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The four-way talks held virtually among the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and India on October 19 are the latest manifestation of the “minilateralist” tendency increasingly characteristic of international politics in the Middle East. The quadrilateral format of the talks has encouraged unfounded comparisons to the Quad, a bloc that includes the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, which is aimed clearly at countering China in the Indo-Pacific region. Unlike the Quad, however, the U.S.-Israel-UAE-India talks share no clear geopolitical objective. While the United States and India appear intent on containing China’s economic influence in the Middle East, Israel and the UAE – whose sights are set on Iran – are unlikely to play along given their deep economic ties with China.
By joining the talks, however, India may be sending messages to an important but difficult partner, Iran. The talks initially began as a trilateral U.S.-Israel-UAE meeting on October 13 in Washington that focused on the Abraham Accords and Iran’s nuclear program. Another meeting was held virtually five days later, this time with India participating as a fourth member. Although India’s relations with Tehran have been bogged down by the impact of U.S. sanctions and commercial disputes, involving key projects such as the Chabahar Port railway and Farzad-B gas field, India nevertheless views Iran as an important partner. Iran is a key player in Afghanistan and is sympathetic to India’s concerns over a potential resurgence of terrorist activity. Iran’s Chabahar Port, which India has developed, is also a crucial component of India’s plans to connect to Afghanistan and Central Asia while bypassing its rivals Pakistan and China. Although joining the quadrilateral talks risks upsetting relations with Tehran, New Delhi appears willing to take measured risks to counter what it perceives as its most potent and increasingly belligerent adversary, China.
India and the “New Quad’: Reading India’s Intentions
India’s participation in talks with the United States, Israel, and the UAE has fueled speculation that a “new Quad” may be taking shape in southwest Asia. This characterization seems exaggerated, however, for talks that appeared largely as an afterthought. A few days prior to India’s joining the talks, trilateral discussions among officials from the United States, Israel, and the UAE were held in Washington where working groups on religious tolerance, water, and energy issues were announced. The quadrilateral format that includes India emerged several days later during Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s 5-day visit to Israel. Jaishankar joined the talks, which were held virtually, from the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, where he sat next to his Israeli counterpart.
Nonetheless, joining the quadrilateral forum serves to illustrate India’s close ties with the United States and two of Washington’s top regional partners, the UAE and Israel. But India may have additional motivations for joining the group that relate to geopolitical challenges closer to home. New Delhi would like to portray the group as a putative coalition to contain China’s economic influence in the region. The quadrilateral forum intends to cooperate on infrastructure development, according to an Israeli statement, a term that often reads as code for countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Although Israel and the UAE have sought to dispel suspicions that the quadrilateral group is aimed against China, India is likely to continue to push for a somewhat hard-edged China agenda.
Iran, Key to India’s Foreign Policy
Iran’s importance to India has increased greatly over the past year, particularly in recent months since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan has been a source of deep concern in New Delhi. India worries that Afghanistan may turn into a hub for transnational terrorism once again, becoming a base from which Pakistan could leverage its deep influence with the Taliban to target India’s security interests. New Delhi is also concerned that China, which is already looking into extending infrastructure funding to Afghanistan, might exploit its inroads with the Taliban to draw the country closer into its orbit. To date, the Taliban has signaled that it desires to build better relations with India, but the long legacy of mutual distrust and the influence that India’s rivals – Pakistan and China – exercise over the group signal that progress in India’s relations with the Taliban may prove difficult.
Due to its historical distaste for the Taliban, Iran is one country with which India has, prior to the 2001 U.S.-led invasion at least, seen eye to eye on Afghanistan. India and Iran both supported the Northern Alliance in its war against the Taliban during the 1990s. Subsequently, despite having built ties with the Taliban following the invasion on the basis of a shared animosity toward the United States, Iran – which portrays itself as a protector of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara predominantly Shia minority – retains a degree of distrust toward the Taliban. On Jaishankar’s two trips to Tehran since Ebrahim Raisi’s election as Iran’s president, talks centered largely on Afghanistan, where Raisi has said his country welcomes an Indian role. Since India does not share a border with Afghanistan, it has been at pains to build a trade corridor that bypasses its rival Pakistan. Since the early 2000s, India has been involved in developing the Iranian port of Chabahar and building the Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan – despite armed resistance of the Taliban – which connects Iran to key cities in Afghanistan. Since much of India’s trade corridor to Afghanistan passes through Iran, the success of India’s geoeconomic designs in Afghanistan depend on New Delhi’s ability to work with Tehran.
Beyond connecting India to Afghanistan, Iran’s Chabahar Port is also viewed in New Delhi as a rival to Pakistan’s China-funded port in nearby Gwadar. Some Indian strategists buy into the theory that China seeks to encircle India in the Indian Ocean by investing in a series of ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and further afield in Kenya and Djibouti, among others. The concern is that, in the case of an armed confrontation with China, Beijing could exploit these ports to encircle India militarily. Viewed through this geomilitary lens, India’s foothold in Chabahar is meant to interrupt China’s “string of pearls,” though the prospect that India may be able to leverage militarily its investment in the Chabahar Port in case of a confrontation with China seems rather farfetched. China’s moves in the Indian Ocean region are probably more accurately perceived through a geostrategic lens that focuses on its efforts to establish long-term commercial and maritime dominance, ambitions that challenge India’s current position in the region.
Less farfetched than any overt military function, however, is the role that the Chabahar Port plays in connecting India to Central Asia, as it will eventually to Russia. Over the past two decades, India has signed agreements to build a North-South Transport Corridor that links the landlocked Central Asian countries to the Indian Ocean while allowing India to connect to the oil and gas rich region and bypass Pakistan and China. In October, Jaishankar toured the Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia. During the 6th Foreign Ministers’ Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia held in the Kazakh capital Nur Sultan, Jaishankar took an implicit swipe at China’s Belt and Road Initiative, stating that infrastructure projects had to be underpinned by “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations,” and that “connectivity building is a participative and consensual exercise, based on financial viability and local ownership. They must not serve other agendas.” In Armenia, where he became India’s first foreign minister to ever visit, Jaishankar expressed India’s desire for the Chabahar Port to be incorporated into the International North-South Transport Corridor. The rise in tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan, which has halted the flow of overland trade between the two countries, has incentivized India to cultivate Armenia, Azerbaijan’s rival, as an alternative node on the route north. In any case, Chabahar is therefore a necessary component for India to connect with Central Asia and Russia and ultimately, from the Indian perspective at least, offer an alternative to Chinese infrastructure funding under the Belt and Road Initiative.
India Sheds Its Nonaligned Posture in the Middle East
Although relations with Iran had often functioned as a “purity test” with which Indians would gauge the independence of their country’s foreign policy from the United States, the palpable threat posed by China has pushed India to abandon its long-standing caution against appearing to take sides in Middle Eastern rivalries. Traditionally, India shied away from forming regional coalitions with partners in the Middle East out of fear of alienating its other partners in the region. But the impulse to contain China’s influence, accelerated by the border clashes that erupted between Chinese and Indian troops who accused each other of encroaching upon disputed territory in 2020, has caused India to shed its traditional inhibitions and align more closely with the United States, even if it means upsetting Iran. The calculation seems to be that such irritation can be managed, as India balances its substantial interests in Iran with a newly inflamed desire to counter China’s expanding, potentially suffocating regional influence.
is a research fellow for Middle East policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
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