By Ambassador Anil Trigunayat
Trilaterals in international discourse has become an acceptable and desirable norm that address an enhanced collaboration matrix and the capacity to deal with immediate challenges in a more effective and credible way. The luncheon meeting between the Foreign Ministers of India, Oman and Iran on December 24 in Muscat is one such an important development in accordance with India’s activated West Asia policy.
Both Oman and Iran have been India’s strong and civilisational partners. In fact, Oman has not only been India’s maritime conduit for centuries but is also closest to it both culturally and strategically. Likewise, Iran, despite some recent disconcert due to US’s maximum pressure policy and increasing sanctions regime, has been crucial to India’s energy security and civilisational linkages.
High-level visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Iran and Oman and signing of crucial deals and reciprocal visits by Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign minister Zarif to India and meaningful Joint statements and agreements signed during the visits laid out the broader contours for enhanced and more focussed cooperation while taking each other’s sensitivities into account. While Oman has emerged as a major strategic bulwark in the Gulf for India’s maritime security, defence and mutually beneficial investments, Iran with the Chabahar port project provides India with the alternate crucial access to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Europe. All the three also work under the rubric of Ashgabat Agreement ensuring greater connectivity.
Oman and Iran retain closer ties despite the irritants in the Middle East among various actors and Omani leadership has been acknowledged as the honest and well-meaning interlocutors by the regional and external powers including the US. Recently the Omani Foreign Minister made two visits to Tehran after his meetings with Secretary Pompeo. Pompeo was even ready to visit Tehran. India is also seen broadly in a similar vein having close and unencumbered relations with all in the region and strategic partnership with the US.
Fact that the visit of Indian Foreign Minister took place after his 2+2 Dialogue with the US where India’s collaboration with Iran would have been discussed it would be natural if Indian Minister carried the message from the US to Iran and exchanged notes at the Troika meeting on facilitating possible ensuing dialogue between Iran and US for the larger benefit of the region which has faced near disaster in the recent months. Both the US and Iran and regional powers have all been looking for dialogue to deescalate the situation and it appears that some serious outcome is on the anvil if one were to go by President Rouhani’s reported comments to Foreign Minister S Jaishankar about their desire to have peace in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman through the Hormuz Peace Endeavour further claiming that the US will abandon its maximum pressure soon. Moreover, for years a project for a gas pipeline from Iran to India via Oman has been on the anvil but due to geo-politics and logistical issues has not moved forward. As India moves to enhance greater utilisation of natural gas in its energy matrix for her economic growth the viability of such a pipeline makes sense.
In Iran the two sides held the much-awaited Joint Commission Meeting to discuss various issues and arrived at understandings to resolve them. The two sides agreed to convene the meeting of the working group on Trade and to expedite the Preferential Trade Agreement and Bilateral Investment Treaty as well as closer Customs collaboration. As the 70th anniversary of the bilateral treaty of the friendship between Iran and India is celebrated in 2020 we could witness greater exchanges in various areas of cooperation It is important that the two sides evolve a mechanism of economic engagement through special purpose vehicles that could be immune from unilateral sanctions and could work under the Rupee-Rial framework. The surplus Rials could be invested in Indian refineries or mutually agreeable projects for the mutual benefit while occasional barter could fill the immediate needs of the Islamic Republic in an extreme situation. This will also keep the mutual trust and dependability intact in the fast-changing yet uncertain world where new power equations are emerging rather fast. India as a major regional power has to not only have friends across the spectrum but has to ensure its strategic policy autonomy and occasional prism-less focus to sub serve her own national interests and despite competing global game plans need to navigate dextrously.
In Oman, an important Maritime Agreement was signed which is the first with any regional country. The agreement seeks to institutionalise cooperation in shipping, port development, growth in maritime navigation, joint projects in shipbuilding, repair and recycling with the use of modern marine information technology. This is a natural corollary and fits well into India’s strategic SAGARMALA policy. Moreover, during PM Modi’s visit to Oman in 2018 an MoU for use of facilities at Duqm port was signed which would provide the unique advantage for India’s non-confrontational Indo-pacific vision that covers western Indian Ocean, gulf and eastern Africa. India being a blue-water navy needs strategic presence and deliverable potential and Oman may just provide that with its four strategic ports and special economic zones and an attractive tax and investment regime for greater Indian economic engagement. India-Oman Fertilizer JV (OMIFCO) nearly a quarter-century ago with $ 1 bn investment was the first landmark project in GCC countries has been the most successful too. Likewise, the proposed new Sabecic Acid Joint Venture with over $1.2 bn investments and the Little India Tourism complex will add to the list of flagships of mutually beneficial cooperation. As such with $5bn in bilateral trade and huge bilateral investments and presence of over 3000 Indian companies and a dynamic Diaspora and several major projects in the pipeline two are slated to become more important in the bilateral strategic calculus. This has been reiterated during FM Jaishankar’s meeting with his Omani counterpart Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah , defence Minister Busaidi as well as the Deputy Prime Minister Mahmoud Al Said.
West Asia especially the GCC countries and Iran hold special importance and place in India’s strategic foreign policy domain and FM Jaishankar’s visit has further enriched and deepened these ties and may have clarified some of the doubts that have arisen due to global geo-politics.
(The author is Distinguished Fellow VIF. Views expressed are personal.)