Sunday, July 15, 2012

'India and the Persian Connection'

There is a whole lot of talk about how India does not have a robust enough strategic culture. So "Geek at Large", in its own small way, has decided to start hosting guest posts, bringing to the fore varied perspectives in the realms of geopolitics and military affairs.
Today's post deals with the ongoing crisis in the Persian Gulf and the complex Indian response to it where Ananth Durai explains India's understated role in managing the crisis and how it has actually thrown up new opportunities for both widening and deepening our engagement with various players in the region.
India and the Persian connection
Much has been made of the recent move by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to extradite a terrorist who was involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks - many press reports cited the growing relationship in security and intelligence matters between the two countries. It is indeed true that the growing high-level intelligence interaction between Indian and Saudi counterparts has led to arrests of other wanted terrorists in the Kingdom (not just Lashkar terror operatives). But this is just one part of the multi-faceted relationship between the Kingdom and India.
One of the chief drivers of the growing relationship between the India and Saudi Arabia is the perceived Iranian threat to the latter. Over the past 15 years, Iran has managed to expand its influence into countries that were once perceived to be less of a security threat towards the Saudi Kingdom. Today, Iran is believed to have major control over Iraq - via influence over the politico- religious system (with Gulf leaders referring to the Iraqi PM as an "Iranian stooge"), and the two major Shia Iraqi militias (Mahdi Army and the SCIRI - Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq).Iran also has in place a strong alliance with the Alawite-led Syrian leadership and the oft-spoken-about relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
With the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt - a staunch ally of the Saudis and one who was relied upon as a strong pillar of support especially on the security and defence side of things - the Kingdom sees itself surrounded by emergent problems. The newly elected President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, is overtly promising to strengthen ties with Iran and when you couple this with the continuing instability in Bahrain and Yemen, it is completely understandable why the KSA in particular and the Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) states in general are looking increasingly nervous.
Indeed, one can but imagine the effect that a nuclear Iran would have on the security affairs of the various Gulf Kingdoms. As a result of this KSA has no choice but to build strong ties with regional powers such as India, Pakistan, Jordan and Turkey. It is also a time when the GCC with KSA, UAE and Qatar at its core is taking proactive steps to defend its security. One standout example of the same would be these countries lending support to Syrian rebels - by providing arms, finances as well as diplomatic support in order to break the Iranian alliance framework in Syria and Lebanon.
With all this happening in the Saudi neighbourhood, the last thing that the GCC needs is an Indo-Pak war which would remove two regional powers who have the capability to intervene favourably in the event of a war between itself and Iran. KSA of course also relies heavily on Pakistani military personnel to man its own armed forces in exchange for the transfer of military equipment, and perhaps for financing up to 30 per cent of the Pakistani military budget. However, it is likely that Pakistan would request these personnel to return in the event of a war with India, which would make the Gulf security situation even more precarious.
The quiet visitors to New Delhi
Last December saw some quiet visits by a few Gulf dignitaries to Delhi - one of whom was Prince Turki Al-Faisal (the former Saudi Intelligence chief) and another was a senior advisor to the Kingdom of Kuwait. Officially they were in India to interact with sundry mandarins in South Bloc and visit the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) but truth be told these visits were probably of much greater importance than is readily understood.
As it turns out, the GCC has been seeking a mediator with Iran for some time over the nuclear issue. Initially, the Sultanate of Oman was chosen due to its relatively close ties with Iran. However, as one Gulf official put it, "No big nation listens to a small nation". This then led to Turkey being asked to mediate between the Iranians and the Arabs. However, the Gulf Kingdoms have been disappointed as Turkey has been unable to deal with the Iranians effectively.
The message conveyed from these visits was that the Gulf leadership is impressed with the way India has been able to deal with the Iranians - particularly, the mechanism created to deal with the subject of Afghanistan (where all difficult issues are discussed) and also India's ties with the entire spectrum of the Iranian leadership. The Gulf Kingdoms, it seems, want India to utilise its relationship with Iran in order to mediate on the nuclear issue. In reference to this, sources have confirmed that India has indeed opened a channel with the Iranians although how effective this has been is, as yet, unclear.
As a quid pro quo, there is an expectation in Indian quarters that the Gulf Kingdoms who have considerable influence in Pakistan can help moderate Pakistani behaviour on terrorism (and other areas of concern), increase investments in Indian infrastructure which will help develop the economy (as it did for the US), growth in all areas of the strategic relationship and pave the way for a FTA to be signed shortly.
While the Gulf nations are pushing us to help settle the Iranian nuclear file amicably - we can't obviously forget our very real interests in Iran. Since Pakistan has blocked India's access to Central Asia and Afghanistan, India has no choice but to build close relations with Iran. Iran is central to our trade with Central Asia and Afghanistan. Our interests there are not merely trade-oriented but also involve security and defence matters in Eurasia which have a direct impact on us.
The development of the Iranian port of Chabahar and multi-modal transport (rail and road) into Afghanistan as well as Central Asia will allow us access to a highly resource rich region that can be utilised to support our economy. It will also serve as a shorter route for Indian goods heading towards Europe, thus helping to increase the competitiveness of Indian goods.
However, there is also a military aspect to such infrastructure. Having access to roads and rail will give us the capability, should the need arise, to intervene in a large way (subject to Russian and Iranian support of course). All this suggests that India has tough decisions ahead in order to balance our interests in the Gulf with our interests in Iran.
The nuclear file: what lies ahead
Gulf sources acknowledge that sanctions need time to work and a long-term solution is required to fully resolve the issue. It appears there is both a short-term and a long-term strategy at play here with Gulf states, Israel and the west in agreement on these aspects. The short-term strategy is to do all that is possible to delay the Iranian nuclear project by any means possible (including a last resort military strike on Iranian nuclear sites). The long term one, that of regime change (without the need to intervene militarily), can delay the prospects of a nuclear Iran indefinitely if it ever comes to fruition.
A former chief of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, acknowledged that air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites will only delay the project by two years at the most. However, in a recent interview, Dagan admitted that an air strike or regional war will result in people getting behind the regime and hence extending its life. Many US, GCC and Israeli officials agree with the view expressed by Dagan and conclude that the Iranian regime is under deep pressure to deliver results to the Iranian people. Dennis Ross (former Special Advisor to the Obama Administration on the Persian Gulf), in a recent conference, described Iran as similar to the Soviet Union in 1981 where ideology is no longer believed and the veneer is wearing thin. Therefore it is clear that all sides consider a regional war is not the best option although it may get sparked of suddenly as we shall see below.
Concurrently, the aim of the sanctions regime on Iran is to force the Iranian leadership to give up their nuclear weapons programme. If they don't, the pressure on the economy and the Iranian people will result in some sort of Arab spring-type revolution. The use of cyber weapons by western and Israeli intelligence has been particularly successful in the case of Iran with US officials suggesting that they have managed to delay the programme by a couple of years. Going forward, we can expect to see the collective use of sanctions, cyber attacks as well as a naval blockade by the west and Israel.
Why a naval blockade?
A nuclear Iran is not going to be in the interests of either Russia or China as Iran would naturally compete in the same sphere of influence of these two nations, particularly what Russia considers as its back yard, Central Asia. As a result, a blockade imposed by the west will not be really opposed by these two and it will mean that the Iranians will have no option but to cooperate with the world powers on their nuclear programme. After all, attacking your only allies, Russia and China, will not help the Iranians.
Interestingly, the US military has apparently conducted a number of joint exercises off the coast of North Carolina with their Russian and European counterparts, dealing with the "repulsion of an attack by small-sized vessels, helicopter rescue operations, personnel transfer procedures and joint manoeuvring" - operational scenarios that could well describe an asymmetric naval showdown with the Iranian Navy.
After a strike
Some alarming estimates say that Iran is only 8 months away from achieving the capability to build a nuclear weapon and hence Israel as well as the west may be pressured to act militarily before then. In the event of such a scenario, India will have to prepare contingency plans to evacuate the millions of Indians in the region as well as secure energy supplies for itself in the event Iran chooses to retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz.
Gulf forces are already on red alert in the region as war between the US/west and Iran could take place by miscalculation on either side, not to mention the high concentration of military vessels/aircraft in the Arabian Gulf where the chances of accidental shots being fired and escalating into a conflict are rather high. Contingency measures have been put in place for the last 6 months by the GCC fearing the worst.
One hopes preparations for such a scenario are being made by Indian military planners as well.
Summing it all up
The growing threat of war would mean that India will have to source oil from more stable neighbourhoods. Africa and South America are possible solutions. India will also need to develop its own shale oil and gas resources. The threat of war will also mean that oil prices will remain sticky at least for the next one to two years and the New Delhi will have to take this into consideration when drawing up its financial plans.

(Ananth Durai is a London-based commentator on regional affairs with a special interest in West Asian political and security issues. He currently works for an accounting firm and has worked extensively within the financial industry. The views expressed by him are personal. You can catch him on Twitter@ADurai)

Originally reported here:

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