Monsieur, the opening novel in Lawrence Durrell’s Avignon Quintet, begins with the narrator on a southbound train from Paris which he often took to reach Provence at dawn, to visit his wife Sylvie confined there in a lonely chateau ever since she “slid down the long slopes of unreason”.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, welcomes Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj at the start of their meeting in Tehran on April 17
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, welcomes Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj at the start of their meeting in Tehran on April 17

The train was invariably subject to “unexpected halts, unexplained delays; it could fall asleep anywhere, even in open country, and remain there, lost in thoughts” – like the “swirls and eddies of memory itself”.

Come to think of it, Durrell’s slowcoach of a train becomes an apt metaphor for India’s Persian Gulf policies. An onlooker found it extremely frustrating that the journey from Delhi took an awfully long time to reach Tehran, winding its way via Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

There is a sigh of relief that it reached Tehran at all. The Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj just concluded a two-day visit to Tehran, which was hugely productive with the two countries making progress on future vistas of cooperation on a scale that India has not so far contemplated with any other country in its “near abroad”.

During Swaraj’s visit, an understanding has been reached on Indian investment in the development of the Chabahar Port and its hinterland in south-eastern Iran (including the Chabahar-Zahedan railway link) and the Farzad-B oil fields, while the two countries propose to hold further discussions relating to cooperation in Iran’s oil and gas sector and in building a North-South Transport Corridor through Iranian territory as well as in India’s refinery sector.

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran – all three Persian Gulf countries become important for Indian diplomacy, each in its own way.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia impact India’s core interests in the Persian Gulf. Over 5 million Indians live in these two countries and they remit tens of billions of dollars to India every year, which constitutes a big chunk of India’s invisible earnings.

India sources oil from both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which accounts for close to 30% of its total imports. (India imports nearly 80% of its crude oil.)

Eyebrows were raised when Prime Minister Narendra  Modi prioritized India’s with Saudi Arabia and the UAE over Iran by visiting these countries. He is yet to visit Iran.

However, in retrospect, Indian diplomacy was active behind the scene to create a level playing ground with Iran as well, once the UN sanctions against that country got lifted and the restrictions on energy cooperation were removed.

Clearly, much diplomatic leg work paved the way for the two high-level visits from Delhi to Tehran in the past week – by Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and External Affairs Minister Swaraj.

Of course, the “oil bromance” between Iran and India, to borrow an expression from the CNN, has been renewed with gusto. India’s imports of oil from Iran tripled since January and hit 540,000 barrels per day last month.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran is not a petrodollar state. It has a diverse economy with a viable agriculture and a fairly developed scientific and industrial base. The two Indian ministers have discussed the potential for broad-based collaboration in the industrial and infrastructural fields.

With the engagement with Iran shifting gear, finally, India’s Persian Gulf policies present a fascinating case study. For a start, Indian diplomacy has finely honed its skill to cherry pick.

Saudi Arabia being a pivotal state in the Muslim world becomes a unique partner in a way Iran cannot be; while, of course, Iran is an irreplaceable all-round strategic partner that Saudi Arabia simply cannot replace.

Indian diplomacy is highly focused but is also pragmatic – if anything, tardy self-centred. Delhi carefully marks its distance from the controversial regional policies of Saudi Arabia and Iran – be it over Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or Bahrain.

Its approach is to simply look away if Indian interests are not in the crosshairs. Even in the fight against the Islamic State, Delhi’s approach is to insulate India from the dangerous fallouts of religious extremism and terrorism rather than to be at the barricades in Iraq.

The stunning thing is that Indian diplomacy could swim the choppy waters of the Arab Spring, Shia-Sunni sectarian strife and the geopolitics of the region as a whole – big-power rivalry, political Islam, militarization, etc. – largely unaffected.

Yet, the Indian policy is not altogether “de-politicized”, either.

The Indians in the Persian Gulf are a happy hunting ground for India’s political class not only as a source of funds but also as potential “vote bank”. Again, Saudi Arabia wields immense influence among the Muslim elites in India.

Delhi hopes that someday it could wean the UAE and Saudi Arabia away from their brotherly kinship and close alliance with Pakistan. Indian diplomacy taps into fault lines in the Saudi-Pakistani relationship – such as recently when Islamabad showed reluctance to join the proxy war in Yemen against Iran. (Modi’s visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia can be seen in this light.)

However, in geopolitical terms, Iran falls in a special category for Indian diplomacy in the Persian Gulf insofar as it is also a victim of cross-border terrorism sponsored from Pakistani soil. The Iran-Pakistan relationship remains highly complicated due to the Saudi influence among the Pakistani elites, including the military leadership in Rawalpindi.

Besides, both India and Iran are stakeholders in the stabilization of Afghanistan as a moderate independent country. Iran’s geography makes it a crucial partner in India’s perennial quest to develop a North-South Corridor leading to Central Asia and Russia.

On April 11, just before foreign minister Swaraj’s visit to Tehran, India, Iran and Afghanistan finalized the text of the Trilateral Agreement on the utilization of Chabahar Port to facilitate better regional connectivity, including between India and Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The salience of the pact lies in opening a trade and transit route that altogether bypasses Pakistan. No doubt, the regional balance “tilts” in favour of India, which has been denied an access route to Afghanistan and Central Asia due to Pakistan’s obduracy.

The agreement is a watershed in the geopolitics of the region and it is anchored on Indian-Iranian strategic understanding. Significantly, Chabahar, where Iran welcomes a big long-term Indian presence, is hardly 80 km way from Gawadar in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province which is being developed by Chinese companies as a naval base and as the gateway to the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

No wonder, the Indian foreign ministry described the agreement as “a strategic bulwark for greater flow of people and goods among the three countries as well as in the region”.

The signing of the agreement in a near future may provide the occasion for Prime Minister Modi to visit Iran.

Suffice it to say, if Indian diplomacy in the Middle East resembled the slowcoach of a train from Paris to Provence, “stringing out its bluish lights across the twilight landscapes like some super-glow-worm”, it is perfectly understandable.

The point is, the train was making progress in the journey while also simultaneously laying the track ahead.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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