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Iran, US: India's Catch 22

By rediff International Affairs Bureau
September 19, 2005 21:53 IST
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India's relations with Iran -- accused by Washington of attempting to build nuclear weapons -- is possibly the first major hiccup in the New Delhi-Washington honeymoon.

'We are telling our Indian friends that they can't have it both ways,' a senior US administration official was quoted as saying by the International Herald Tribune.

He was obviously referring to India's recent nuclear pact with the US, which would give India access to nuclear material and technology earlier prohibited under US law, and Delhi's close relationship with Tehran.

Last month, soon after the June elections saw Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad elected president, Iran rejected economic and other incentives offered by France, Germany and the UK and restarted uranium conversion, sparking further fears about its nuclear weapons programme.

India commits support to Iran's N-programme   

Yet when push comes to shove at the weeklong meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency which begins September 19, India, (along with Russia and China, permanent members of the UN Security Council) is unlikely to endorse the call led by the US and Europe (France Germany and Britain) to refer Iran to the Security Council for violating the provisions of the NPT.    

Why is the US worried?

Washington is certain that Iran -- labeled as one of the three axis of evil nations by President George W Bush way back in January 2002 -- has been secretly developing nuclear weapons, which could radically destabilize the already tense region.

Iran admits fudging N-claims

Bush has recently assured India -- subject to Congressional approval -- of nuclear co-operation in the civilian sector provided New Delhi agreed to international inspections and separated its civilian and military nuclear facilities.

India's rapidly growing relations with Iran, whose chief nuclear negotiator visited Delhi days before the Prime Minister left for the UN summit (PM at UN: complete coverage)  in New York, has obviously raised eyebrows in Washington.

Earlier this month, External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh visited Tehran and is reported to have pledged support for Iran's 'peaceful nuclear energy program.'

This led to questions being raised in the US about the possibility of American nuclear technology proposed to be shared with India finding its way to Tehran.

Despite Washington's reservations on the subject, Natwar Singh also declared that the 'concerned ministers' of India, Pakistan and Iran were close to an agreement on the Iran India gas pipeline over Pakistan, and could 'finalize a framework agreement by December 31.'

Bush expresses concern

The Bush administration has not-so-subtly warned India that unless it supported a US-sponsored demand to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for breaching its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Pact, the India US nuclear agreement would become that much harder to push through Congress.

What are the ties that bind Iran with India?

It was Afghanistan which brought India and Iran together in the early 1990s.

Prior to that, the two nations had viewed each other with suspicion and mistrust left over from the Cold War, in which Tehran sided with Washington and Islamabad against New Delhi's ally Moscow.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 brought about a radical revision in Iran's ties with the US and Pakistan. But that did not really lead to a rapprochement with India, either, until the Sunni Taliban overran Afghanistan, which borders Shia Iran.

Both India and Iran found themselves supporting Ahmed Shah Masood's Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

Iran's hand in the Afghan mess   

The relationship blossomed, and in January 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was invited as the chief guest for India's Republic Day celebrations, during which he signed not huge energy deals, but also put in place a strategic partnership which involved joint military exercises and the training of Iran's military forces.

Reports that the two nations had signed a pact giving India access to Iranian airfields in the event of a war with Pakistan rattled Islamabad and the West.

Since then, the relationship has grown in leaps in bounds, with Indian oil majors setting up shop in Iran. Iran is also seen as a gateway to the resource rich Central Asian republics, which energy-starved India is keen to gain access to.

Rashtrapati Bhavan cooks up a surprise for Khatami   

And finally, as the peace process with Pakistan unfolded, India agreed to a proposal for a gas pipeline from Iran to India over Pakistani soil.

Soon afterwards, Washington, which had earlier stayed non-committal on the deal while privately encouraging it as a tool for peace, voiced objections to Iran being the source of the pipeline.

Privately, Washington also expressed fears that the nuclear technology it proposes to give India could find its way to Iran.

At the recent UN summit in New York, Iran insisted that its nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes, and dared the US to refer it to the UN Security Council, (which could impose sanctions). Tehran also warned that if the situation so warranted, it could not only start processing weapons grade material but sell its nuclear technology to other states.

What are Iran's interests in India?

One, India is the largest market for the natural gas in its southern oilfields.

Two, by cosying up with India, it hopes to negate some of its international isolation.

Three, Iran hopes to benefit from India's expertise in information technology, science and medicine.

Four, Iran hopes a strategic agreement with India will help modernize its defence forces.

Uttam's Take: The Iran Web   

What are the main areas of cooperation between India and Iran?

According to India's Ministry of External Affairs web site updated in July 2005, India-Iran commercial relations are dominated by Indian import of Iranian crude oil (US$ 1.67 billion (41%) in 2003-2004). The total volume of annual bilateral trade was US$2.8 billion in 2003-2004 registering 24% growth over the previous year.

Iran: Tough nut for US to crack   

Other interesting remarks on the MEA web site:

Air links with India/convenient travel routes: There are no Indian national carriers flying to Iran. Mahan Air, a private airline in Iran, operates three flights per week to Delhi and Iran Air flies twice weekly to Mumbai.

Indian Banks: No Indian banks are currently operating. A representative of State Bank of India is stationed at Tehran.

Links to local organizations dealing with India: There is no such organization in Iran.

Estimated NRI/PIO population: About 500 families, mainly located at Tehran.

Important NRI/PIO Associations and their contact details : No such organization exists.

Major Indian ethnic papers/television channels with contact details: There are no Indian ethnic papers or television  channels in Iran.

What is India's position on Iran at the moment?

After a meeting with US President George W Bush in New York, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clarified that India was against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, but that diplomacy, not force, was likely to yield results on this issue.

''We are not holding any brief for Iran. Another nuclear state in our neighbourhood is not desirable. But diplomacy must be given scope. The IAEA should be given a chance to work out a consensus,'' Prime Minister Singh told a press conference before winding up his visit.

Iran downplays PM's comments   

India also urged Iran to honor its commitment to the NPT, of which it is a signatory -- unlike India, which is not an treaty signatory and hence did not violate any treaty obligations when it conducted nuclear tests in May 1974 and May 1998.

However, 'You have to allow a certain learning process to take place in Tehran rather than banging them on the head,' the Herald Tribune quoted an un-named Indian official as saying.

Iran threatens to use oil as weapon   

In Delhi, analysts believe that India, which now has robust ties with Iran and its opponents Israel and the US, can use its influence and become a major power broker in the region.

Defending Delhi's ties with Iran, a senior Indian official noted that the US has an relationship with Pakistan which is independent of its ties with India, and hence there was no reason why India could not maintain independent relations with both the US and Iran.

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