The announcement in Washington of a Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran comes before the planned visits by Union foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Jerusalem. This makes it imperative to re-visit the strategic dimensions of our relations with all three and with the US.
The details of the Saudi-Israeli alliance bring together historical adversaries with an umbilical link to the United States. One of their five meetings was held in India. Reports state that the sweetener for the agreement may have involved hefty Saudi financial support to Israel in return for help from the US Jewish lobby in Congress and media.
The alliance of two regimes virulently opposed to Iran, for very different reasons, goes against the policy on Iran of their long-term benefactor. It is one more instance of loosening of the US’ strings in West Asia after its ‘pivot to Asia’ and its likely self-sufficiency in crude oil. The possibility of this unforseen alliance was galvanised by their presumption that the impending agreement with P5+1 countries could well realise Iran’s nuclear ambition. But their coming together goes beyond Iran’s nuclear threat and its growing regional influence through financial and military support to the so-called ‘Shia crescent’ from Lebanon, Syria, Baghdad and Yemen. The intensifying religious proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran threatens expansion.
The slow undermining by the Arabs of the Palestinian cause is a fact of the last three decades. Israel now has an office in Qatar and an intelligence presence in the UAE. The possibility of an Israel-Gulf states-Saudi Arabia complot is no longer beyond conception. The reported use of Saudi funds by Israel to build new settlements has reduced an independent Palestine state to a chimera. India’s abstention on Israel in the UN Human Rights Council was read as toning down of its steadfast support to Palestine.
India has so far successfully managed its corner in three triangular relationships: Saudi Arabia-India-Iran, Israel-India-Iran and Israel-India-US. The coming together of two theocratic regimes — Israel and Saudi Arabia — against Iran calls into question our West Asia policy.
India’s relationship with Saudi Arabia somewhat moved out of the strait-jacket of the Pakistan factor after the visit of the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to New Delhi in 2006. Cooperation in counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing and economic cooperation are now its features. The alliance reiterates Saudi’s leadership of an Arab world, albeit divided on sectarian fault lines. India will need to be wary of its targeting by radical Islamic forces bent on creating sectarian strife. India’s relations with Israel have diversified beyond its position as the largest weapons supplier and there appears no limit to further growth.
Yet, two facts need to be kept in mind: first, Israel now has the perfect conduit to build relations with Pakistan. Second, having rejected a Hindu majoritarian state, India will now have to consider the future course of its bilateral relations. Iran’s importance for energy and access beyond Afghanistan is a bench-mark. While not seen to take sides, the development calls for a re-evaluation of India’s policy in the vital and proximate region.
Rajendra Abhyankar is Professor of Practice of Diplomacy, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University. The views expressed are personal.