A STATE OF DISARRAY
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.