Is India a mediator? The Statesman 16 Jan 2024
Indian foreign minister Dr S Jaishankar visited Tehran on Monday and met his counterpart, Hossein Amirabdollahian. He also called on the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi. The visit emerged after a conversation between Jaishankar and the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. After the discussion with Blinken, Jaishankar tweeted, ‘A good discussion this evening with my friend US Secretary Blinken. Our conversation focused on maritime security challenges, especially the Red Sea region. Appreciated his insights on ongoing situation in West Asia, including Gaza.’
Iran has backed the Hamas in Gaza which is battling Israel, as also the Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has threatened to join the conflict, especially after Israel targeted a few of their leaders in Lebanon. The entry of Hezbollah into the conflict can draw in other entities expanding the war. Iran also supports the Houthi’s, based in Yemen, and has provided them with drones and missiles, enabling them to target shipping in the Red Sea.
The Red Sea is amongst the most important waterways for global shipping. One-third of the world’s container traffic flows through this region, including 40% of Asia-Europe trade. For China’s Belt Road Initiative, it is a critical link. However, it will not impact the India commencing India Middle East Europe Economic Corridor. Houthi attacks have resulted in vessels avoiding the Red Sea and taking the longer route around the horn of Africa, enhancing oil prices. It has also impacted insurance premiums of ships.
The US leads a naval task force of a number of countries, named ‘Prosperity Garden’ to counter the Houthi threat. However, regional players are not members of the same, reducing its global acceptance. Last week, the US and UK retaliated to the drone and missile strikes by targeting Houthi locations in Yemen resulting in few casualties.
The Houthi’s have threatened to retaliate. Their spokesperson stated, ‘By committing an aggression, Washington has opened a Pandora’s box that it will never close.’ The Houthi’s are no longer at war with Saudi Arabia and hence free to challenge the US.
The US intent behind the strikes is to reignite the Yemen civil war, compelling the Houthi’s to concentrate inwards. While the strikes may partially deter the Houthis, the reality is that the war is proving costly for the west. The US is compelled to use high-end missiles to destroy fairly cheap explosive drones being launched by the Houthi’s. One successful strike on a US warship could prove disastrous for Biden in an election year. A strong retaliation to such a strike could enlarge a conflict the US is desperate to keep localized.
Aware that US and UK actions can expand the conflict, a number of nations have criticized them, amongst them being Russia, Oman (which had earlier negotiated between the Houthi’s and Saudi Arabia), China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Kuwait remains neutral while European allies and Bahrain back the strikes. With the US and UK involved, the UNSC is unlikely to be effective.
Iran holds the key in curtailing the growing conflict in West Asia. Its support to groups challenging the west and Israel makes it a key player in the region. It is a close ally of Russia and China who would desire that the US gets bogged in containing the war while ensuring Israel has the wherewithal to continue fighting.
This will reduce US involvement in the Russo-Ukraine conflict and Indo-Pacific, benefitting Russia and China. The Israeli economy is showing a decline as its reservists continue serving in the Gaza conflict. Unless the war ends soon and Israel is able to reduce its troop deployment, deterioration of the economy would continue.
US-Iran relations remain cold. US sanctions on Iran, since Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the nuclear arms deal, with Iran in Feb 2018 continue. In Jan 2020, Iranian General, Qasem Soleimani, a revered figure in the country, was killed in a missile strike near Baghdad’s international airport, for which Tehran swore revenge.
In end Dec, senior Iranian officers were killed in missile and air strikes by Israel in Syria, with US approval. Iran has also accused the US and Israel for being behind the recent blasts which killed nearly a hundred civilians. Thus, for Iran to expand the conflict and draw in the US, is logical.
India has historically maintained close ties with Iran. It is building the Chabahar port as also Tehran is a key element to the North-South corridor currently under development. In Feb 2018, the then Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, visited India. Last year, PM Modi met the Iranian President on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. Thus, India which has close ties with the US and Iran, is the right nation to discuss ongoing conflicts and options to defuse them.
Further MV Chem Pluto, a merchant vessel, affiliated to Israel, moving towards the Indian port of Veraval was hit by a drone in the Arabian Sea. It was chemical products tanker. It was rescued and there were no casualties. It is possible that the drone was launched from Iran. India would have obtained technical confirmation from remnants of the strike. Placing suspicions in public domain would only add to tensions. Maturity in diplomacy implies discussing the subject with the country directly. This could also be an agenda in the visit of Jaishankar.
It is unlikely that India would convey any threats from the US as it would be unwilling to mar its relationship with Tehran. The visit would be aimed at seeking a possible solution to ongoing conflicts, discussions on a two-nation concept for Palestine and containing the Houthi’s as also other issues concerning Indo-Iran relations.
In today’s world, India is an emerging geopolitical power. It is acceptable to opposing camps. It has refused to take sides in any conflict, adhering to its principles. This provides it with the benefit of negotiating and obtaining a possible solution to ongoing crisis, especially when both camps are unwilling to talk.
If India does obtain a possible middle path, it would work to its benefit. Jaishankar, a seasoned diplomat is ideal for such tasks. While firm details of the discussion may not emerge in open domain, the results would be visible shortly.