Islamic State

Modi and calculus behind “no” on Jerusalem

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

There’s been a disquiet in India’s public space over Modi government’s rejection of US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital in a United Nations General Assembly resolution recently.

This disquiet has grown to anger after Palestinian envoy in Islamabad was seen in the company of Mumbai attack mastermind and global terrorist Hafiz Saeed in Rawalpindi though a strong protest by India since then has led to envoy’s recall to home by the Palestinian Authority.

The erudite supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are questioning why he would stand with the Palestinian cause and vote against US, and Israel,  having worked so hard to get both of them eating out of his hand lately.

Modi had become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in July 2017 and the latter’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to visit India in the first fortnight of the new year.

Israel’s support in the realm of technology, agriculture, security and defense has ramped up significantly in recent times and Trump misses no opportunity to gush over India and its leader.

The rabid supporters of BJP are aghast why their government would stand by “ungrateful” Muslims while it’s erudite patrons are questioning why New Delhi didn’t abstain from voting as 35 others had done.

Adding to the chill is US ambassador to UN Nikki Haley’s crude words “…this vote will make a difference…on how we look at countries who disrespect us in the UN.” Trump threatened to cut down funds to those who opposed him and Netanyahu called the UN a “a house of lies.”

The truth is, India did everything right on all three counts which should matter for the country: beneficial, practical and moral.

About 19 per cent of India’s total world trade is accounted for in the Middle East (as compared to nearly 1 per cent with Israel) which ought to halt in track the juggernaut of criticism. Such scales of benefit could only be denied by fools, if not blind.

The practical takeaways, if anything, are bigger. US has fallen flat on its face in West Asia and its strategy to sow discord and anarchy through Iraq invasion and conduits for the growth of Islamic State (IS) has been successfully reversed by Russia, in alliance with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. So much so that even a traditional US supporter Turkey is on the opposite side of the fence.

The vacuum of US in the Middle East would soon be filled up by Russia in alliance with China which is using its typical trade and infrastructure growth route to look for strategic stranglehold in the region. India would be foolish to be seen standing in opposition to the new Big Boys in the region. India can’t overlook the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) too which would encircle it in an iron clasp more so since China is parking itself on ports of Sri Lanka. Letting go of West Asia at this stage would be a suicide, no less.

By rejecting the Trump’s move on Jerusalem, India is also letting the world know of its independence lest it be seen as a US lackey. It would earn India respect and a sense among its friends that it’s a principled ally. Further, India can’t allow itself to be bound by Trump’s often hasty and boorish decisions.

Absentation would’ve been a paper umbrella—only giving the notion of protection against a downpour. It would still have earned a scorn from the free world, without quite endearing it to US or Israel. Worse, it could’ve emboldened them to see if they could kick around India in future.

India’s decision to stand on its moral compass would draw a host of lesser nations in its orbit. Forget criticism, Modi government’s move deserves a standing ovation.

To brush up history for the uninitiated, Israel has been controlling the eastern Jerusalem since the 1967 six-day war. It’s being sought by the Palestinians as the capital for its future state.

Chabahar is a real deal for India

For its commercial and political implications, the Chabahar Port deal with Iran marks the finest achievement yet of Narendra Modi’s global engagements.

The commercial implications are obvious—India was hemmed in by Pakistan’s intransigence to refuse direct trade between India and Afghanistan and China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) vision had the potential to clamp manacles on India’s ankles.

In one stroke, India has freed itself from the curfew and it could now entertain visions of trade and infrastructure links with Middle East and Central Asia and still further with Russia and Europe.

Let’s take up the bare details before we look at the wider implications and how Pakistan, China and United States, the other key players in the region, would react to it—Afghanistan, as we know from the history of Hindu Kush in the colonial times, is a prized land. So far it was its geographical location but now is the promise of immense mineral wealth which, according to Geological Survey of United States, could be worth as much as $1 trillion, due to its iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium potential.

Afghanistan, unfortunately, has always attracted predators who couldn’t care less about the welfare of Afghan people; who could go to any length to destabilize it in order to retain a degree of control over the cursed land. United States, on one pretext or another, stays put in the name of eliminating terrorism while, as everybody knows, promoting the same in cohort with Saudi Arabia, and not long ago, Pakistan.

The birth of modern terrorism occurred in the wake of Soviet Union’s departure from Afghanistan as United States planted mujahideens, with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia providing men, resources and ground support. The country was soon in chaos, split between war lords of one camp or other, and the lure of illicit heroin trade, which by a conservative estimate is second only to oil and gas in volume, has kept them involved. They aren’t going to leave the country in our lifetimes.

Afghanistan thus has every reason to distrust Pakistan—after all its bête noire Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar were traced there—and by inference United States. It sure receives significant infrastructural aid from China but so tied are the fortunes of the Middle Kingdom with Pakistan that Kabul can’t ignore the political implications.

India has diligently nurtured its ties with Afghanistan. Since 2001, it has provided Afghanistan with $2 billion development assistance. In December last year, Modi inaugurated Afghan parliament built on India’s aid of 90 million dollars. It has contributed $300 million on Salma dam and hydroelectric power plant at Herat which Modi is expected to inaugurate next month. In 2009, India had built a 217-km highway costing $100 million that links Zaranj with Delaram, located on Afghanistan-Iran border. From there, the local road connects to Chabahar.

India has always worried over its energy supply, most of which emanates from the Middle East. It receives 57 percent of its crude oil from the Middle East which would only increase manifolds in the coming years.  Saudi Arabia is its biggest supplier but knowing the close equation between the Arab kingdom and Pakistan, India has always been keen to get Iran on its side. The latter, for this very reason—after all the Middle East conundrum is largely a tussle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for dominance in Muslim world—seeks a natural affinity with India. Both nations have close cultural and historical ties. Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century.

Chabahar is located on the Gulf of Oman, just 80km away from Gwadar which is the cornerstone of China’s pivot to Pakistan. Chabahar is just 299km east of world’s most critical passageway for oil tankers, the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran urgently wants this port to work as 85 percent of its seaborne traffic is managed by its Bandar Abbas port in the Strait of Hormuz. However, this port can only handle 100,000-metric ton ships. Large ships first offload at the Jebel Ali port in the United Arab Emirates en route to Iran. In contrast, Chabhar is a deep-water port and could process large ships. Chabahar would also allow both India and Iran to access large parts of Africa, Asia, Arabia and Australasia.

India has so far committed $500 million on the Chabahar project. It’s also assisting the 500-km rail link between Chabahar-Zahedan-Zaranj. The free trade zone of Chabahar could also encourage investment by its industries in urea, smelter and aluminium etc. In 2012, India had already used the port to transport a 100,000 metric ton shipment of wheat to Afghanistan.

According to the JV plans, India will develop two berths in Chabahar, one to handle container traffic and the other a multi-purpose cargo terminal. The MoU includes the sea-land access route to Afghanistan. India has plans to build a road-railroad network from Chabahar to Milak in Iran which in turn would link up the Indian-built 223-km Zaranj-Delaram road in Afghanistan.

India has also allayed worries on Iran’s part over its pending $6.5 billion payment. It has begun the process of payment in Euros, as requested by Turkey’s Halkbank. A cash-strapped Iran urgently needs investment and repayment of dues.

It’s a win-win all situation for all three nations. Both India and Iran are surrounded by hostile powers; both need avenues to grow. Afghanistan would finally be able to access the Indian Ocean.

Don’t expect United States to sit and watch this alignment of India-Afghanistan-Iran to take shape. Already we hear of encroachment of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. US could again find a reason to impose sanctions on Iran. India too remains handicapped by its financial and regulatory hurdles.

But such is the opportunity in front of India, Afghanistan and Iran that one expects Chabahar Port to be a reality soon enough. There sure would be hurdles and interventions, but the three must stand together for their own good.