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Pranab's Iran visit a signal to the US
T P Sreenivasan
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February 12, 2007

If the clash of civilizations were to be inevitable, the present Iran-India-United States imbroglio would have the perfect recipe for it.

But, as the latest visit of Pranab Mukherjee to Teheran has shown, Indian civilization has the ability to add the healing touch, if not to prevent the clash altogether.

Interestingly, it was the Iranians themselves who initiated a dialogue of civilizations, but it lacked conviction, considering that their agenda included annihilation of a certain State.

No dialogue of civilizations should have hidden agendas.

The urgency of the first visit of the new Indian foreign minister to Iran, his first visit outside South Asia, may well have been the need for the implementation of the Liquefied Natural Gas deal. After all, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations had told Ambassador Sheel Kant Sharma in Vienna -- soon after the Indian vote for the European Union resolution -- that the deal was off.

No wonder, then, that Iran had dragged its feet on the deal and also sought to raise the price. India's request to increase supply from the proposed five million tonnes over 25 years by another 2.5 million tonnes also did not find a ready response.

The flagging Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline also needed rejuvenation after the mixed signals on the Indian side, including Mani Shankar Aiyar's exit from the petroleum and natural gas ministry.

Mukherjee, it appears, had some success in moving India-Iran relations forward even though Big Brother was watching the whole exercise with more than casual interest, as the US ambassador made it clear with his characteristic and not too diplomatic candour.

On the Iranian nuclear issue, Mukherjee said what India had been saying since the issue first came to the International Atomic Energy Agency Governing Board. First, Iran, like any other country, has the inalienable right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, though we do not know what the urgency is for an oil rich nation to make such huge investments in developing nuclear energy.

Second, Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although, as a non-NPT country, India does not wish to pronounce on the rights and obligations of the NPT parties, elementary international law dictates nations must abide by their obligations under the treaties they have voluntarily signed.

India has also traditionally stated that Iran has to take note of the fact that its recent nuclear activities have caused international concern. The reference here is to the Iranian facilities being kept secret from the IAEA till Iranian dissidents brought the issue to light and to the incomplete and occasionally contradictory information that Iran has supplied to the IAEA.

Such international concern can be removed only if the IAEA is fully satisfied that Iran's nuclear programme is entirely peaceful.

At the same time, India has voiced its conviction that the entire issue should be resolved peacefully and not by coercion or by threat or use of force.

The central role of the IAEA is another point India has stressed.

The balance in our position was well recognized by both sides. The US was initially apprehensive that we would keep out of any resolution on Iran on the plea that we were not party to the NPT, a plea we had taken when we abstained on the North Korea nuclear question.

India saw the Iranian nuclear issue closer to the bone and added a nuance to its position.

That Mukherjee spelt out all the strands of our traditional policy even at this time shows that India has few options.

Whether the reiteration of our traditional position has helped him to get the energy flow from Iran or to secure nuclear fuel from the Americans is irrelevant. Iran may well have been disappointed that India has its concerns about a new nuclear weapon State in its neighbourhood.

The US, on the other hand, may find the visit and the outcome contrary to the spirit of the Hyde Act at the very time that the 123 Agreement is on the anvil.

But, on mature reflection, both should see merit in the Indian policy.

Isolation of Iran at this crucial juncture will only add to tension.

India-Iran relations, 'rooted in time and reflected in history', should give Iran some comfort. On the question of nuclear weapons, the Indian position is not very different from that of the US, except that the route to be adopted should be peaceful.

The mention of the Iran-Libya Act of the US Congress rather than the Hyde Act as a warning to India was a clever ploy, but the message was not subtle.

Under the Act, which had not been used before, the US would penalize any country that invests more than $40 million in the energy sector in Iran and Libya.

Strangely, the US chose to resort to quoting a defunct Act, which the US itself should be in violation in Libya.

After Libya surrendered its nuclear assets two years ago, the US considers Libya a role model for Iran to emulate. Had the US kept silent till the visit was over, it would have been more statesmanlike. India could not have been unaware that the US would 'watch the visit with interest.'

Bilateral rather than international concerns were behind the Mukherjee visit. Apart from the gas and the pipeline, he also had to grapple with the problems of the relatively small Indian community in Iran, which has its share of problems with work permits and resident visas.

But the visit also sent a clear message to the Americans that despite the Hyde Act, India would deal with Iran on the basis of its own light.

That should be a good guide for the 123 Agreement negotiators.

T P Sreenivasan, who recently retired from the Indian Foreign Service, was India's former ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and former governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, click here.

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