China’s Iran-Saudi deal is a wake-up call for India

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    In Context

    • Iran and Saudi Arabia recently announced a Chinese-brokered deal to restore diplomatic relations.

    Iran and Saudi Arabia issues

    • Struggle for influence:
      • Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in an ongoing struggle for influence in the Middle East and other Muslim regions. 
      • The two countries have provided varying degrees of support to opposing sides in nearby conflicts, including the civil wars in Syria and Yemen; and disputes in Bahrain, Lebanon, Qatar, and Iraq.
      • For example:
        • In Yemen, Iran has armed and aided the Houthis, while the Saudi military launched an air war in 2015 to prevent a complete takeover by Houthi rebels. 
        • The Houthis subsequently launched attacks on Saudi airports and oil facilities.
    • 2016 incident:
      • The two countries severed ties in 2016 after mobs stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, in revenge against the execution of a prominent Saudi Shia cleric and political dissident, Sheikh Nimr.
      • The two countries since then have been engaged in a rivalry for regional geopolitical influence, prolonging conflicts in Yemen and Syria. 
    • Threats:
      • Only a few months ago, Iran’s top military officials threatened Saudi Arabia with consequences unless it controlled its Persian-language media outlets zealously covering anti-government protests in Iran. 
      • Riyadh had raised alert levels citing a “credible threat of attack” from Iran.

    Significance of China’s mediation

    • Constructive role of China:
      • China, by mediating the agreement, has demonstrated its vast political capital in the region and is contrasting its “constructive” role towards regional peace.
    • Strategic and symbolic dimensions:
      • For China, brokering rapprochement between these two longtime Middle East rivals has key strategic and symbolic dimensions. 
      • Strategic:
        • On the strategic side, Beijing needs to maintain the free flow of oil from the region.
        • China needs stability in the Gulf, where it gets over 40 percent of its crude oil imports. 
      • Symbolic:
        • Breaking hegemony of American mediation:
          • The Iran-Saudi deal on restoring diplomatic relations, brokered by China, suggests American influence in West Asia is being challenged. 
          • Since the end of World War II and especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has been the principal external power in the region.
        • Power shift:
          • Many have thus already described the recent development as a power shift, with China emerging as a significant player in the Middle East.

    World’s response & potential of the deal

    • USA:
      • The US welcomed the agreement immediately despite its confrontational relations with China, saying if it brought lasting peace, it did not matter who brokered it. 
      • At the same time, it sought to play down the assessment of diminished US influence in the region. 
    • India:
      • India has welcomed the pact, saying it has always advocated dialogue and diplomacy to resolve differences.
    • For Pakistan:
      • Increasing Chinese influence in the Middle East may indirectly help Pakistan, both economically and strategically. 
      • Given the close relationship between Islamabad and Beijing, China may advocate Pakistan’s case and influence rich Gulf countries to help ease Pakistan’s financial woes. 
    • Hope for peace:
      • Critics believe this deal will not end differences between the Sunni monarchy and Shia republic. 
      • The modest hope is that the deal sealed in Beijing may lead to a lasting peace in Yemen, and also end proxy Saudi-Iran hostilities in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere in the region.
      • The agreement also may yield some domestic reprieve. 

    Possibilities for India

    • Red flag:
      • China has repeatedly declared that its interests in the Middle East are only economic. Some believe it is only a matter of time before Beijing establishes a military presence in the region. 
      • This deal, therefore, comes with a huge red flag for India and raises important geopolitical and strategic questions for New Delhi.
    • Impact on I2U2:
      • Critics believe that the deal is sure to impact the I2U2 (Israel-India-UAE-US) grouping. 
      • It calls for India to work on its ties to the region independently of the US (for instance with Iran), and in ways that project its civilisational and cultural links and the positive contributions of the Indian diaspora.
    • In India’s interest:
      • On the whole, Indian interests in the Gulf would plausibly be more secure if the two bitter rivals were actively working to de-escalate mutual tensions. 
      • India, among other countries, also gained from the 2001 security agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which prevented active conflict for 10 years despite deep mutual mistrust.
        • Iran was one of the primary oil suppliers to India, making up 11 percent of the total oil imports, up until 2019.
    • Indian Diaspora:
      • Given India’s long-standing relationships with most of the Gulf states, it has a clear edge over China to become a more reliable partner and mediator. 
      • The large Indian diaspora in the Middle East is a formidable asset that provides India with a unique soft power advantage. 
      • This diaspora can act as a steadfast anchor in relations, irrespective of policy shifts and external shocks.

    Way ahead

    • India needs to patiently assess if China’s growing involvement in the Gulf is detrimental to its long-term security interests and the regional balance of power. 
    • At the same time, recent developments also provide a window of opportunity for India to embed itself as a significant player in the Middle East.
      • The I2U2 partnership between India, Israel, the UAE, and the U.S. has already put India on the region’s alliance canvas. New Delhi has strong motivations to push I2U2 as it seeks to reframe its relationship with the Middle East and gain a bigger footprint in the region.
    • This should serve as a reminder to India that it takes a great deal of work to convert historical ties and photo ops into actual influence

     

    Daily Mains Question

    [Q] What is the significance of the Chinese-brokered deal restoring diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia? How does the deal potentially impacts India?