Iranian President Dr. Hassan Rouhani have signed several deals, including on sharing intelligence to combat terrorism and increasing cultural and technological contact.
And coming back to Chabahar, India will spend about Rs 3,400 crores to develop the port in southeastern Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province as a regional trade hub. This will allow it to open up an alternative land-sea route for trade with Afghanistan. After the agreement, Modi said, “The Chabahar port can become a very big symbol of co-operation between Iran and India.”
It was very much on the cards that India would go all out to woo Iran following the removal of a wide range of sanctions on the country by the United States after IAEA confirmed that Tehran has met its commitments to roll back its nuclear programme, under an agreement with China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the U.S and Germany.
And Modi’s visit was an indication that India is trying to grab the opportunities that the new situation has thrown up as oil and gas as well as Chabahar port related issues were concerned.
India’s attempt to expedite its engagement with the energy rich Iran comes in the wake of new expectations around Iran opening up its substantive hydrocarbon reserves, which may also include production-sharing contracts. India is one of the biggest buyers of Iranian crude, and is set to import at least 400,000 barrels per day from Iran in 2016-17.Currently, India mainly imports crude oil from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.
After India and the US signed a civil nuclear deal in 2008, several Iran-related Indian projects have either been put on hold or dropped. India also decided to focus on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline instead of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project. It is still not known whether Modi has discussed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project in Tehran.
And when we talk about pipeline project, one should keep in mind the fact that only recently Iranian President, Dr Hassan Rouhani visited Pakistan. In Pakistan, he discussed pipeline project. India has not taken part in the talks on the 1,036 km Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline since 2007, citing security and commercial concerns.
Future of gas pipeline
It is possible that now Modi will push for the implementation of Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline. The planned pipeline from the Iranian coast via the Oman Sea and Indian Ocean to Mundhra in Gujarat is proposed to carry 31.5 million standard cubic metres gas per day. Indian should pursue for the IPI gas pipeline project. The IPI stalled under pressure from the U.S., which prodded India into working towards an alternative gas transport line from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan and Pakistan. For India, energy pipelines have always been an attractive prospect whose advantages are seemingly tangible but always just out of reach.
India-Iran relations have a domestic political dimension as well. India’s large Shia population has been an important variable in India’s interaction with Iran. As that is not enough, India’s powerful Parsi community traces their roots to Iran. India’s leading industrialists like Tata and Godrej are Parsi. They have a huge influence on the Government.
The Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Riyadh was path-breaking. Narendra Modi and King Salman discussed series of bilateral matters. Certainly Modi’s two day visit to Saudi Arabia on April 2-3, 2016 further bolsters India’s engagement with Saudi Arabia.
Says Prasanta Kumar Pradhan of IDSA, “Modi’s visit has laid emphasis on important issues such as trade, investment, terrorism and strengthening strategic ties.”
As India’s stature is growing in the world affairs, Saudi Arabia is realising the importance of maintaining strong ties with India. Saudi Arabia’s ties with Pakistan and India’s links with Iran have remained two important factors affecting the India-Saudi Arabia relationship. During his recent visit to India, Saudi Foreign Minister Al Jubeir stated that while “India is a strategic partner, Pakistan is a strategic ally and will remain so.” Modi, during his visit to Riyadh, encouraged more investments from Saudi Arabia into India.
Like with Iran, energy remains a key factor in India-Saudi Arabia ties. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil supplier for India. In 2014-15, it supplied 34.49 million tons of crude oil to India. It is a possibility that India now import less crude from Saudi Arabia and more from Iran as Indian refineries are more suited to crude from Tehran.
Concerns of Indian workers
Unlike in Iran, lakhs of Indians are based in Saudi Arabia. Indians who form a significant part of the Saudi Arabia workforce, both blue- and white-collar workers, send huge amount of money back home. When Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jabir was in India ahead of Modi’s visit to Riyadh, India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj strongly took up some of the issues that the Indian workers are facing in Saudi Arabia. India is urging that the existing labour agreement with Saudi Arabia should be expanded to include sectors other than domestic workers.
India’s seriousness on its Saudi Arabia relationship was evident when Vice President Hamid Ansari went to attend the funeral of king Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz. He passed away after a brief illness when US President Barack Obama was in India. Moreover, the Government announced a day of mourning for the Saudi king.
Why should the Indian Government give so much importance to a country that reportedly violates human rights of Indian migrant workers and ranks pretty low in human rights index generally? Those who were asking this question forget that Saudi Arabia is the largest crude oil exporter to India and it is home of Mecca and Medina.
Still, South block watchers were a little perplexed when Saudi Arabia formed the 34-nation Alliance last year without India even though India has a very large Muslim population. Further, India has suffered greatly due to terrorism over the last couple of decades. Surprisingly, while India’s neighbours like Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as Mauritius, which is known as ‘India outside India’was included in the Islamic Alliance, India was ignored.
Yet, it goes without saying that both India and Saudi Arabia are on the same page on the issue of tackling terrorism. After the terror attack on Pathankot air base, the Indian establishment dialed Riyadh for assistance and cooperation. Saudi Arabia did not disappoint. Important intelligence inputs and information were shared quietly.
The India-Saudi security cooperation has only improved in the past years. As recently as a few weeks ago, Saudi Arabia deported to India what sources say was an important terror suspect, who was plotting a big attack against India.
Meanwhile, one hopes that the Modi Government would ensure smooth ties with the two Islamic nations, which do not see eye to eye. But India needs both.
-- The writer is a former Media Researcher, UAE Embassy and journalist