India-Iran Ties Jeopardized by US Threats

NEW DELHI – As tension builds up in the Persian Gulf amidst the ongoing deployment of two United States aircraft carrier groups, India remains marginal to efforts for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear activities, despite New Delhi’s long-standing friendly relations with Tehran.

That is the principal message that emerged from Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s just-concluded visit to Iran this week as fears of a possible military attack on Iran’s nuclear installations by the United States and/or Israel, and a new U.S. offensive in Iraq targeting ‘suspected Iranian agents’ who are allegedly aiding insurgents.

Mukherjee spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Iran pushing a three-point agenda: negotiating a long-term agreement for the purchase of Iranian natural gas, discussing the worsening crisis in Afghanistan, and proposing a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue.

"On the first issue, Mukherjee at best had somewhat limited success," says Hamid Ansari, a New Delhi-based West Asia expert and former Indian ambassador to Iran. "On Afghanistan, India and Iran made significant progress by reiterating their resolve to help the government of President Hamid Karzai contain the Taliban’s growing offensive. But on the nuclear issue, they don’t seem to have made any headway at all."

"New Delhi will have to seriously rethink its position on the nuclear question if it is to reinsert itself into the complex equation that defines the various moves that are under way to defuse the Iran crisis and emerge as an important player," said Ansari.

In some ways, the gas deal, in particular, the proposed 2,700 km-long Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, was the easiest issue. Talks between the three nations have long been mired in disagreement on the price of the gas. However, recently, they announced a breakthrough on certain principles of a pricing formula.

At a joint press conference with Mukherjee, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki offered to host a trilateral summit between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at which the final agreement on what he called ‘the peace pipeline’ would be signed.

But Mukherjee was lukewarm to the idea and noted that Pakistan and Iran already agreed on a pricing formula, and that bilateral talks between New Delhi and Islamabad would be necessary to take the process forward. He emphasized the importance of first completing the three-way negotiations on gas pricing and the physical structure of the project before holding a summit.

"The slow, and often halting, negotiation on the gas pipeline points to a certain deficit of trust between India and Iran," says Qamar Agha, of the Center for West and Central Asian Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia university here. "That deficit is clearly attributable to India’s two votes against Iran in September 2005 and February last year at the International Atomic Energy Agency. India voted the way it did largely under American pressure, and because it wanted not to jeopardize its nuclear cooperation deal with the U.S., which is till being finalized."

"This clearly means that the nuclear issue interferes with progress on bilateral matters," adds Agha. "At the core of this is India’s ambivalent and often contradictory stand on Iran’s nuclear program, and its preoccupation with completing the nuclear deal with the U.S."

On Afghanistan, India and Iran see their mutual interests converging, especially on keeping the strongly Sunni (and anti-Shi’ite) Taliban out of power. For Shi’ite-majority Iran, this is a high priority. From the Indian point of view, a Taliban resurgence would undermine India’s traditional relations with Afghanistan, and also greatly strengthen Pakistan’s influence in the country.

The two countries coordinated their Afghanistan policy during the 1990s and backed the Northern Alliance led by Ahmed Shah Massoud. India depends mainly on Iran for aid supplies to and trade with Afghanistan. Pakistan does not allow India overland transit to Afghanistan.

However, on the nuclear issue, a stark divergence remains perceptible between India and Iran. India since 1998 has been a declared nuclear weapons-state. It opposes the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as unequal and discriminatory and has never signed it.

But India advises Iran, an NPT signatory, to abide by its obligations under the treaty. India also says that it does not want another nuclear power in its neighborhood.

"There is a profound hypocrisy here, which is resented by the Iranian public and policymakers," argues Sukla Sen, a Mumbai-based activist of India’s Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. "India is telling Iran to not ‘do as I do’, but ‘do as I say’. This rankles though there is no consensus in Iran the country make or possess nuclear weapons. India’s votes against Iran at the IAEA contradicted own assessment that Iran is not in material breach of the NPT."

A recent poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a U.S.-based international polling organization, says that two-thirds of Iranians want Iran to remain part of the NPT, which would prevent it from making nuclear weapons. Yet, 84 percent of them want Iran to have the capacity to enrich uranium.

India says it opposes harsh sanctions and wants a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis. But India’s IAEA votes enabled Iran to be reported to the United Nations Security Council, which imposed tough sanctions on Iran in December.

During his visit to Teheran, Foreign Minister Mukherjee told Iranian officials, including chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and President Ahmadinejad, that Iran must "clarify all the verification issues that are hanging over your head, by a process of transparency." He also said a peaceful negotiated solution would be "facilitated by enhanced cooperation between Iran and the IAEA," which should play "a central role." He also called for "restraint and flexibility" by all sides.

Mottaki’s response to this was to assert Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear activities, and say that there must be no preconditions for a dialogue to resolve the nuclear issue.

Mottaki hinted that the Iranian nuclear issue has gone well beyond the IAEA’s ambit. In particular, he discounted the IAEA director-general’s recent proposal for a "timeout," under which Iran suspends its enrichment activity while negotiations take place. "It is apparent," says Agha, "that with its present disposition, in particular, its strategic partnership with Washington, India is in no position to act as a mediator with Iran or to influence its nuclear policy and bargaining strategy. India can play that role only if it forms a strong bloc with other countries like Russia, China, Germany and France, and launches a serious initiative to persuade the U.S. to tone down its belligerent and hostile attitude towards Iran."

It is not clear that Indian policymakers, who have invested huge energies into the nuclear deal with the U.S., would be willing to take the risk of incurring Washington’s displeasure by playing such a role.

On the eve of Mukherjee’s visit to Iran, U.S. Ambassador to India David C. Mulford made a threatening gesture and warned New Delhi that any economic transactions with Iran exceeding 40 million dollars can attract American sanctions. The Indian Foreign Office, which usually bristles at such threats to India’s "sovereignty," did not respond to the statement

Unless Indian policymakers move towards a more independent and assertive stand, New Delhi will remain peripheral to the process of resolution of one of the gravest crises in India’s neighborhood.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau’s Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.