news analysis

With Islamic State attacks in Iran adding to Gulf crisis, India must tread warily

New Delhi (and Beijing) have limited leverage over regional matters in West Asia.

The rift in West Asia escalated further when the Islamic State took credit for two brazen attacks in Tehran this week, resulting in the deaths of at least a dozen people and wounding of dozens more. Gunmen reportedly dressed as women stormed the main gate of the parliament building in central Tehran and opened fire on Wednesday. They took a number of hostages, and at least one detonated a suicide bomb even as another suicide bomber targeted civilians at the Ayatollah Khomeini mausoleum about 15 miles away.

The Islamic State, which advocates a radical Salafi version of Sunni Islam and regards Shias as heretics, claimed responsibility for the attacks, which are believed to be the terrorist group’s first major assaults within Iran’s borders. The assaults have further accentuated the tensions in the region even as there is a growing danger that a broader sectarian conflict could worsen. In the past six years, Iran has deployed senior military advisers and thousands of volunteers to help regional ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad battle an armed insurrection that includes the Islamic State and other Islamist fighters, as well as groups supported by Turkey and the United States. Yet Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have blamed Saudi Arabia for these attacks.

Gulf-Qatar crisis

The attacks came a day after West Asia experienced the sharpest crisis in the history of the Gulf Cooperation Council since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Three members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, joined by Egypt and others – decided to cut off ties to Qatar in a bold, high-stakes move to alter its behaviour. Not only have they closed their borders to Qatari aircraft and ships, they have said that Qatari citizens in their countries must leave within two weeks. By restricting not only diplomatic relations, but the flow of goods and people, their actions are aimed at exerting maximum pressure on the peninsula state’s leadership.

Led by Saudi Arabia, these states are sending a message that unless countries play by the rules set by the regional hegemon, the House of Saud, they would find it difficult in the region. Qatar has often challenged the supremacy of the Saudis. Its independent wealth from a gas field the country shares with Iran allowed it to develop foreign policies that diverged from its neighbours. It financed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and armed factions opposed by the Emiratis and Saudis in Libya and Syria. Of course, the government in Qatar’s capital city Doha dismissed the charges of sponsoring extremism, and said that the Saudis are just seeking to dominate the region.

An aerial view of Qatar’s capital, Doha. (Photo credit: Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters).
An aerial view of Qatar’s capital, Doha. (Photo credit: Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters).

For now, Kuwait is trying to mediate this showdown between the fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members. But it is likely that its end-game might be to displace Qatar’s leadership. The latest episode in Qatar’s torturous relationship with its Gulf Cooperation Council allies originated when the official Qatar News Agency quoted the country’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani as saying in an address during a graduation ceremony for new army recruits that Doha faced tensions with the Donald Trump administration in the US and acknowledged that Iran is an “Islamic power”. This is now being termed as fake news by Qatar.

As is his wont, President Trump has since endorsed the Saudi view via Twitter adding that he discussed the “funding of radical ideology” during his recent visit to West Asia. The Gulf leaders he met with were all “pointing to Qatar”, he said. Washington will be concerned as there are over 10,000 US military personnel at the Al Udeid air base in Qatar, which boasts of the Gulf region’s largest airfield and is a critical hub for the war in Iraq and Syria. The US officials are insisting that their operations will not be impacted by the diplomatic incident, and activities at the base will continue as normal. But in these murky times, all bets are off. Perhaps recognising this, the US President moderated his initial stance, by talking to both Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan and calling for unity among Gulf Arabs “but never at the expense of eliminating funding for radical extremism or defeating terrorism”.

Qatar the outlier

This is also not the first time that Qatar has emerged as an outlier. Saudi Arabia had withdrawn its ambassador to Doha from 2002 to 2008 to try to pressure Qatar to toe the Saudi line. Differences broke into the open in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors out of Doha because of disputes over Iran, the 2013 military coup in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood. But then matters were resolved quickly. And the US was trying to play the role of a mediator. This time around, Washington itself is instigating this break-up. Trump’s hard-line against Iran has emboldened Iran’s regional adversaries to strike when the iron is hot.

With Iran under attack by the Islamic State and the regional rifts widening in West Asia, other countries, including India, will have to tread carefully. China’s Belt and Road Initiative will be in jeopardy if regional politics in West Asia remains conflictual and its long term energy interests will suffer. Being the second-largest buyer of Qatari liquefied natural gas, after Japan, and with more than 650,000 Indians living in Qatar, New Delhi’s stakes in the stability of Qatar are equally compelling. But the leverage that these powers have over regional matters remains fairly limited. In the end, the regional stakeholders will have to themselves find a modus vivendi if they want to escape broader costs of escalation. But that is a hope, and West Asian politics has a way of defying hopes that remains unmatched.

Harsh V Pant is Professor of International Relations, King’s College London and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.