Ali Khan Mahmudabad
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is reading for a PhD in South Asian history at the University of Cambridge and is working on the effect of poetry on the formation of political identity in North India before independence. His undergraduate degree was in Middle Eastern History and Political Science. He has also studied in Syria and has traveled extensively in the Middle East. He writes a fortnightly column for the Urdu national daily, Inqilab and has also written for a number of English language magazines and newspapers.
The Saudis and Israelis have had a series of ‘non-official’ secret meetings over the last year in order to counter Iranian influence. One such meeting was in Lucknow and was organised by a prominent Delhi think-tank. Initially, those of us invited to this half-day discussion were not informed of the composition of the delegations except that the visitors were interested in finding out more about the ‘syncretic culture’ of the region. Amongst those invited from Lucknow were a university professor, a representative of a prominent cleric, some businessmen, my father, brother and I. When we gathered, it quickly transpired that the visitors were high-ranking ex-military officials. The Israeli delegation was from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the Saudis were from the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal studies (MECSTS).
“[I]t was becoming increasingly clear that the delegation was visiting India in order to find out about public opinion amongst Shias for Iran and perhaps gauge what reaction there maybe amongst Indian Shias if something happened vis-à-vis Iran.”
The Israeli Delegation was headed by Dr. Dore Gold, president of JCPA and a former Israeli Ambassador to the UN. He was recently appointed director general of the Israeli foreign ministry. With him were a retired Brigadier General from the IDF and a retired colonel from the intelligence agencies. The Saudi delegation was headed by retired Major General Dr. Anwar Majid Eshki, Chairman of the Jeddah based MECSTS and former advisor to Prince Bandar Bin Sultan. He was accompanied by a ‘consultant’ from Medina and two ‘medical doctors,’ one of whom spoke fluent Urdu and Punjabi and had spent time both in India and Pakistan.
Both the Saudis and Israelis were sitting together on one side of the table facing the Indians. The fact that Dore Gold, the author of Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism, was sitting next to a Salafi major general from Saudi Arabia went some way in affirming that geo-politics and strategy are often much more important than ideology in informing the choices made by nation-states. After the initial formalities it very quickly transpired that the visitors had not come in order to try and find out more about the pluralism that is so embedded in our part of the world. Indeed in the middle of a comment by my brother, Amir Khan, about how 19th century Hindu and Muslim indentured labourers took Muharram rituals from India to Trinidad, one of the Saudi delegates interrupted him and said that this was all history and not relevant. What he didn’t hear was that to this day Muharram is commemorated as Hosay, a corruption of Hussain, in Trinidad.
Dr. Gold began his talk by saying ‘we have a problem with Tehran.’ Then he proceeded to give three questions, which were all related to Iran and Iranian “encroachment” amongst North Indian Shias. With the potential of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States in June 2015, it was becoming increasingly clear that the delegation was visiting India in order to find out about public opinion amongst Shias for Iran and perhaps gauge what reaction there maybe amongst Indian Shias if something happened vis-à-vis Iran.
My father responded to this by highlighting that relations between Iran and India are millenia old and indeed the ties between the Shia of Iran and the Shia of India go back centuries. The ruling family of Awadh had their roots in Neishapour (Iran) and financially supported a number of religious scholars both in Iran and what is now Iraq. He further stated that it was the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the support of the British and later Americans for the Saudis that had contributed to the rise of extremist movements in the Arabian Peninsula. Importantly, the internal differences amongst Shias were discussed and he highlighted the fact that Indian Shias were politically independent despite deep religious and cultural ties to Iran and Iraq.
“Ostensibly, both Saudi Arabia and Israel are worried about a nuclear Iran because they see the latter has having expansionist imperial ambitions.”
The Saudis echoing this distrust of Iran, a continuing concern as proved by the Wikileaks documents, argued that all the Shia-Sunni problems were a result of the aftermath of 1979. Of course, the fact is that the revolution in Iran, although dominated by Shias, also got widespread support amongst Sunnis around the world and in particular from those who were political Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps this was the reason why, shortly after being elected on the Muslim Brotherhood platform, President Morsi attended a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran in 2012 at the invitation of Hamid Baghaei, the Iranian vice-president. This happened despite the fact that Egyptian-Iranian relations had been all but non-existent for decades. It is all the more interesting that the Saudis and Israelis have been conducting joint diplomatic outreach considering that officially Saudi Arabia still does not accept Israel’s right to exist and the latter is not considering the Saudi offer of mediating a peace agreement leading to the creation of a Palestinian State.
In the Indian sub-continent Shia-Sunni conflict as well as cooperation long preceded the 1979 Iranian revolution. Interestingly, the conflicts, almost inevitably, were to do with local issues over the control of public space whereas the cooperation was to do with events outside India. For instance there were joint Sunni-Shia protests against the Russian bombing of Mashhad in 1912. Similarly there were joint Sunni-Shia protests and joint-organisations after the destruction of the mausoleums of Jannatul Baqi in Medina in 1925 by King Ibn Saud. I also highlighted that one of the main problems plaguing Muslim communities around the world is that of takfeer or the act of declaring someone an unbeliever, an idea central to certain strands of Wahabi and Salafi thought. Similarly, tabarrah or the cursing by some Shias of certain companions and wives of the Prophet is also a problem.
Ostensibly, both Saudi Arabia and Israel are worried about a nuclear Iran because they see the latter has having expansionist imperial ambitions. Of course, like everybody else in the neighbourhood Iran has proxy groups but perhaps it is not the existential threat posed by a nuclear Iran that worries the Saudis and Israelis as much as the fact that a sanction-free Iran would perhaps be Asia’s fastest growing economy with its natural gas, oil and mineral deposits coupled with a highly educated young population. On top of this if Iran indeed does gain nuclear weapons then this would mean increased stability on account of the nuclear deterrent. As for the virulent rhetoric on the part of some Iranians against Israel, similar statements are regularly made by Saudi clerics. In fact, the largest remaining population of Jews in the Middle East aside from Israel is in Iran.
“[I]t is now more important than ever for communities to come together in dialogue for peace.”
Recently, at the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Gold and Gen. Eshki both underscored the need to thwart Iran’s regional ambitions. It is only natural for countries to worry first and foremost about the interests of the nation-state. However, in a region beset by problems it would be better for people to meet, argue and discuss differences, as was in the case of the meeting in Lucknow, rather than act as if conflict is inevitable. As both Maj-Gen. Eshki and Brig. Gen. Shapira rightly said in Lucknow, it is now more important than ever for communities to come together in dialogue for peace. India can perhaps serve as an interlocutor in many of these talks. Today India not only enjoys close trade links with Israel but also Iran and indeed with Saudi Arabia despite the fact that the latter has deep strategic links to Pakistan. Historically India has had an ability to transcend otherwise intractable divides and this is further helped by the fact that there are many Indians who have intimate knowledge as well as credibility in various parts of the Middle East.