India, and rising tensions in the Arab world

United Arab Emirates (UAE) foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed’s visit to India earlier this week came at a time of extraordinary and growing tension in the Gulf region. Apart from discussing bilateral ties his Indian counterpart external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and he would have focussed on recent regional developments which can critically and adversely impact both countries.

Like his father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan who, with the coming of great oil revenues, wisely managed the transformation of Abu Dhabi and the UAE from impoverishment to affluence and influence, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the present crown prince of the Abu Dhabi emirate and the brother of the foreign minister, is dextrously leading the country to higher levels of political and social development and global influence. Clearly, he has decided to raise the strength of India-UAE ties in all areas, including in the security sector. His approach is fully reciprocated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India’s interests demand a stable West Asian region. Millions of Indians live and work in the Arab Peninsular countries. Their safety and welfare would be harmed if armed hostilities break-out between the US and Iran. The area’s oil rich countries are vital for India’s energy security and significant commercial interests are tied up with the region too. With all this at stake India is closely monitoring the situation. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed’s insights into what is transpiring behind the scenes would have provided valuable inputs into India’s understanding of the situation and what may be expected in the weeks and months to come.

As this writer has noted in earlier columns the current difficulties can be traced to President Donald Trump’s decision to walk out of the Iran nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It is a multi-lateral agreement signed in July 2015 between Iran and six major powers—the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. The principal negotiating parties were Iran and the US under President Barack Obama. The core of the ten-year agreement ensured that Iran would not be able to make nuclear weapons as it would not enrich uranium beyond 3.67%. Iran also agreed to send its stockpiles abroad. In return the US agreed to gradually lift sanctions against Iran and other countries agreed to do so to.

The essential implication of the deal was to allow Iran space to return to a position of greater influence in regional affairs and also in the Islamic ummah. Consequently, greater Iranian impact began to be felt in Yemen and in regional countries especially with notable Shia populations. This was not acceptable to conservative sections of the US political opinion which look to West Asia through the prism of Israel and the Sunni Arab Peninsular states, including the UAE. These countries were implacably opposed to the deal and found a fellow-traveller in the Trump.

The Trump administration walked out of the deal in May 2018. It also decided to re-impose US sanctions and has done so through the last one year gradually in a more and more stringent manner. The US objective was to damage Iran’s economy with the announced objective of inducing more ‘responsible’ conduct. The actual aim is nothing short of regime change through the replacement of the Iranian clerical governance system—the Vilayat-e-Faqih with a secular system.

The other signatories of the JCPOA announced that they stood by the agreement but with the US lynchpin having dropped their support for Iran could not really sustain Iranian oil exports or continue to provide Iran with assured and smooth global financial services which are required by the Iranian economy. The reason is that multinational companies do not want to incur problems under the US sanctions regime. US is acting virtually unilaterally but as the world’s pre-eminent country it gets away with such arm-twisting. This is the reality of the international system which is based on power not justice.

While Iran has basically remained calm in the face of US provocations certain actions against international shipping in and around the Gulf in May and June have been attributed to it. These have heightened tensions and led to US augmenting deployments in the Gulf region including through an aircraft carrier naval group and troops. This step sent alarm bells ringing through the world and worries increased when Iran shot down late last month a US drone which it claimed had violated its airspace. American action to strike Iran was called off by Trump at the last moment.

Neither country wants war but the latest action by Iran to break the shackles on uranium enrichment is a step up the escalatory ladder. Iran has done so to signal to Europe that it has to take action to demonstrate that it will abide by the deal and disregard US sanctions. Europe has not done so as yet and it is difficult to see how it can. Europe is therefore counselling Iran to be patient. Within Iran too tempers are rising.

There is little doubt that the UAE does not want armed hostilities but would like pressure to be maintained on Iran so that its capacity to play a regional role is contained. The difficulty for the UAE as for India is that Trump can hardly be influenced. The saving grace is that Trump too does not want war but his erratic approach derived from his real estate deal making leads to dangerous brinkmanship.