A tectonic shift in regional geopolitics took place last week and India, still recovering from getting blindsided in Afghanistan, will need to quickly swing with it.
For a US ally whose each and every past transgression was paternalistically condoned, Saudi Arabia appears to be caught in Washington’s crosshairs. There is increasing chatter in the Arab Street that Saudi Arabia will be the next ‘enemy of the nation’ in the eyes of the American media and the ruling Democrats.
Ever since King Abdul Aziz secretly met US President Franklin Roosevelt in the middle of Lakse Bitter on the Suez Canal 75 years ago, Washington has sometimes harrumphed at Saudi repression or external transgression. But the kind of framing underway of the Saudi State for its involvement in the 9/11 attacks suggests India should quickly start firming up plans for alternate sources of oil and gas imports in case the situation does become hot. The monarchy is not going to be of much assistance to India as it seeks to rebuild its influence in Afghanistan.
The first hint of a breach with Riyadh started with the US removing its anti-missile batteries in Saudi Arabia. The tip-off to an American news agency about the development would have come from inside the US system. It is not plausible for a reporter to keep comparing satellite pictures over specific US bases over a period of time to conclude that the Pentagon had emptied Saudi Arabia of missile batteries just when the Houthi threat of drone attacks on Aramco’s oil installations was high.
Next came the declassification of an FBI report which seeks to implicate several Saudi government officials in a multi-nation support group for two of the 9/11 hijackers who could neither read nor write English when they arrived in the US.
Sure enough, a group of American families of 9/11 victims issued a statement stating that the ‘evidence’ confirmed that officials of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Islamic Affairs, “the cradle of Wahabi extremism”, helped the hijackers. The next part of the script still remains to be played out.
But as India remains locked out of Afghanistan and as the Gulf monarchies come under the American Deep State’s lens, South Block may have smelt the smoke. The dependence on oil from the Gulf monarchies is slowly but surely coming down. India’s enthusiastic hat-tips to the Quad notwithstanding, PM Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar by the year-end would have as frequently touched base with Tehran and Moscow as their interactions with Washington, Canberra and Tokyo.
The next corner that India will need to turn is fast approaching. At the next meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), New Delhi will have to take a call on upgrading Iran from an observer nation to a full member. India, and possibly Russia, have kept the US sentiment in mind while stalling Iran’s application for full member status for the past couple of years.
After a lull over Iran during the first months of the Biden presidency, the external signs are again not propitious. Iran is earning the ire of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for truancy over the past two years. This is the sliver of opportunity needed for Iran baiters in Washington and Tel Aviv to ensure that the US sanctions continue to stay and that other countries remain wary of economic transactions for fear of secondary sanctions.
But India’s self-sufficiency in strategic autonomy, though hampered currently by the tensions with China, will need to assert itself. For all the gloss that is put on the visits to India by Russian, British and American security chiefs to discuss Afghanistan, India has been left holding the bag. The roads to Kabul and beyond have been left wide open for the Pakistan-China duo.
The SCO also has Afghan neighbours like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, which, along with Russia and Iran, share the fear of nurseries of Sunni radicalisation taking root in the Taliban ecosphere, with its attendant implications for their security. Each of these countries has reasons to feel wary, for they have all felt the heat of terror training camps during Taliban-1. If the ISI could outsource the training of anti-India terror groups in the 1990s, how long would it resist the temptation, now that its proxy has untrammeled sway over Afghanistan yet again?
In this situation, Afghanistan’s neighbours will score over the US-Qatar-UAE channels that India has explored in the past to get closer to the Taliban. After all, unlike this pro-West group, India shares its existential fears with the SCO countries of having to be the first to cope with the fallout of radicalism if it again foams out of Afghanistan.
And in case the Taliban do feel empowered enough to disregard Pakistan’s tutorials on nation-building, it will have to smoke the peace pipe with the ethnic minorities who make up half of Afghanistan. A representation of less than 10 per cent for them in the new Taliban Cabinet has portents of disaffection rearing up again. Again, each of these ethnic communities spill over to the neighbouring countries, making them important counsellors, players and participants in the new Great Game that is set to begin after the US withdrawal.
India’s close identification with the US-led Quad has come to stay. So has its elite’s close identification with the Anglosphere for upward mobility.
But India must also build bulwarks from the fallout of the developing American animus to Saudi Arabia and the manner in which the power vacuum has been filled in Afghanistan. The voices in the corridors of power, who had earlier urged circumspection in dealing with Iran, or with Russia for that matter, need to be told that catering to national self-interest is not being minatory.
India cannot wait indefinitely for the US political system to develop a consensus on dealing with Iran. For the sake of its energy and national security, India can ill-afford to dawdle on the sidelines as a new power balance takes shape in the region. That moment of reckoning will come with the SCO Summit in Dushanbe.
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