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Why India must decouple from I2U2

Quad-3
Foreign Ministers of India, Israel, UAE, US (clockwise) held a videoconference in October 2021 to launch a ‘Quad’ for West Asia

Indian diplomacy is descending from the sublime to the absurd. Such wild swings signal rank opportunism. These are extraordinary times when to be smart is equated as being opportunistic. 

Hardly a week passed since PM Modi received the Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian in Delhi and expressed high hopes for India-Iran relationship. Now it transpires that India also forms part of the Gang of Four led by US President Joe Biden to “contain” Iran, from a new platform called I2U2 — the ‘I’ being India and Israel, and ‘U’ being US and UAE.   

The I2U2 summit in mid-July between Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Bennett, Modi, and Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed is destined to be a signpost in the geopolitics of West Asia. This new Quad first appeared on 18th October 2021 as an offspring of External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s 5-day trip to Israel when from Tel Aviv he pulled a rabbit out of the hat, leaving the Indian public wonder what new grandstanding their impulsive minister was indulging in. 

Between October and July this year, the I2U2 is getting an upgrade from foreign minister to prime minister/president level. On Tuesday, while announcing Biden’s first West Asian tour as president in mid-July, Washington has made some effort to rationalise Biden’s intentions in undertaking the planned visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia. A senior White House official said Biden intends

  • To demonstrate “the return of American leadership to bring countries together”; 
  • To create “new frameworks that aim to harness unique American capabilities to enable partners to work more closely together, which is essential to a more secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region over the long term”; 
  • To build on the “resounding vote isolating Iran last week at the IAEA Board of Governors in Vienna where 30 countries condemned Iran’s lack of compliance with safeguard obligations” (where India, by the way, had abstained from supporting the US move); 
  • “To make sure we’re doing all we can to strengthen Israel’s security, prosperity, and integration into the larger region, both now and over the longer term”; 
  • To “focus on Israel’s increasing integration into the region” through new formats other than Abraham Accords, such as the “entirely new grouping of partners… what we call I2U2”! 

So, that’s it. India will lend a hand to assist the US to refill the fizz that has gone out of the Abraham Accords. The hope that more countries would join Abraham Accords is withering away. Israel needs to be shown around to prospective suitors in its neighbourhood. I2U2 is, in essence, a dating agency. When it concerns Israel, the role of pandar comes naturally to the US presidents. But why should India squander away its soft power? 

The US prestige and influence in West Asia has suffered a severe jolt during the Biden presidency. Not too long ago, Biden had called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and pledged to make a horrible example of it on account of its human rights record. But now the shoe is on the other foot. Biden is craving for attention from Saudi Arabia. He had taken a second vow not to have any dealings with the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But he is now beseeching the proud Prince for an audience. His recent phone calls weren’t answered. 

The White House official explained Biden’s U-turn this way: “we have important interests interwoven with Saudi Arabia, and engagement is essential to protecting and advancing those interests on behalf of the American people.” In reality, Biden is swallowing pride and reviving the old matrix of US-Saudi relationship riveted on the petrodollar. 

With poll rating falling abysmally low, Biden is desperate to tackle the rising inflation in the US economy, and the soaring price of oil is fuelling public disaffection. Saudi Arabia can help Biden salvage his standing. 

However, it is the turn of the Saudis now to tell Americans there’s nothing like free lunch. They want a written treaty to the effect that the US won’t ditch them when the crunch time comes or if the Kingdom or the ruling family feels insecure. Put differently, they want the Americans to act as their Praetorian guards as before.  

In return, of course, Saudis will generate massive business for the US military-industrial complex, recycle their petrodollar to strengthen the Western banking system and create lucrative business for American companies — in short, help the beleaguered Western economies to pursue their post-pandemic recovery that is getting derailed by the war in Ukraine. 

Indeed, the Saudis also have a rich history of lavishly greasing the palm of the American elite in the administration, the Pentagon and the Congress. In a nutshell, Biden as a seasoned operator in the Beltway  knows which side of the bread is buttered. 

But to rationalise his U-turn, an alibi is needed. So, Biden has decided to hoist “Iranian threat” as the leitmotif of the revamped US-Saudi security alliance. All signs are that Biden has acceded to the Saudi demand to scuttle the JCPOA and pile new sanctions against Iran, although the negotiations in Vienna are in home stretch and an agreement is within sight. 

Biden’s West Asian agenda is completely US-centric, aimed at securing US business interests and shoring up its regional influence. Israel, of course, is “holy cow”. Very soon Biden will begin fund-raising for his re-election bid in 2024, and Jewish donors are a generous lot. 

However, the million dollar question remains: What has India got to do with Biden’s agenda? There are real risks, for the subplot here is that Biden hopes to nix India’s plans to revive its atrophied relationship with Iran. The recent visit of the Iranian foreign minister to India would have set alarm bells ringing in Washington and Tel Aviv. 

Biden has a game plan for leaders like Modi who have a tendency to disregard the US diktat occasionally. Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan spoke candidly just the other day: 

“We’re playing the long game here. We are investing in a relationship (with India) that we are not going to judge by one issue even if that issue is quite consequential, but rather that we are going to judge over the fullness of time, as we try to work to convergence on the major strategic questions facing our two countries. 

“On one of those questions — how to deal with the challenge posed by China — there’s much more convergence today, and that is important to US foreign policy. On the question of Russia, obviously, we have different historical perspectives, different muscle memories, but we feel confident that the dialogue we have going with India right now will bear fruit over time.”

Sullivan was discussing India’s time-tested relationship with Russia — how Washington hopes to erode and dissolve it all in good time. 

Plainly put, Americans estimate that Indians have no “staying power,” or “big picture.” They probably estimate that the Indian government would grab the I2U2 platform to burnish its  international image. But if there is any sanity left in the Indian foreign policy establishment, a subaltern role to serve US and Israeli interests cannot enhance India’s prestige in West Asia where, as it is, Modi government is perceived as an Islamophobic regime backed by religious fanatics. 

In the life of individuals and nations alike, there are moments when one has to learn to say “no.” This self-serving, cynical overture from 78-year old Biden is one such moment. That’s why, despite zero chance of India turning down Biden’s invite, not to urge Modi to say “Nyet” to I2U2 will be a serious lapse. 

South Block is underestimating the gravity of its folly. India never ever got entangled in the intra-regional issues in West Asia. It never acted as the surrogate of extra-regional powers, either. Most important, it never sought the “containment” of any regional state. That’s how it held its head high in the choppy waters of the Persian Gulf.