New Delhi undeterred by Hillary Clinton's counsel to pare down interaction with Tehran

Undeterred by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's counsel to pare down interaction with Iran, South Block is going ahead with a meeting here next week in which Tehran will have a major role to play.

The three-day expert level meeting on the North-South Corridor — which began as an Iran-India-Russia initiative but now has over 15 countries interested in the project — is aiming to be different from the usual conferences that dot the diplomatic calendar.

India expects it to submit recommendations after representatives from about a dozen countries have not only interacted among themselves but also the actual users such as shippers, transporters and exporters. These recommendations will then be submitted to the Coordination Council meeting scheduled in Azerbaijan.

Finding the gaps

The aim of the meeting, a follow-up to an earlier interaction also hosted by India in January, is to identify concretely the missing links — roads, rails and the funding required. It will also address “softer issues” such as customs and immigration procedures and whether truck drivers get visa etc. “The idea is to get into details and find out about the gaps,” added official sources.

The “key question” is what Iran will bring to the table at next week's meeting, said government sources. “It is because of Iran's problems that the project, which took off in 2002, is still languishing. All this is predicated on the port of call being Bandar Abbas [which will lead to Russia and other countries via the Caspian Sea],” they added.

Paperwork gains tempo

India, say the officials, has taken the lead in accelerating the paperwork on the corridor so that it can fructify at a time when New Delhi will be looking for routes to evacuate hydrocarbons and mineral concessions it plans to gain in Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as benefit from the Russia-Kazakhstan-Byelorussia customs union which will by then have expanded to include other Eurasian countries.

Explaining the work that remains for seamless connectivity from Bandar Abbas to the north and the north-west, officials have said there are missing railways links of about 200 km, many of which are on the Iranian side. Then a hard look will have to be taken at the customs procedures so that there are no hitches while goods pass through several countries. In the absence of an entry point from the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, Indian commerce relies on entry into Russia through St. Petersburg and Kotka, the European port of Rotterdam and Ukrainian ports of Illychevsk and Odessa.

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