Iraqi Foreign Minister Visits India to Reinvigorate Bilateral Ties
Photo Credit: AP
By Aditi Bhaduri

Iraqi Foreign Minister Visits India to Reinvigorate Bilateral Ties

Aug. 03, 2017  |     |  0 comments


Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Iraq, went on his very first official visit to India from Juy 24-28, 2017. Accompanied by a senior-level official delegation, the minister’s visit was expected to reinvigorate bilateral ties.

 

On his very first day, the minister held a meeting with the Indian Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, testifying to the fact that oil is high on the India-Iraq agenda. Iraq, which has always been a major source of crude for India, is back again as India’s largest crude supplier. According to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs: “Iraq contributes significantly to India’s energy security and is the second-largest supplier of crude oil to us (over 37 MMT during 2016 ).” In addition, Pradhan tweeted: “Iraq is the second-largest source of crude oil for India. For last six months, it has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the largest source.”


This is important for India’s energy security which is expected to significantly increase. Supplies from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE have formed the bulk of India’s crude imports but these have in recent times come under a cloud.


Oil imports from Iran had significantly fallen under the sanctions regime but had picked up since the sanctions were lifted. Nevertheless, more recently these imports have come under a cloud because of the inability of Iran and India to hammer out an agreement regarding the Farzad B gas fields, which were first discovered by an Indian consortium and which India wants to develop. According to the Iranians, India has been unable to offer a lucrative deal and they instead inked a preliminary deal with Russia’s Gaazprom.


While Saudi Arabia figures prominently in India’s energy security, compensating for Iran’s share during the entire sanctions period, Saudi crude has emerged as being more expensive than Iraq’s. This is an impetus for Indian oil refineries to buy more oil from Iraq.


Moreover, India has also been looking to diversify its energy sources for a while now, as a hedge against the volatile situation in the Gulf region and the continuously escalating Iran-Saudi rivalry. Iraqi crude therefore has become more valuable. During al-Jaafari’s visit, he indicated that Iraq, whose economy now is almost entirely oil-dependent, wants to increase petroleum sales to India. This will set the stage for the meeting between the oil ministers of the two countries in November.


India and Iraq have an inherent interest in deepening ties. “India and Iraq have historically enjoyed close and friendly political, economic and cultural ties … (and) the visit is expected to add further impetus to our mutually beneficial bilateral engagement,” stated the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Centuries-old ties had cooled off after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In recent times, however, both countries have been making efforts to get relations back on track. The 2013 visit by then-Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid set the process in motion. While the former Iraqi Prime Minister Noor El Maliki visited India in 2013, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar visited Iraq last year.



With bilateral trade amounting to nearly USD 13 billion in 2016-17, pharmaceuticals is another area where India can make significant investments.



Major bilateral areas of cooperation have emerged in construction, defense, and security. The Iraqi Foreign Minister, in his interaction with the Indian media, indicated that he wanted to push for economic ties, mainly the increase of crude supplies to India, and for closer security and intelligence-gathering cooperation.

 

Earlier, in an interview with this author, the Iraqi ambassador to India Fakhri Al Issa had listed out some of them. Construction and pharmaceuticals figured high. Almost two decades of war have left at least a third of Iraq in ruins. Iraq has 3.6 million people displaced from its northern and western parts. The recent liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s oil-rich and second-largest city, sees a city devastated with hundreds killed. Many more will be added to the list of displaced persons. There is huge reconstruction work to be undertaken, which is expected to last at least for the next couple of decades and India can play a major role here.

 

Indian construction firms have delivered in other war-torn regions of the world, like Afghanistan, and there had been a robust Indian presence in Iraq prior to the sanctions imposed on the Saddam Hussein regime. An Iraqi trade official explained that Indian firms, while delivering quality work, offer far more competitive prices. This would in turn benefit both Indian business and labor, with recent figures indicating a decline in the number of Indians emigrating to the Gulf for work.

 

With bilateral trade amounting to nearly USD 13 billion in 2016-17, pharmaceuticals is another area where India can make significant investments. Annually, 20-25,000 visas are issued to Iraqis to undergo medical treatment in India, and Iraqi officials have indicated that it would be a major step forward in bilateral relations if India could bring treatment to the people there. Of course, this will take time as the fate of the 39 Indian workers in Iraq who have been missing since 2014 — when ISIS captured Mosul and other parts of Iraq — still remains unknown, and more than 10,000 Indians who had been working in Iraq fled the country. The emergence of ISIS put a spanner on bilateral relations that both countries are now seeking to revive.

 

This gives defense and security cooperation between the two countries greater urgency. Iraq has been at the forefront of the fight against ISIS. While the recent liberation of Mosul is a major military defeat for ISIS in Iraq, Iraq will need international support to sustain the gains and see the group and its ideology destroyed once and for all. Iraqi officials have pitched for military aid. While India’s strategy is against putting boots on the ground, it has offered Iraq military training and light arms. India had earlier provided military training to the Iraqi military and continues to provide training to Iraqi government officials under its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation program.

 

Referring to ISIS as a “furious monster,” Minister al-Jaafari also alluded to the horrific Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, saying that the experience of the two countries absolutely necessitated deepening cooperation in security, intelligence gathering, and counter-terrorism. While ISIS has been defeated militarily, as the liberation of Mosul demonstrated, the minister urged that it is equally important to defeat it ideologically. The visit, while seeking to outline the danger that ISIS represents, is meant to hammer out a deal in cooperation in these areas.

 

In this regard, India will be a valuable partner in security cooperation. It is because the country, besides reeling under terror attacks, also has “many sleeping ISIS cells” across the country — as a retired police chief in-the-know explained to this writer. With their centuries old civilizational, religious — thousands of Shia pilgrims from India visit Iraq each year — and cultural ties, as well as energy cooperation, both India and Iraq have much to gain from reinvigorated ties. 

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