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Friends with Iran or kiss of death?
P R Kumaraswamy
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April 28, 2008

As he touches down in New Delhi on Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be having the last laugh. Not long ago Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] skipped a summit meeting just to avoid being seen with the Iranian leader. What began as a stopover en route from Sri Lanka [Images] has blossomed into a hectic State visit.

This is a compromise between a full-fledged State visit and keeping distance from Iran. Not to be left behind, Pakistan hosts the Iranian leader on his way to Sri Lanka. During the few hours in the capital, the visitor would be meeting top Indian leaders, including President Pratibha Patil [Images], Vice President and former ambassador to Iran M H Ansari, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and perhaps Congress President Sonia Gandhi [Images]. It is still not clear if Leader of Opposition L K Advani would be meeting the visitor separately.

The visit marks an interesting phase in India's foreign policy. This is the first formal meeting between the mercurial Iranian leader and Prime Minister Singh. Ever since he was elected President in July 2005, Ahmadinejad has been trying to consolidate his stature and international acceptance. With Western criticisms and disapprovals getting louder, he needed to be seen in different parts of the world and courted by prominent world leaders. He visited all major non-Western powers such as China, Russia [Images] and of course Venezuela, which has emerged as the torchbearer of growing anti-Americanism in the Third World.

Partly to further Indo-Iranian ties, but primarily to enhance his international profile and acceptance, Ahmadinejad has been keen to meet Indian leaders. Such an opportunity came in June 2006 during the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Council where both India and Iran are 'observers'. Timing, however, was bad. Photo opportunity with Ahmadinejad, the Indian leader feared, would have hardened the critics of the nuclear deal then on Capitol Hill. Hence, Dr Singh skipped that meeting and instead sent Petroleum Minister Murli Deora.

Indeed when Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee went to Teheran in February last year, the Iranian officials ambushed him by suggesting a summit meeting among leaders of India, Iran and Pakistan to sort out their differences over the gas pipeline.
Thus, by hosting the Iranian leader, what does India convey to the outside world? Going by the working of the UPA government, one can infer a few possible explanations.

The visit is most likely to be used by the government to exhibit its 'independent' foreign policy vis-�-vis the US. This would partially assuage the Left and its supporters within the establishment. Spin doctors might stretch it further and hope that by hosting the Iranian leader the government could make the Left 'flexible' on the nuclear deal.

The sudden silence adopted by the US following its initial displeasure over the Indian decision should also be seen within this context. Washington might see the visit as a small price for larger cooperation with India. Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad's visit would not turn things around.

It is more likely that the visit is a signal that the UPA government has given up on the nuclear deal. India courting the Iranian leader is the last thing US President George Bush [Images] needed to pacify the critics of the nuclear deal, especially when the Administration is preparing tougher economic sanctions against the Iranian banking system. With the American presidential elections only weeks away, New Delhi is perhaps least concerned about needling Washington.

Two, as a host of developments such as loan waivers, pay commission report, creamy layer debate etc indicate, India is definitely in election mode. Diplomatic parlays with Islamic countries are politically sensible and advantageous to the Congress party. This visit comes within days after Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee's much delayed trip to Saudi Arabia.

As National Security Advisor M K Narayanan unabashedly admitted, there is a Shia angle to Ahmadinejad's visit. In simple English, do not forget the elections in Karnataka!

Three, as Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi recognised in 1989, anti-Americanism plays well during Lok Sabha elections. A person who was keen to promote closer ties with Washington, he suddenly threw caution to the winds and publicly warned: naani yaad dilayenge. Hence, one should not rule out the possibility of negative reactions from the US after the visit playing a prominent role in electioneering in India.

Four, there are suggestions that outstanding disputes with Iran over the energy supplies could be resolved during the visit. All the three major energy deals with Iran -- namely, pipeline via Pakistan, LNG supplies and energy exploration -- are entangled in price disputes, technological difficulties or other controversies. They cannot be resolved amicably during the short visit but both sides might establish a mechanism for resolution and claim 'breakthrough or win-win deal'.

Whatever the outcome, India would be paying more for the LNG deal than what then Oil Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar signed in January 2005.

Five, Ahmadinejad is the third Iranian President to visit India since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The visits by Hashemi Rafsanjani in April 1995 and Mohammed Khatami in January 2003 happened when Iran abandoned its belligerency towards the outside world and was adopting a more conciliatory policy towards its Arab neighbours.

Ahmadinejad is literally antithetical to both these leaders. Not only he is moving the country back to radicalism, but has adopted stands that unnerve a number of Iran's Arab and non-Arab neighbours. His periodic Holocaust denials have displeased even Khatami who publicly rebuked the Iranian President.

The nuclear bellicosity has put Iran on a confrontationist path not just with the West. The three resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council (two of them unanimously) do not speak well of Iran's international stature. Even friendly countries such as Russia and China are no longer willing to accept the Iranian version on the nuclear issue.

Six, though they could never say it in public due to geo-political compulsions, the Arab countries are equally worried about Iran. Even without the nuclear genie, Iran has not hesitated to be a regional bully and ready to play the Shia card whenever necessary. Many Iranian officials are gleeful about the failure of American policy in Iraq and the resultant Shia crescent that extends from Bahrain to Bekaa valley in Lebanon.

Not long ago Saudi King Abdullah accused Teheran of 'converting' Iraqi Sunnis into Shia faith. Indeed, Ahmadinejad's stopover which comes within days after Mukherjee's Saudi visit would cause anxieties in Riyadh.

The foreign policy establishment has often got things wrong, and its 'reading' of the Nepalese elections is the latest example. Wishful thinking often masquerades as assessment. Iran should not be different. Driven by short term gains, India is rolling out the red carpet to Ahmadinejad.

There is nothing wrong if the Indian government concluded that friendship with Iran is more important than the nuclear deal or closer ties with the US. One can recognise, discover and if necessary even invent Iranian virtues. But if India pretends that it would be business as usual the day after, then it would find Ahmadinejad's visit to be a kiss of death. 

P R Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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