Atul Aneja

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit offers an opportunity for the two countries to look ahead on various issues of common interest, besides the crucial IPI pipeline.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to India today, however brief, presents the two countries with a golden opportunity to clear the air and impart a positive momentum to their vital relationship.

Despite the damage caused to the bilateral ties after India voted twice against Iran’s nuclear programme in the International Atomic Energy Agency, New Delhi and Tehran have shown commendable maturity, keeping their lines of communication active. They have not allowed their differences over the nuclear issue to obstruct dialogue at other levels. Tehran has continued to push for the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline deal. Despite occasional statements by some of its officials which could be interpreted as an ultimatum to New Delhi to sign the deal, seasoned practitioners within the Iranian establishment, led by the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have continued to underscore India’s importance in the project.

Both countries have shared geopolitical interests in Afghanistan, and the recent difficulties in their relationship have not clouded this realisation. Apart from sharing common historical bonds and people-to-people contacts with Afghanistan, India sees it as the gateway to Central Asia. Afghanistan borders Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which are intertwined with a larger Soviet-era road and rail system. This network encompasses Russia and extends into parts of Europe. Besides transit along what was once part of the ancient Silk Route, India has a major stake in ensuring that its security is not undermined by extremists concentrated along the Afghanistan-Pakistan borders.

Iran too has deep historical, cultural, linguistic and commercial ties with Afghanistan. It is not only worried at the prospect of re-emergence of a hardline Sunni extremist regime across its borders but has also to contend with the hostile presence of American troops there. Iran exercises considerable influence over the Tajik, Hazara and Shia communities of Afghanistan.

Keen on safeguarding their vital interests in Afghanistan, India and Iran continue to work together in building a transit corridor that will connect Afghanistan to Iranian waters. India is building the road link between Zaranj and Delaram. This corridor will connect Afghanistan’s garland road system to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Goods from Afghanistan will cross into Iran across the Malek bridge, before heading for Chabahar using a road and a rail network. With the emergence of Chabahar as a future option, Afghanistan will no longer have to depend solely on the Pakistani ports for its trade. As custodians of a vital transit route, both India and Iran will be empowered to defend their interests in Afghanistan.

Expanding on their intent to develop transit routes in the area, the Indian and Iranian railways agreed about two weeks ago to construct a link between Chabahar and Fahrej in Central Iran.

The worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan and the difficulties NATO forces face there have been noted with concern not only in New Delhi and Iran but also farther away in Moscow. Two recent developments in this context are significant. First, NATO is seeking Russia’s help to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan. This promises to radically change the complexion of the military coalition in Kabul. Given NATO’s desperation and the tying-up of American troops in Iraq, Russia is bound to drive a hard bargain before it agrees to help in Afghanistan.

So far, Russia appears inclined to back a proposal by Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, made at the recent NATO summit at Bucharest. Mr. Karimov proposed that a “six-plus-three” format address the situation — that is, apart from NATO, China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and the United States play a lead role in Afghanistan.

Americans and their European partners may have little choice but to accept Russia’s involvement on its terms. A realignment of forces in Afghanistan is likely to undermine the U.S. influence in the new military pecking order that is likely to surface there. The Russians, Europeans and the regional countries are expected to emerge as heavyweights. With the Bush presidency in the last leg and international calls for engaging Iran growing, the stage may be set for the emergence of a genuine, broad-based coalition to address the turbulence across Afghanistan. Given Iran’s leverage with a large population in Afghanistan, it will be difficult to exclude it from the arrangement if durable success in the country is to be achieved. With the situation evolving rapidly, India, on its part, may soon have to make a choice on a possible military role in Afghanistan.

Secondly, India and Iran are consulting each other on the complex Afghan situation. A report in the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) said India’s ambassador to Afghanistan Jayant Prasad and his Iranian counterpart Fada-Hossein Maaleki have met to discuss the issue. The report adds that both countries have emphasised the importance of “regional cooperation” in resolving the Afghan crisis.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit is expected to involve discussions on the IPI pipeline. “Of all the issues involved, the IPI pipeline is the most crucial for taking the India-Iran relationship to a new level,” said a diplomat, who did not wish to be named. Talks during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit will also cover the 2005 annual contract for supply of five million tonnes of gas, which India and Iran have signed but have not implemented. Iran is expected to raise the situation arising from U.S.’ efforts to manoeuvre the international banking channels to stifle its overseas trade. India’s trade with Iran has been hit as the State Bank of India decided not to provide basic financial services to serve exports and imports.

As India gets ready to engage Iran at the highest level, it is acutely conscious of Tehran’s links with its large Shia population. National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan said as much in his reply to a question at a major international conference in New Delhi. “Iran is a big country … it is a major country with tremendous influence, and you need to deal with it diplomatically. The negotiations should be done at the level of erudition and understanding of an evolved mind. Otherwise, the world will have to pay a heavy price. Since we have a very large Shia population, we are concerned that the mistakes others commit will impact on us.”

Clear message

Within days of Mr. Narayanan’s observations, the External Affairs Ministry rebuked the U.S. for its advice on how New Delhi should conduct itself with the visiting Iranian President. Using unambiguous language, its spokesman said: “India and Iran are ancient civilisations whose relations span centuries. Both nations are perfectly capable of managing all aspects of their relationship with the appropriate degree of care and attention.” He added: “Neither country needs any guidance on the future conduct of bilateral relations as both countries believe that engagement and dialogue alone lead to peace.”

While there is a clear realisation in India that a top level re-engagement with Iran will go down well with the Indian people, an appreciation of Iran’s role as a regional power in West Asia might still be found wanting.

Iran’s footprint now extends over neighbouring Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestinian territories. It exercises enormous influence over Iraq, especially in the oil-rich areas of the south and the northern Kurdish enclaves. Its clout and prestige rose impressively in Lebanon after the Iran-backed Hizbollah blunted Israel’s summer offensive in southern Lebanon in 2006. Iran also has a close relationship with the Palestinian Hamas and is a major player in Gaza. Besides, its Shia network extends to Bahrain, oil-rich Kuwait and parts of Saudi Arabia. It would therefore be advantageous for India to explore bonding with Iran beyond the bilateral level in order to open tracks in parts of West Asia where it wishes to promote its security, and cultural and energy interests.

Known for their deep sense of history, Iranians are likely to view Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit as yet another episode in Indo-Iran relations which go back thousands of years. While trade links between Afghanistan and coastal Iran can be traced to the Indus Valley period, the relationship bloomed in the 16th century, coinciding with the rise of the Safavid dynasty in Iran and the Mughal empire in India. Befittingly, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit coincides with a cultural festival in India, marked by events that have taken centuries to evolve. It remains to be seen whether India and Iran take the tough decisions during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit that will help to challenge a fraying, but nevertheless stifling, unipolar international system.