West Asian middle power niche diplomacy influencing Indian Ocean Islands


The middle powers in the international system have traditionally favoured multilateralism and have relied on ‘niche diplomacy.’ Conceivably, middle power diplomacy is derived from its structural positioning in regional economic relations. From a practical viewpoint, great middle powers are global players. In the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the small island nations are uneasily seated between superpowers and traditional powers. In the recent years, a dominant feature of the new foreign policy dynamics of smaller States has been interdependence and bandwagoning. Foreign policy is an issue for several small island nations.

The current issues of Indian Ocean island nations are in large a part of the emerging regional order. The foreign policies of small island nations are likely to be defined by the pursuit of their national interests. The Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Réunion have similar stances on a range of foreign policy issues. These small strategically located islands are of significance to major West Asian countries. West Asian middle powers such as Israel, Iran, and Turkey are well set to form the evolving regional order. The overall strategy of these middle power nations is to project their power even further, while ensuring a stable and multipolar balance of power in the Indian Ocean region. The five Indian Ocean islands must chart a new foreign policy course with middle powers such as Iran, Israel, and Turkey.

Israel the new West Asian middle power

The Middle East landscape has been affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than seventy years. In relation to a higher degree of autonomy among powerful States, Israel can be considered as a middle power or even a regional power. Since the end of the Cold War, Israeli foreign policy has revolved around three stances: entrenchment, unilateralism, and engagement. Similar to any other State, Israeli foreign policy is largely derived from interests and ideologies.

A long-standing pillar of US (United States of America) foreign policy has been Israel’s security. The United States and Israel decided to draw closer under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir. A crucial role in shaping Israel’s national security policy and doctrine was played by the late Yitzhak Rabin. Since the early fifties and mid-sixties, Israel has aimed for better relations with Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and Réunion. The peace policy of Rabin led to the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement in Oslo and Washington in August/September 1993. The de facto Israeli–Palestinian peace process began in 1991 at the Madrid Conference.

Shimon Peres succeeded in advancing the process from 1986 to 1988 that steered the design and signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. Adopting a policy of unilateralism, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert withdrew from Palestinian territories without any prior negotiation. As Israel’s Prime Minister for more than a decade, Benjamin Netanyahu had always been driven by an ideology aimed at strengthening Israel. His supporters have portrayed his policy towards Europe as a success. Normalisation with Arab States was a result of former Netanyahu ally, Naftali Bennett. Israel’s foreign policy has been improved by the Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his predecessor Naftali Bennett. Under Lapid, the new alliance, the West Asia Quad: a grouping of India, Israel, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and the United States will be a means to strengthen new regional geopolitical order.

Iranian foreign policy: Ayatollah to Rouhani doctrines

The fundamental principles of Iranian foreign policy are founded on the country’s political geography. An important factor in the making of modem Iran has always been oil. Iran’s foreign policy continues to be influenced by the ideology of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran and the five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion have continued close diplomatic ties. In the last four decades, the first phase of evolution of Iranian foreign policy lasted from 1979 until the Shiite cleric Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989. Iran’s foreign policy often emphasised the eradication of foreign influence under the Khomeini government.

Under a theocratic regime, Iran launched a radical foreign policy that for decades changed the Nation’s relations with its neighbours and the West. Influenced by the strong leadership of Imam Khomeini, Iran’s foreign policy took on an ideological and idealistic dimension. The second phase coincided with the two terms of President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 until 1997. Rafsanjani moved foreign, economic and social policy on to a more pragmatic course. Rafsanjani commanded respect across the region, particularly in several Persian Gulf Arab nations. At one point, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani played a great role in improving Saudi-Iranian ties. At all times, he remained an advocate of Tehran-Riyadh cooperation to resolve regional issues.

The third stage coincided with the reformist era of President Mohammad Khatami between 1997 and 2005. In 1997, with the change in guard in Tehran, Iran’s reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s worldview and concept of foreign policy differed to that of his predecessors. In 1999, Khatami visited Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Qatar. Iran’s improved relations with the Arab States were seen at the eighth summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) held in Tehran in 1997.

Khatami significantly enhanced Iran’s ties with the West and the neighbouring States. The fourth era of Iranian foreign policy coincided with the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad between 2005 and 2013. Ahmadinejad’s presidency had in some manner improved relations between Iran and a number of its Gulf neighbours. The fifth period began with the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.  Rouhani used his first year in office to improve Iran’s image in the international community. Turkey has increasingly good relations with Iran. Iran reached some diplomatic victories under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani.

Turkey the rising West Asian regional power

From the era of Atatürk and Turkey’s foundation, the country’s foreign policy was distinctly Western-oriented. The shift in Turkey’s foreign policy can be comprehended as Neo-Ottomanism, an irredentist and imperialist Turkish political ideology. President Erdogan has designed the shape of Turkish foreign policy which has developed over the past decade. Turkey is emerging as a power that initiates stability and security in its neighbourhood. Amongst Turkey’s most important foreign policy initiatives are its relations with Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion.   

Niche diplomacy: West Asia and Indian Ocean Islands

Diplomatic relations should always be maintained. The five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion have conventionally followed a nonaligned foreign policy. The middle power States, Israel, Iran, and Turkey continue to play an influential role in international relations. These five islands in the Indian Ocean have a clear strategic interest in strengthening ties with middle powers in the Middle East. 

About the author:

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) umbrella. As a Lecturer, he focuses on comparative politics of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Dr. Fernando is an academic specialist in International Relations and an adviser on New Regional Diplomacy. He has received accolades such as the 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of the South Asian Union.’

By Dr. Srimal Fernando