External Affairs

Does Narendra Modi’s Visit to Saudi Arabia Signal a Shift Away from Iran?

New Delhi must ensure parallel levels of engagement with Riyadh and Tehran if it hopes to maintain its momentum in West Asia.

Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, his second to a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state, indicates a shift in India’s broader West Asia policy. Aimed at elevating India’s political profile in the region, Modi’s visit supplements other high-level ministerial visits to Oman, Bahrain and the UAE.

While the Modi administration has expanded India’s diplomatic footprint in the region, engaging also with Israel, Egypt and Turkey, political interaction with Iran seems to be lagging behind. Even though there is an element of surprise in the Saudi Arabia visit, as Israel was speculated to be Modi’s first West Asian stop, Iran finds no mention in his diplomatic calendar for the coming year.

Ties with Iran in need of political boost

Since coming to power, Modi’s outreach to Iran has been patchy at best, despite Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visit to India in August 2015 and the overall optimism on bilateral relations after Iran’s nuclear deal came into force. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s visit to Tehran in June 2015 after Iran rejected India’s bid to develop the Farzad B gas field, highlighted that the lack of diplomatic activism could cost New Delhi some vital energy projects. What followed was significant course correction from the Indian government, with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also raising the issue of the Farzad B gas field at the India-Iran Joint Commission Meeting in December 2015. Timelier is the announcement of oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan’s visit to Iran on April 9-10, aimed at concluding a deal on the gas field.

The momentum that Pradhan’s visit could bring to economic ties with Iran was expected after Zarif’s visit. The Iranian minister invited India to develop the second phase of the strategically vital Chabahar port and operate it. He also extended economic opportunities worth $8 billion in Iranian infrastructure projects. For its part, New Delhi sent Transport and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari to Tehran in May 2015 to ink a memorandum of understanding pledging $85 million towards the Chabahar port project. However, Iran’s request for an additional $150 million line of credit is caught up in delays, and the pressure on New Delhi is mounting with Chinese investors lining up to win the lucrative project. 

Ties with Iran, therefore, remain in want of a political boost, with high-level engagement limited to Swaraj’s and Modi’s meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Oraganisation summits in September 2014 and July 2015, respectively.

Even though the political neglect of Iran may be more perceptible under Modi, the preceding Manmohan Singh administration also did not shower much attention on Tehran.

While the UPA government’s indifference towards Iran could have been a part of its limited regional policy, this was also the period in which New Delhi institutionalised security partnerships with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However, the Singh administration maintained a greater balance and despite pressure from the US to downscale relations with Iran, Singh travelled to Tehran in 2012 to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit.

Strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia

New Delhi’s efforts to bolster ties with Saudi Arabia are likely a function of some urgent imperatives. Linkages between India’s internal security and the strength of its relations with the Gulf are becoming increasingly pronounced. Counter-terrorism cooperation has emerged as a fundamental pillar of the India-Saudi Arabia partnership, with swelling numbers of Indians joining ISIS’ ranks and multiple threats to the safety of Indian citizens in the Gulf. Riyadh’s support to New Delhi in securing the release of Indians held hostage by ISIS and in evacuation efforts in Yemen indicate the urgency of deepening this partnership.

The rising emphasis on “Saudisation” in the Kingdom’s domestic policies is also a critical driver of India’s outreach to Saudi Arabia. The institutionalisation of efforts to increase employment among Saudi youth through the Nitaqat Law, for instance, has already forced a chunk of the Indian workforce out of the country. As such policies become the norm in the GCC states, their domestic repercussions necessitate that New Delhi leverage its relations with the Gulf monarchies.

Another important dimension of India’s engagement with Saudi Arabia is Pakistan. Pakistan has long shadowed the maturation of India’s ties with the GCC. However, just as Modi capitalised on the strain in UAE-Pakistan relations, an elevated Indian profile in Saudi Arabia will give him another opportunity to restructure relations between the subcontinent and the Gulf. As Pakistan attempts to restore ties with Saudi Arabia after a brief period of tensions, it is vital for India to step-up the strategic component of Indo-Saudi ties and deepen economic and security complementarities with the Kingdom.

Maintaining the balance

The extension of the Saudi-Iran rivalry and the deteriorating security situation in the region will challenge India’s West Asia policy. However, New Delhi must resist any pressure to moderate relations with Iran given its geo-strategic importance to India. Iran is critical not only to India’s connectivity to Central Asia and Europe but also to China’s ambitious one-belt-one-road project. Thus, there will be greater demands on New Delhi to upgrade its Iran policy.

As Tehran warns New Delhi about “unnecessary caution” in its approach to Iran, it is imperative for the Modi administration to ensure parallel levels of engagement with Riyadh and Tehran.

Kanchi Gupta is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation.