What the China-Brokered Saudi-Iran Deal Means for South Asia
India and Pakistan have a strong interest in seeing the accord succeed.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: How the Saudi-Iran deal could create diplomatic openings for India and Pakistan, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s supporters clash with police, and Nepal’s president faces a no-confidence vote.
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A fundamental question about last week’s Beijing-mediated agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties is if it will hold. Will the two bitter rivals actually enjoy a sustained rapprochement?
India and Pakistan have a strong interest in seeing the accord succeed. Better Iran-Saudi relations would give both South Asian countries more diplomatic space to strengthen their own connections—and especially their commercial ties—with Tehran and Riyadh. However, because of their desire not to upset Washington by moving too close to Iran, Islamabad and New Delhi will take a careful approach no matter the deal’s outcome.
Saudi Arabia, despite the occasional spat, is one of Pakistan’s closest allies. Riyadh is a longtime military partner and a frequent source of economic support to Islamabad, from bailout funds to remittances. Many Pakistani military and civilian leaders also have close ties to the kingdom.
By contrast, Pakistan and Iran have often been at odds. They’ve accused each other of harboring militants that target the other and have backed opposing sides during conflict in Afghanistan. Successive Pakistani governments have pitched themselves as neutral in the Saudi-Iran rivalry, and Islamabad previously sought to mediate a rapprochement. But to avoid provoking Saudi Arabia, Islamabad has refrained from pushing closer to Tehran. Aside from some commercial links, cooperation is relatively limited.
India, meanwhile, has traditionally carried out a more successful balancing act, pursuing robust commercial relations, especially through energy trade, with both the Saudis and the Iranians. But since 2019, New Delhi has severely curtailed its energy imports from Iran to avoid violating U.S. sanctions, and it has ramped up trade with Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). India has also strengthened ties with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is heavily influenced by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.
New Delhi’s support for the Abraham Accords and participation in initiatives that emerged from them—such as the India-Israel-UAE-United States quadrilateral forum—have put it at odds with Tehran. India-Iran ties have been undercut by New Delhi’s rapidly growing ties with Israel, as well as Tehran’s relations with Beijing. And last month, Iran’s foreign minister canceled a visit to India after a promotional video for the Raisina Dialogue, a thought leadership summit sponsored by India’s government, showed images of Iranian anti-government protesters.
Better Iran-Saudi Arabia relations would advantage Indian and Pakistani diplomacy. Both capitals already must navigate great-power competition involving countries that have important relations with them (U.S.-Russia for India and U.S.-China for Pakistan). One fewer bitter rivalry to deal with would be a relief.
Iran-Saudi rapprochement could also free up opportunities for India and Pakistan to focus more on key economic projects with Iran. These include developing the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran, which India envisions as part of a connectivity corridor eventually extending to Afghanistan and Central Asia (New Delhi has already pledged assistance), and completing a partially constructed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which could bring Pakistan a much-needed energy security boost.
Pakistan has an especially large stake in a successful Iran-Saudi deal. It borders Iran, and up to 20 percent of Pakistan’s population is Shiite. At the same time, because of its military alliance with Riyadh, it’s often been pressured to send troops to Saudi Arabia for training and stabilization purposes, and to Bahrain and Yemen to help advance Saudi security interests. Pakistan has agreed to some of these requests and declined others, but the pressure makes it uncomfortable.
But the benefits of a successful Iran-Saudi Arabia deal for India and Pakistan shouldn’t be overstated. Both countries will continue to be cautious in their dealings with Iran—and because of Washington, not Riyadh. The United States doesn’t want its partners doing business with Tehran. India may have a close partnership with Russia, but its relationship with Iran is more modest. This means, unlike with Moscow, New Delhi has little incentive to engage more with a core U.S. rival and risk angering Washington.
Similarly, Pakistan, in the throes of an acute economic crisis, won’t want to upset the United States by engaging more with Iran: The United States is Pakistan’s top export destination, a prime source of bilateral economic assistance, and a nation with influence in the International Monetary Fund.
Islamabad and New Delhi will tread carefully, despite any new diplomatic space generated by a successful Iran-Saudi Arabia deal.
What We’re Following
Biden ambassador pick confirmed. On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted 52 to 42 to approve President Joe Biden’s nomination of former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to be the next U.S. ambassador to India. The post has been vacant since January 2021—the longest gap in the history of U.S.-India relations. Biden nominated Garcetti in July 2021, but the confirmation process was held up by allegations that Garcetti didn’t properly address sexual harassment claims against an aide during his time as mayor. Garcetti contends he knew nothing about the allegations and would have acted if he did.
His confirmation was by no means assured. Last week, he was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee thanks in large part to two Republican senators voting in his favor. But other Republican senators had said they wouldn’t approve his nomination. However, seven Republicans ended up backing him in the full Senate vote, which was critical given that three Democrats voted against him.
In the end, it appears that the Senate emphasized the U.S. strategic imperative of confirming him, even while acknowledging concerns about his past management failures. On Wednesday, Todd Young of Indiana, one of the two Republican senators to vote for Garcetti in the committee vote, said, “This has become a grave national security concern of mine—not to have an ambassador in place. Our strategic partners wouldn’t conceive of going two years into the establishment of a government … and failing to place their person in the role.” Garcetti was approved just a few months before a possible state visit to Washington by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this summer.
Khan supporters clash with police. On Tuesday, Pakistani police arrived at former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s home in Lahore intending to arrest him on corruption charges. Large groups of Khan supporters blocked their path, with some throwing stones at police, resulting in a violent confrontation that involved police use of tear gas and water cannons. Throughout the crisis, Khan remained holed up in his home.
In the end, the police left without an arrest—just the latest instance in recent weeks of the state not following up on its threat to arrest Khan. On Wednesday, the police said they would pause their arrest operation until Thursday because of the need to allocate resources to security for a cricket match. But on Thursday, a high court in Lahore postponed the operation until Friday.
Khan’s backers believe the large show of support outside his house scared off the police, and they applauded his decision not to simply turn himself in in response to corruption charges that they believe to be false and politically motivated. Khan’s critics believe he is making a mockery of the law by not turning himself in after being served with arrest warrants and missing several court appearances.
While one may attribute the state’s repeated unfulfilled arrest threats to indecisiveness, it may also be an intimidation tactic—one meant to keep Khan and his supporters uncertain and worried about his fate. Khan is also threatened by disqualification. Last October, election officials disqualified Khan from holding public office on both corruption and terrorism charges that he rejects as false. His lawyers are contesting that decision in court, though his backers fear that the government and military leadership may try to build a stronger case against him. If the disqualification decision is upheld, Khan would theoretically be ineligible to run in national elections later this year.
Indian films win Oscars. This year’s Academy Awards gave Indians two big reasons to celebrate. For the first time, a song from an Indian film won an Oscar: “Naatu Naatu,” a number from the movie RRR. And The Elephant Whisperers became the first Indian documentary to win an Oscar, in the Best Documentary Short category. Significantly, neither film was made in the Hindi language. RRR is a Telugu-language film, and The Elephant Whisperers is a Tamil production.
It’s a reminder that the Indian movie business extends far beyond Bollywood, India’s internationally known Hindi-language film industry (some Indian movie buffs were upset when Academy Awards host Jimmy Kimmel wrongly described RRR as a Bollywood film). Telugu-language films have their own industry, known as Tollywood, while Tamil-language films are part of what’s called the Kollywood industry.
Under the Radar
Since 2008, when Nepal shifted from a monarchy to a republic, the country has had 11 different governments. By comparison, the country’s presidency, while a relatively ceremonial post, has been a rare bastion of political stability. Ram Chandra Poudel, who took the oath of office on Monday, became just the third Nepalese president since 2008, after being elected last week by the national and provincial parliaments.
But Poudel has found himself at the center of Nepal’s latest political firestorm. The decision last month of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who took office only several months ago, to endorse Poudel—a member of the opposition Nepali Congress party—as his presidential choice triggered resignations from a dozen senior ministers, meaning that Dahal must now face a no-confidence vote later this month. With Poudel having won the presidential election, it will be even more difficult for Dahal to make up with his coalition partners.
That said, Dahal could well come out of this fine: Experts say he could prevail in the no-confidence vote, thanks to support from a Nepali Congress party that he’s worked with in the past. But the country’s volatile politics will continue to churn, with yet another new governing coalition likely in the offing.
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Academic Fatima Waqi Sajjad, writing in Dawn, calls for changes in Pakistan’s education system to address the problem of well-educated people becoming extremists. “Extremist ideologies lose their appeal,” she writes, “when education allows young minds to think freely and inspire social change.”
Former military adviser Lt. Gen. Prakash Menon, reflecting in The Print on India’s tensions with China and Pakistan, argues that India must be prepared to fight three different possible types of war. “Nuclear, conventional and non-conventional war must be viewed as layers that constitute war and blend in varying degrees into each other. They are connected and could be occurring within the same war.”
An editorial in the Dhaka Tribune describes the erosion, salinity, encroachments, and habitat losses that characterize the current crisis in Bangladesh’s rivers. Any correctives “will require a coordinated effort among policymakers, scientists, and the public to develop and implement sustainable solutions that balance economic development with environmental conservation.”
Correction, March 16, 2023: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Hindi language.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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