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The Rediff Special /J N Dixit

India needs Iran's friendship in its efforts to normalise relations with Pakistan

India and Iran appear to be moving closer towards a closer relationship. Former foreign secretary J N Dixit continues his series of exclusive commentaries on Indian diplomacy and strategic interests, with this analysis of what such an equation means for India.

[ I K Gujral ] External Affairs Minister I K Gujral visited Teheran, between February 21 and 24. Relations with Iran are of particular geo-strategic and political importance to India, given India's interests in West and Central Asia and the potential content of Indo-Iranian economic co-operation.

The main purpose of the visit was to co-chair the ninth session of the Indo-Iranian joint commission and to guide the discussions of the sub-committees of the joint commissions pertaining to trade, industry, petroleum, and natural gas, consular, cultural, educational, science and technology, transport and communications and agricultural matters.

The visit, however, had dimensions and objectives other than only those related to bilateral relations. Indo-Iranian equations are a significant evolving factor affecting regional politics in South and West Asia. The political causations resulting in enhanced positive interaction between Iran and India are worth recalling. Leaving aside the truism of Indo-Iranian cultural, religious and political relations going back to two millennia, international developments since 1991 have generated new trends in Indo-Iranian co-operation.

[ Khomeini ] The emergence into independence of the Central Asian Republics, Iran's complex relations with the ruling power structures in the Gulf, the attempt of the United States to isolate Iran and the dilution of the assertive religious fervour of Iran after the revered Imam Khomeini's demise have created new politico-strategic circumstances leading to a convergence of interest between India and Iran, which, in turn, has resulted in more frequent and closer interaction between the two countries.

Iran needs friends as well as co-operation with other countries to break out of its isolation. India need influential friends in the Islamic world to temper Pakistani hostilities and to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the context of Pakistani claims on Kashmir. Both Iran and India are interested in nurturing closer economic, political and technological relations in the Asian republics stretching from Azerbaijan in the West to Kazakhstan in the east.

Given India's geographical handicap of having a hostile Pakistan and de-stabilished violence-afflicted Afghanistan, Iran provides the only practical potential transit link for India to Central Asia. The logic of mutual complementary of interests, therefore, provides a firm basis for Indo-Iranian co-operation. More recent predicaments in which Iran and India find themselves, necessitate closer Indo-Iranian co-operation.

US policies of isolating and condemning Iran politically, economically and technologically continue despite sections of the US establishment and business community pointing out that ostracising Iran is not good for Asian stability or even US economic interests in the region. The support given by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States to the Pathan-dominated Taliban militia in Afghanistan has created strategic and political uncertainly for Iran on its south-eastern frontiers.

The Taliban offensive in Afghanistan has generated legitimate apprehensions in Iran. An US-Pakistan dominated Afghan regime can also affect Iranian interests in Central Asia. The rise of Shia-Sunni antagonisms and violence have created tensions in Iran-Pak relations. India needs Iran's friendship in its efforts to normalise relations with Pakistan. Though both Iran and India will ultimately deal with whichever government comes into power in Afghanistan, they share similar concerns about the current developments in Afghanistan.

[ Rafsanjani ] These are the impulses which created a pattern of high-level contacts between Iran and India since 1991. Former prime minister Rao and President Rafsanjani have exchanged visits and Foreign Minister Velayati has been a regular visitor to New Delhi. This was the only country which he visited after going to Central Asia in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban's capture of Kabul in September 1996.

It was Iran's recognition of India's interest in Afghanistan and Central Asia, it was Iran's political firmness which resulted in Indian participation in the conference on Afghanistan in Teheran and the working group meeting at the UN year despite Pakistan's insistent opposition to India joining these discussions. It was Iran's attitude which neutralised Pakistan's attempts to isolate India away from Central Asia and Afghanistan.

India has been opposed to the isolation being imposed on Iran by the United Nations. India also believes that strengthening Iran's economic wellbeing and socio-political stability is essential for peace and equilibrium in the Asian region. Iran's response to India's desire of expanding relations with the Central Asian Republics has been positive. The first memorandum providing for transit facilities for Indian exports to Central Asia through Iranian territory was finalised during Narasimha Rao's visit to Teheran in September 1993.

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J N Dixit, continued

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