Context: A contingent of the Indian Air Force is participating in a multi-nation exercise hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) named Desert Flag (March 3-27). 

  • Other than India and the UAE, Bahrain, France, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the United States are also participating.

Significance of India’s involvement

  • The involvement of contingents from India and South Korea showcases the growing interests of Asian economies. 
  • Saudi Arabia was India’s top supplier of oil followed by Iraq. 
  • As net importers of crude oil, these Asian economies rely heavily on the West Asian states for their supplies.
  • They have increased stakes in the safety and security of the region from the perspective of political and economic stability. 
  • India has stakes in the protection of vital sea lanes in areas such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea stretching out into the Arabian Sea and the wider Indian Ocean.
  • India’s security footprint in West Asia has seen a steady increase, and energy security and safe passage of sea routes are one of the main driving factors. 
  • The Indian Navy has made multiple port calls from the UAE and Kuwait to Iran and Qatar in recent years. 
  • In 2020, India had also planned its first bilateral naval exercise with Saudi Arabia.

Tensions in West Asia 

  • The sixth edition of Desert Flag this year takes place as tensions between Iran and the U.S. peak. 
  • The signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020 between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, is designed to counter Tehran’s growing influence in the region, and the wars in Syria and Yemen.

Receding U.S. hold

  • January 2021 marked the first time since 1985 that the U.S. did not import oil from Riyadh.
  • There are growing concerns in Asian capitals over an eroding U.S. security blanket in the region. 

  Iran tensions

  • There is  pressure on Iran to restart the 2015 nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) increases.
  • In 2013, an Indian oil tanker named MT Desh Shanti was confiscated near the Strait of Hormuz by Iranian forces. This was also the time when Iran was under sanctions, and looking for oil payments from India, which New Delhi could not complete due to the sanctions. 
  • Iran confiscated a South Korean tanker also from near the Strait of Hormuz, due to an argument over billions of dollars’ worth of oil payments frozen due to sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme.

Way forward

  • Experts have even suggested an idea equitable to an ‘importers OPEC’, or Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, led by Asian states which today have a much larger stake in West Asia’s oil than the West.

Regional states will become more responsible for their own security, and as Asian economies become stronger stakeholders, their geopolitics will become more visible across this geography.

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

  • The Iran nuclear deal (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was signed between Iran and the P5 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany and the European Union. 
  • Under the deal, Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for relief from the US and other economic sanctions.
  • The P5+1 refers to the UN Security Council's five permanent members (the P5); namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany.
  • The United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA objecting to the Iran’s ballistic missile program or its involvement in regional conflicts, sunset clauses of the deal which critics say provide Iran with a patient pathway to acquiring nuclear weapons.