March 21, 2002


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G Parthasarathy

The challenges in the Persian Gulf

The United States now realises that there are no quick solutions or easy answers as it pursues its war against terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Taliban may have been ousted and Al Qaeda dispersed in Afghanistan. But they are regrouping and reorganising themselves for a long struggle. Speaking to his supporters in Tora Bora on November 10, 2001, Osama bin Laden had after all proclaimed: "The Americans had a plan to invade, but if we are united and believe in Allah, we'll teach them a lesson, the same way we taught the Russians".

An increasingly frustrated Bush administration is now finding that its own ground forces have to join battle against the well-armed and motivated Taliban, Al Qaeda and Pakistani jihadis, who receive support and sustenance from powerful patrons in Pakistan. Thirty-four out of the top 42 leaders of Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri, and 23 of the top 27 leaders of the Taliban, are still alive and active. The bulk of them are living comfortably in madrassas and mosques in Baluchistan, the NWFP and the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies in Pakistan.

Amidst these developments, the unfortunate description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as constituting an "Axis of Evil" by President Bush himself in his January 29 State of the Union address has fuelled new concerns and uncertainties in the oil-rich and strategically vital Persian Gulf region. With a huge United States Navy armada poised nearby and thousands of its military personnel deployed in Pakistan and in Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, fears are growing that the US is now preparing the ground for military action against Iraq and, possibly, Iran.

The Iranians have every reason to feel concerned and even upset at the "axis of evil" remark. Iran has for years been in the forefront of opposition to the Taliban. It has worked closely with Russia and India to back the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. The Iranian role was constructive and cooperative when discussions were being held in Bonn for the establishment of a new interim government in Afghanistan. It was largely because of Iran that the manoeuvres of leaders like Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to frustrate the UN's efforts in forming a broad-based government in Afghanistan were thwarted.

Responding to the "axis of evil" speech of President Bush, Iran's national security adviser, Dr Hasan Rouhani, proclaimed on March 5: "If attacked we will defend ourselves body and soul and use any means to retaliate as necessary." Fears remain across the Persian Gulf about the catastrophic effects of an escalation in tensions or a conflict in the region.

India will be one of the countries worst hit by any conflict in the Persian Gulf, as its experiences during the Gulf conflict of February 1991 demonstrated. More than two-thirds of our imported energy requirements come from the Persian Gulf. This dependence is likely to increase to 80 per cent by 2010. Moreover, 3.5 million Indians today live in the Persian Gulf of whom nearly 1.3 million are in the United Arab Emirates alone, from where they send home almost $2 billion in foreign exchange annually. It is a pity that there is so little interest from our political leadership in the crucial importance of this region for our welfare, well-being and energy security.

Iran inevitably plays a crucial role in developments in the Persian Gulf. (The region should be described as the "Arabian Gulf" while visiting the "Arab Gulf states"!) While India and Iran continue to co-operate closely on developments in Afghanistan, there is also now a measure of strategic congruence in seeking access routes for our goods and services and even for future imports of natural gas to and from Russia and Central Asia, through Iran.

The "North-South Transportation Corridor Agreement" that was signed by India, Iran and Russia will provide us a viable transportation route for our exports to Russia through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and a designated port in the Caspian Sea. New Delhi should ensure that this agreement is made operational and put to use as soon as possible. The Americans seem determined to exclude Iran from their efforts to tap the vast resources of gas in Central Asia and the Caspian.

We are currently studying the possibility of accessing the immense gas resources of Iran either by an overland pipeline through Pakistan or an undersea pipeline. We should be guided solely by considerations of cost effectiveness and energy security in making our choices. Iran will naturally remain a preferred choice for transit for natural gas from Central Asia, till such time as the developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan stabilise. Iran, like us, does not seem too impressed by General Musharraf's claims of good conduct.

The six members of the Gulf Coordination Council -- Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- have also been deeply disturbed by the January 29 comments of President Bush. In contrast to their unreserved support extended during the Gulf conflict in 1991 to President Bush, Sr, these countries fear that any American attack on Iraq now will be profoundly destabilizing. The monarchies in these countries are gradually devising more representative forms of governance. This is particularly so in Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

New Delhi has traditionally had good relations with the Arab Gulf states. But, unless President Saddam Hussein yields to American demands, which is unlikely, the only question that remains is not whether but when President Bush will launch military attacks on America's favorite enemy. Unlike in 1990, when we were completely caught unawares and reacted in a knee-jerk manner to developments following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, New Delhi would be well advised to prepare contingency plans for another conflict in the Gulf in the not-too-distant future.

Policy-makers in New Delhi and our political leadership have not paid adequate attention or given due importance to the immense potential for the development of our relations with the Arab Gulf states. The rulers of most of these countries have traditionally been friendly to India. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, personally assisted us in handing over the hijackers of an Indian Airlines aircraft in 1984 after Indira Gandhi had deputed Romesh Bhandari to approach him. Likewise, when Aftab Ansari was recently handed over to us, Sheikh Mohammed assisted us in establishing his Pakistani links by giving us the Pakistani passport with which Ansari had travelled under an assumed name. But unlike in the days of Mrs Gandhi, there is virtually no personal rapport between our top leaders and the rulers of the Arab Gulf states today. This needs to be addressed and corrected.

The countries in our western neighbourhood are set to go through troubled and uncertain times in the days ahead. Despite claims of success, the American effort in Afghanistan has a long way to go before it achieves the objectives that President Bush has proclaimed for his war on terrorism. A senior state department official, obviously tired of Pakistani double-dealing, recently remarked about General Musharraf: "He is an important ally. We will be with him if he acts. If he plays games, then there will be a problem."

The Americans should be in no doubt that their favourite general in Pakistan will "play games" as he did in the Daniel Pearl affair and in supporting jihadi elements in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. The Pakistani military establishment has always been supremely confident of its ability to deal with the "na´ve" Americans. But with tensions and uncertainties set to grow in the strategically vital Persian Gulf, New Delhi will have to fashion innovative approaches to deal with the emerging situation.

G Parthasarathy

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