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The importance of bilateral ties with Iran

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: August 28, 2012 14:26 IST
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Sheela Bhatt explains why Dr Manmohan Singh's visit to Iran for the Non-Aligned Summit will be closely watched around the world.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is leaving for Iran on Tuesday to attend Non-Aligned Summit when his own government is under political pressures in New Delhi. He will be walking a tightrope at NAM where most countries, including Islamic countries, are unlikely to allow Iran to have its way.

Many Indian experts thinks the NAM summit is likely to be a 'routine matter' for India, but Iran is doing everything possible to use the NAM platform to register the point that it is not isolated in the region. The ongoing fight between Iran and America will cast its shadow on NAM too, as the Syrian issue has entered a critical stage.

Founded in 1961, NAM is a 120-nation body and more than 50 powerful heads of states are attending the summit in Iran. On Sunday, Iran's national security commission's chief Alaeddin Boroujerdi met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to a Xinhua report, apparently they 'touched upon the Iranian new initiative on Syria, which will be discussed at the upcoming NAM summit'.

America and rest of the Western world will watch how Iran is using the NAM platform to push the case of Syria. Under no circumstances would the Western world like to allow Iran to have its way at NAM in passing a resolution on Syria.

G Parthasarathy, diplomat and analyst, says, "Remember, Syria has been sacked from the Organisation of Islamic Conference. India should be careful in formulating its response at NAM. There is no question of allowing Iran have its way on Syria."

Parthasarathy says, "Due to internal fight among Islamic nations, Iran will be reined in." 

India's role will be watched closely, too. The country has so far taken a clear stand of "no outside intervention" policy in any country's affairs unless it's unambiguously under the United Nations umbrella.

Dr Singh has attended the NAM summit in Havana, Cuba, in 2006 and Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, in 2009. In his third NAM summit, critics will watch him closely as he conducts bilateral summits, particularly with Iran and Pakistan.

For Dr Singh, on home ground, the economy is one of his top priorities and getting the sums right for the import of oil and gas is vital for the country. Iran had become second largest oil supplier to India. But, after firm a US stand to enforce sanctions against Iran, India and China had been using diverse ways to trade with Iran. Lately India has reduced its fuel imports from Iran by almost 30 percent due to the issues related to payment. Many believe that it is a decision taken under pressure from Western nations.

Parthasarathy says, "China and Iran's balance of payment is not one-sided. It's evenly balanced. While Iran enjoys a better position while doing trade with India, India has a difficult issue of trade imbalance."

Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told the media that "trade relations have in fact been improving over the last few years (with Iran). The balance of trade is still decisively in favour of Iran because the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project has been put in cold storage (meaning, sent to the Joint Working Group between India and Iran)." 

It is important to note that the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, also known as the peace pipeline, is expected to reach Pakistan's border point by March 2013.

In view of the lack of progress on the ambitious pipeline, Iran has put on the table the idea of expansion of the Chabahar port project. India will have to pick up the offer of such strategic significance.

"It is important to have dynamic relations with Iran because it's a strategically important country. So long as our relations with Pakistan are as they are, we must have deeper engagement with Afghanistan and Iran," says Vikram Sood, former chief of R&AW.

He said, "We have to make the US understand that India is taking care of its national interest when it is expanding relations with Iran."

The current trade imbalance can be improved slightly if India invests in the Chabahar port development project. Iran views the upcoming bilateral meeting with the scepticism it deserves. However, it doesn't mean Iran considers Dr Singh's visit any less important. India has completed the 200-km long Delaram-Zaranj highway, also known as Route 606, at an expense of Rs 600 crore. Delaram, a border city of Afghanistan, connects Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province in Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan shows genuine interest in using the Chabahar port, then India can pick up the offer of strategic investment in the Chabahar expansion project that would help it enter the central Asian countries. Already, a tri-partite meeting has taken place in Iran on Sunday.

The Chabahar port development project will cost more than $150 million. Currently, Chabahar can handle cargo of two million tonnes and if India invests there it can expand to eight million tonnes. However, right now the port is underutilised, and that is worrying India. Afghanistan's participation is necessary to make it commercially viable.

Ashok Leyland Project Services, RITES and IRCON have joined hands and signed an MoU with the Iranian Islamic Republic Railway and another agreement with the Ports and Shipping Organisation of Iran for the project.

Mathai told the media before leaving for Teheran, "The proposal is specifically for a discussion on Chabahar. The idea is to take forward a kind of general discussion as to what we need to do about Chabahar, what is our common interest in the development of the infrastructure, the port, developing the use of Chabahar and the related infrastructure as an alternative route into Afghanistan which we certainly regard as being of very great significance."

He added, "All these (Iranian offers) raise a number of very interesting possibilities in terms of the reconstruction and industrial developments in Afghanistan in which we have a very large stake. Afghanistan certainly also finds it of interest, being an alternative route into their country from which they can get vital supplies."

Fortunately, suspicions of an Iranian role in the unsuccessful terrorist attack on the wife of an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi in February have not affected bilateral relations, but concerns over Iranian acts of terrorism against Israeli targets in different countries remain a matter of international preoccupation.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
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