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A test for India's foreign policy

Amit Baruah

India needs to stay the course in building an enhanced energy partnership with Iran and taking an independent position on its civil nuclear energy programme.

INDIAN DIPLOMACY has been quick off the blocks. Within days of a new Government headed by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad taking office in Iran, External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh will be in Teheran for talks with the leadership.

Mr. Singh, who will be in Iran from September 2 to 4, will have talks with his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki, and is scheduled to call on President Ahmedinejad as well. Senior officials said planning for Mr. Singh's visit began soon after it became clear that a new and very different Government was going to take charge in Teheran. The visit comes at an opportune moment to clear the confusion caused by comments made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he spoke of the "uncertainties" in Iran casting a shadow on finances for a possible Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline during a July 21 interview with The Washington Post.

Following the Prime Minister's remarks, questions have been raised about Indian intentions towards the project, especially on account of the open opposition to the pipeline from the United States. Though there has been no reaction from Iran, it is clear Dr. Manmohan Singh's remarks need to be clarified. Teheran also needs to be told whether or not New Delhi is serious about the project.

"We want to stress during the External Affairs Minister's visit that despite our improved relations with the United States, Iran remains very important to us," a top External Affairs Ministry official told this correspondent. Iran was a key energy supplier for India, the official said, adding that a new Government was in place and it was important for New Delhi to make contact with it. Apart from the pipeline project, India has signed an LNG deal with Iran and Indian companies such as the Tatas and Essar are keen on investing in that country.

The official also pointed to the visit to New Delhi by Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, in the context of the nuclear pressures faced by Iran. The new Iranian leadership has left no doubt that it wants to expand the European troika with which it has been negotiating nuclear questions. Though the development of the Chabahar port in Iran and the road linkages to Afghanistan are a major example of India-Iran cooperation, New Delhi is aware that it needs to push ahead with the project and ensure its speedy implementation. This issue is also likely to figure in Mr. Natwar Singh's discussions in Iran.

In a sense, Indian policy towards Iran will be a litmus test of the Manmohan Singh Government's sincerity in pursuing an independent foreign policy. Washington will not be happy if India pursues strategic energy cooperation with it.

Indian officials often tom-tom that Islamabad is susceptible to American pressure while New Delhi is not. That proposition can be called into question given the stand taken by India on the pipeline. The American opposition to the pipeline also drives a bus through Washington's stated objective of promoting cooperation between India and Pakistan. The Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, which is a win-win project for all three countries, has the potential radically to transform the energy scene in South Asia.

On the nuclear issue, there's little doubt that as a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is well within its rights to carry on with a nuclear energy programme. However, it is equally clear that Washington has Iran in its sights and, in the months ahead, the issue of Iranian (remember the tall stories about Iraq) "proliferation" could well make its way to the United Nations Security Council.

Given the fact that Washington has hardly hidden its intentions towards Iran, the Indian position on the nuclear question will also be closely watched. The Iranian side, on its part, has been saying it wants to involve the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in the negotiations with the EU troika. Obviously, India will be important if the Iranian goal is to involve NAM in these delicate negotiations.

A good, first step has been taken by New Delhi in setting up an early visit to Teheran by the External Affairs Minister. It now needs to stay the course in building an enhanced energy partnership with Iran and taking an independent position on Teheran's civil nuclear energy programme.

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