Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are being pushed closer together by Iran's nuclear ambitions and the Arab Spring — creating new challenges for India.

India's foreign policy in West Asia lies at its most crucial juncture in two decades. In recent months, the debate has focused on India's delicate balancing act between Iran and the United States. This should not be taken lightly. American technology, weaponry, and diplomatic backing will be important to India's security and prosperity over the coming decades. At the same time, India is in danger of overlooking another balancing act.

A sectarian, geopolitical and strategic cold war is unfolding between Saudi Arabia, protector of the Sunni Arab order, and Iran, a Shia Persian revolutionary power with a mission to subvert that status quo. The battlefields are Syria and Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. For India, the stakes are high.

Saudi-Iranian rivalry has ebbed and flowed for decades, but two developments — the acceleration of Iran's nuclear ambitions and the Arab Spring — have sharpened the antagonism. In the coming years, that will likely push Saudi Arabia closer to Pakistan and exacerbate threats to India.

Three strands

First, consider that the crisis over Iran's nuclear programme is unlikely to be resolved by this month's talks, given the inflexible positions held by each side. If Iran is attacked, it will respond by rushing for a bomb. If it isn't attacked, it will drift towards the threshold of weapons status (much like India in the 1970s). Either way, the Saudis will feel the need to hedge — and they will turn to Pakistan, whose nuclear programme they funded and fostered for years.

Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have reasons not to flout American concerns, and each would proceed with caution. But it is plausible that Pakistan might covertly transfer nuclear technology, engineers and even fissile material to its Saudi Arabian patrons — buying itself some diplomatic clout in return.

Second, Saudi Arabia remains shaken by the Arab Spring. The country's Shia-dominated Eastern Province is growing restive. Riyadh is also paranoid that Shia Iran is meddling there and in other Sunni Arab regimes like Bahrain.

That's why there are reportedly 10,000 serving and retired Pakistani military personnel in Bahrain — including a battalion of the Azad Kashmir Regiment. In the 1980s, Pakistan had tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen in Saudi Arabia — including an entire division and two armoured and two artillery brigades. These reliable Sunni forces are still seen in Riyadh as a crucial instrument of repression.

Saudi Arabia is not immune from the unrest that swept the Arab world last year. If oil prices fall, it'd struggle to pay for the massive public spending programmes it introduced last year in an effort to stave off discontent. Its refusal to undertake real political reform, and the poisonous anti-Shia rhetoric it has ramped up to vilify protesters, could further radicalise young Saudis.

If this resulted in widespread disorder, the regime would depend on Pakistan to send manpower and military expertise.

In fact, it's highly likely that contingency plans are already in place.

Even if there's little chance of Pakistani nuclear weapons on Saudi soil, the prospect of Pakistani access to Saudi airbases and missile facilities should be cause for Indian concern.

Finally, there's a third strand to the Saudi-Pakistan nexus: religion. Whenever Saudi rulers have felt under threat they shore up their legitimacy by looking to the ulema. In 1979, the Iranian revolution and the siege of Mecca spooked the monarchy into giving more money and power to the clerics. That fuelled the growth of violent Sunni extremism over the subsequent decade — and in South Asia in particular. Last year, similarly anxious to bolster their Islamic credentials, the regime responded in the same fashion — funnelling a part of its $120 billion spending package to the religious establishment and reaching out to some of the most extreme strands of regional Islamist movements.

That will have profound and pernicious effects not just in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in the jihadist heartlands of Punjab and even within India. Sunni terrorist groups, including Pakistan-sponsored outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, will have new resources and political allies. That throws up fiendishly difficult intelligence and counterterrorism challenges for Delhi.

Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief once claimed that his country's relationship to Pakistan was “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries.” Whether or not that's hyperbole, it's going to get closer. Both are growing apart from the United States. Riyadh was alarmed over the way in which Washington dumped Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Islamabad is not blind to the growing exasperation with its policies.

How India should respond

How should India respond? There are three imperatives. First, Delhi should be actively mediating between the U.S. and Iran.

This is hard, as India sits outside the formal nuclear non-proliferation regime. But, as the International Crisis Group's most recent report put it, “those engaging [Iran] ought to include a larger variety of countries, including emerging powers with which it feels greater affinity.” Since Iran and Turkey are clashing over Syria, this is a perfect opportunity for India to pursue its own interests and demonstrate international leadership.

Second, a diverse alliance portfolio is crucial. India imports over half its oil from Arab countries, dwarfing the roughly 15 per cent it gets from Iran. But Saudi oil dominates those flows. It's in India's interest to strengthen its energy and security relationship with the smaller Arab states.

Qatar, a diplomatically innovative and energy-rich state whose ruler visited Delhi this week, is an excellent place to start. Doha also hosts the Taliban's political office, of great interest to India as an Afghan settlement is discussed over the coming years.

Third, and finally, concerns over a Saudi-Pakistani axis should not prevent India from clearly signalling to Iran's leadership that unfriendly acts — from attempting assassinations on Indian soil, to shutting the Strait of Hormuz — will not be taken lying down.

With the Iranian nuclear crisis at an impasse, and the royals in Riyadh moving closer to the khakis in Islamabad, the challenge for Indian diplomacy policy is to keep these multiple balancing acts in view.

(Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University, and a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute. Email: shashj@gmail.com)

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