From Bombay to Jerusalem: With the crisis in Iraq worsening, how involved should India get in the Middle East?
The first high-profile national security challenge facing India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come in an unexpected spot: Iraq. Over 100 Indians -- including 46 nurses -- were caught stranded in Iraq's conflict zone, while some 40 Indian construction workers were kidnapped in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. The sudden advance of the jihadist militant group Islamic State in Iraq has had other important repercussions for India, which imports over a half-million barrels of crude oil daily from Iraq. The resulting rise in oil prices has led to India's currency, the rupee, dropping to its lowest value against the dollar in over a month, at a delicate juncture for its economy.
The crisis in Iraq lies at the intersection of India's broader interests in the Middle East -- or to use New Delhi's preferred parlance, West Asia. While Indian political leaders and diplomats often emphasize their cultural affinity to the region -- Persian was the court language of the Mughal Empire; trade links go back centuries -- India's interests in the Middle East today encompass the safety and security of its large diaspora, its dependence on energy imports, and its complex but finely balanced defense and intelligence ties with several regional powers. While these are all consequences of India's growing international profile, they also expose the country's vulnerabilities to energy supplies, remittances, and international terrorist activity. Over the course of his tenure, Modi will have to weigh the merits of adopting a more high-profile role in order to proactively shape the Middle East's future. But a more diplomatically or militarily active India would risk abandoning what has so far been a fruitful, if low-key, approach to the Middle East, one that has enabled New Delhi to -- perhaps uniquely -- cooperate with Tehran, Riyadh, and Jerusalem.
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Dhruva Jaishankar is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, where he manages the India Trilateral Forum, a twice-yearly strategic dialogue between India, the US, and Europe.