Arch Rivals vs. Arch Rivals: The Shuttle Diplomacy of India-Pak and Saudi-Iran

Geopolitics is not without its ironies. The global chess landscape offers great deal of intriguing incongruities to anyone with a keen insight. One of the best examples is that of neighbours who are bitter enemies involved in shuttle diplomatic overtures. We are talking about Indian and Pakistan in the context of diplomatically balancing another set of arch rivals – Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The relations go back as far as the Indus Valley Civilisation, to economic and cultural ties between the subcontinent and West Asia, especially Persia (now Iran). Relations took a downturn during Aurangzeb’s regime, and hit the nadir during the British colonial rule. Post Partition, Indian relations with West Asia improved once again, and the rise of the oil-driven economy made Saudi an indispensable part of the diplomatic equation.

India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is an important linchpin in India’s ‘Look West’ policy. The Middle East guarantees 60% of India’s energy security. It has strategic and economic outreach worth $180 billion, and is home to 70 lakh Indians who bring $40 billion in remittances.¹ India has traditionally followed a doctrine of non-intervention, along the lines of Panchsheel, the Gujral Doctrine, and so on.

Until recently, Indian cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries was limited to the economic sphere. However, during Manmohan Singh’s tenure as Prime Minister, relations with Saudi Arabia shifted gears, resulting in the 2010 Riyadh Declaration which severely criticised terrorism and extremism. Following it, both countries began working together on counter-terrorism efforts, the results of which included the extradition of Abu Jundal for the Mumbai 2008 attack. However, recent events, such as accusations of rape against a Saudi diplomat in India, the torture and mutilation of housemaids, have soured relations to some extent.

India has maintained friendly relations with Saudi’s greatest rival – Shia-dominated Iran. Delhi’s ties with Tehran were good even during the strife between Washington and Tehran, and India helped the nation as best it could in spite of crippling sanctions. The partnership resulted in Chabahar port, which strategically is very important to India. Coupled with the Zarani-Delaram highway in Afghanistan, India bypassed Pakistan to directly gain access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Furthermore, Chabahar is just 80 km from Gwadar, which Pakistan has given to China for $46 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Oil exports being paid in rupees, as opposed to US dollars, has taken Delhi-Tehran relations to a new level. The Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline is another strategic advantage that India hasn’t fully realised yet.

Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia

Pakistan too has cosy relations with Saudi Arabia – both are dominated by Sunni Muslims, and the US is a mutual friend. Riyadh-Islamabad cannot be described without taking nuclear capabilities into account, and their defence relationship is growing by the day. Saudi has always given generous grants to Pakistan to help its economy.

The Cold War brought Pakistan and Iran closer together due to their alliance with the US. Both were a part of CENTO (CENtral Treaty Organisation), and both hold MNF status as well. Pakistan even supported the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and recognised the new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ruined their relations, which were already fragile thanks to the growing rift between the US and Pakistan after 9/11.







Putting them all together

Tensions between rivals Tehran and Riyadh were heightened with the P5+1 agreement to waive sanctions on Iran, crashing crude oil prices, and execution of Shia scholar Nimr al-Nimr.

Now, the Lusanne Agreement (P5+1) has brought about a strategic shift in the geopolitical power equations of West Asia. A nuclear-capable Iran has naturally-fostered relations with Saudi and Pakistan. While Saudi may want to import nuclear technology from Pakistan to build a strong bulwark against Iran, it is also trying to balance India and Pakistan. So, Pakistan is now improving ties with Iran, even at the cost of its relations with Saudi Arabia. However, the Pakistani Army Chief’s invitation to Saudi’s military exercises, and the Pakistan PM’s visits to Iran and Saudi Arabia are being taken as signs of Islamabad trying to balance both Riyadh and Tehran, especially in light of a proxy Iran-Saudi showdown in Syria.

All in all, one set of arch rivals – India and Pakistan – are involved in delicately balancing another set of arch rivals – Saudi Arabia and Iran – who are in turn trying to balance the first set. It is interesting that India and Pakistan remain antagonistic even though both could gain much by working together. It is said that the enemy of an enemy is one’s friend, but that is certainly not the truth in this complicated scenario. Only time will tell how relations will unfold in the coming years.

Further references:

The author is an entrepreneur and the Co-Founder of two start-ups. He has worked with Deloitte, Infosys and Vizag Steel, specialising in IT, Finance. At a CXO level, he has assisted in financial valuations and planning.


Originally published by The Indian Economist. Click here to learn more about our partnership with The Indian Economist.

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