Why did Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi break with protocol to personally greet – and hug – Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman (MbS) on his arrival on Tuesday, Feb. 19, for a two-day visit – even though the visitor flew in from rival Pakistan? This welcome would normally have taken place at the presidential palace.
Before leaving for home, the prince and prime minister signed five agreements on infrastructure, investment, tourism, housing, broadcasting and the formation of a “strategic partnership council.”
But the nub of the visit, DEBKA Weekly reports from New Delhi and Riyadh, was the private messages MbS carried from US President Donald Trump to Prime Minister Modi. One contained unwelcome news: The US was cancelling the waivers from US sanctions granted to selected countries for importing Iranian oil, having decided to tighten the sanctions against the regime in Tehran. (See a separate article in this issue on Tehran’s counteractions). Delhi was unpleasantly surprised by the news, although it had slashed its oil imports from Iran by 45 percent since the US imposed this sanction last November.
Modi’s most pressing business with MbS, therefore, was for Saudi Arabia to top up India’s energy shortfall from Iran. Our sources also reveal that in two more messages brought by the prince, the US president tried to sweeten the pill:
1. Washington promised to continue to turn a blind eye to the deep involvement of Indian firms and capital in the construction of Chabahar Port on Iran’s southeastern coast on the Gulf of Oman, to be its only ocean port.
When he visited Islamabad on Sunday, the Saudi prince had assured Pakistan’s leaders that Riyadh would enable them to complete building Gwador Port in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province, which borders Iran’s equally disaffected Sistan and Baluchestan Province. Gwador would compete with India’s Chabahar Port.
Trump had therefore given the Saudi prince the go-ahead for grasping the levers of control over two strategic ports on the Indian subcontinent. 2. Trump invited Modi to take active part in peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, after Zalmay Khalilzad, the US State Department’s Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, was getting nowhere in his effort to bring the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government into accord for ending the war. This is a fine feather in Modi’s cap, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report. Throughout the 18 Afghan war years, Washington took care to distance India from any diplomatic process for fear of putting up backs in Islamabad. In a follow-up to this US reversal, Saudi Arabia and India are looking at a joint exercise for their navies amid the ramping up of overall defense cooperation.