A STATE OF DIS­AR­RAY

India Today - - UPFRONT - TALMIZ AH­MAD The au­thor holds the Ram Sathe Chair for In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, Sym­bio­sis In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity, Pune

The sense of cri­sis in West Asia, al­ready ex­pe­ri­enc­ing con­flict in Syria, Iraq and Ye­men, has deep­ened over the last week. Saudi Ara­bia and its Arab al­lies--the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt--have iso­lated Qatar diplo­mat­i­cally, eco­nom­i­cally and in terms of trans­port and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Regime change in Doha is also be­ing threat­ened through dis­grun­tled royal family mem­bers.

And, then there was the ter­ror­ist at­tack on Iran’s iconic sym­bols–the na­tional assem­bly and the mau­soleum of Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini–in which 17 peo­ple were killed and about 50 in­jured, the first as­sault on Tehran by the Is­lamic State (IS), its sworn sec­tar­ian en­emy.

The IS at­tacks took place in Iran even as the ‘cap­i­tals’ of the self-styled caliphate, Mo­sul and Raqqa, are un­der siege, por­tend­ing the likely dis­per­sal of its cadres to but­tress the ranks of ‘lone-wolf ’ ter­ror­ists across West Asia and Europe.

WEST ASIA IN CON­FLICT

These two de­vel­op­ments high­light much that has gone wrong in West Asia over the past few years. To com­pen­sate for its strate­gic vul­ner­a­bil­ity af­ter the fall of Hosni Mubarak and de­mands for re­form in neigh­bour­ing Bahrain in the wake of the Arab Spring,

Saudi Ara­bia has ac­cused

Iran of hege­monic as­pi­ra­tions in the Arab do­main, and is con­fronting Iran in the two prin­ci­pal theatres of its re­gional in­flu­ence, Syria and Ye­men, on the ba­sis of sec­tar­ian mo­bil­i­sa­tion.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama had sig­nally failed to back the kingdom in both war zones, so that the two con­flicts have ground into stale­mate. Trump has now dra­mat­i­cally changed the sce­nario by firmly al­ly­ing the US with the Saudi-led ‘Sunni’ mil­i­tary al­liance di­rected at Iran.

But, Saudi joy at its diplo­matic achieve­ment was short­lived as its neigh­bour and part­ner in the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC), Qatar, broke ranks. Two days af­ter Trump’s de­par­ture from Riyadh, its emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Ha­mad Al Thani, al­legedly re­ferred to Iran as a ma­jor Is­lamic coun­try and re­gional power, and stressed the need for en­gage­ment and di­a­logue. He then tele­phon­i­cally con­grat­u­lated pres­i­dent-elect Has­san Rouhani and re­ferred to Qatar’s “his­toric and firm” ties with the Is­lamic Repub­lic.

A NEW RE­GIONAL AL­LIANCE

With Trump firmly on its side, Saudi Ara­bia has put in place a com­pre­hen­sive boy­cott of Qatar, ac­cus­ing it of back­ing re­gional ter­ror­ist groups and de­mand­ing that it re­verse its po­si­tion and re­join the Saudi-led anti-Iran al­liance.

But, the at­tempted iso­la­tion of Qatar and the IS at­tack on Iran have had the effect of bring­ing Qatar, Iran and Turkey into a new re­gional al­liance, un­der­min­ing the Saudi ini­tia­tive to shape a co­he­sive Sunni coali­tion against Iran.

Turkey, with con­cerns about Kur­dish ter­ri­to­rial gains in Syria, is anx­ious to work with Iran to pro­mote the Rus­sia-led peace process which will re­buff Saudi at­tempts to dis­lodge the As­sad regime that en­joys full Ira­nian sup­port. The two will also co­op­er­ate to back Qatar, with mil­i­tary back­ing from Turkey and use of Ira­nian ports for sup­plies. Again, Qatar is in di­a­logue with Rus­sia for po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary sup­port.

DIPLO­MATIC CHAL­LENGE FOR IN­DIA

The lat­est de­vel­op­ments re­lat­ing to Qatar and Iran mark a fur­ther de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in the re­gional se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion, set­ting up the pos­si­bil­ity of a di­rect mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and the Is­lamic Repub­lic. There is an ur­gent need to pro­mote en­gage­ment and di­a­logue be­tween them.

In­dia is well-placed to meet this chal­lenge. It has abid­ing en­ergy, trade and in­vest­ment in­ter­ests in the re­gion; it is pur­su­ing lo­gis­ti­cal con­nec­tiv­ity projects through Iran, and has an eight mil­lion-strong com­mu­nity that re­mits $35 bil­lion home an­nu­ally.

Through his vis­its to the prin­ci­pal Gulf coun­tries, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi has es­tab­lished firm, mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial ‘strate­gic part­ner­ships’ that have a sub­stan­tial po­lit­i­cal, se­cu­rity, in­tel­li­gence, de­fence and eco­nomic con­tent.

Again, In­dia, with its mil­len­nia-old civil­i­sa­tional links, po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments, diplo­matic prow­ess and tra­di­tion as a non-in­tru­sive and non-pre­scrip­tive part­ner, has all the at­tributes of a wor­thy in­ter­locu­tor and peace­maker. The po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship has created a path that diplo­macy must now shape and pur­sue.

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