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India-Iran camaraderie raises red flags in Washington

By Aziz Haniffa
May 25, 2016 11:57 IST
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US Senators want Obama administration to clarify what India's 12 agreements with Iran are all about.
Aziz Haniffa/ reports from Washington, DC.

Several Senators on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee have expressed concern and sought clarification from the Barack Obama administration over India's decision to develop Iran's strategic Chabahar port, which was part of the 12 agreements reached between both countries during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's May 22-23 visit to Tehran.

At a hearing US-India Relations: Balancing Progress and Managing Expectations, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal if the signing of the Chabahar and other agreements between India and Iran causes concern in Washington 'knowing that Iran is continuing to sponsor terrorism in that region.'

Senator Cardin acknowledged that 'obviously there seems to be nothing that appears in violation of our agreements, but how do we see India as a partner in fighting extremism and financing of terrorism?'

'With respect to the announcement on the Chabahar port,' Biswal explained, 'we have been very clear with the Indians on what we believe are the continuing restrictions on activities with respect to Iran, and they have been very responsive and receptive to our briefings where we believe the lines are.'

'We have to examine the details of the Chabahar announcement to see where it falls in that place,' she said. 'But with respect to India's relationship with Iran, which I do believe is primarily focused on economic and energy issues, we do recognise that from the Indian perspective that Iran represents for India a gateway into Afghanistan and Central Asia for India to be able to contribute to the economic development of Afghanistan.'

India, Biswal pointed out, 'needs access that it does not readily have across its land boundaries and India is seeking to increase its energy relationships with Central Asian countries and are looking for routes that would facilitate that.'

'That said,' she added, 'we have been very clear with the Indians on what our security concerns have been and will continue to engage them on those issues.'

'Economic issues, we understand,' Cardin said, 'but if it is also being used as a way to increase their capacity to support terrorism -- that is Iran -- we need to know that we have a reliable partner in India in fighting terrorism and I assume the candid discussions are taking place.'

Biswal assured the senator that they were, absolutely.

To another question from Senator David Perdue, Georgia Republican, as to what the agreements were all about between India and Iran, she said, 'We do not have yet the details of the agreements that have been signed, and we will look to engage with our Indian counterparts to better understand the specific details and how they comport with what continuing requirements are in place and what restrictions are in place.'

When Delaware Democrat Senator Chris Coons asked if India and Iran were entering into any kind of security and military cooperation and if this could be an obstacle to a closer US-India security cooperation, Biswal reassured him that 'as of yet we have not seen Indian engagement with Iran on a military-security or CT (counter-terrorism) front that would cause us concern.'

'We watch very closely,' she added, 'we have very candid conversations about what our concerns and red lines are. We also track very closely what their economic engagement is and make sure that they understand what we believe are the legal parameters and requirements that we believe any engagement need to follow.'

'I view Iran as a very dangerous country,' Coons noted, 'and so I am very cautious and concerned as others seek to open... and the US-India relationship is one that has immense potential and we need to work together to find ways to realise that potential.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, May 23, 2016. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
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