New warmth in Indo-Iran ties

New Delhi Jan. 28. For a balanced appraisal of India's relations with Iran, it is necessary to be clear about what was not discussed during its President, Mohammed Khatami's visit to India as also the subjects that figured in his talks with the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and in his public utterances. It is equally important to take into account the fact and the outcome of his recent trip to Pakistan, seen there as a turning point in bilateral relations.

The discussions of the two leaders here focussed on strategic and economic ties, the gist of which was aptly summed up in the New Delhi Declaration. As against that, India-Pakistan relations figured briefly, while issues related to the status of Muslims in India were not touched upon. In the past, the Iranian side did not hide its interest on these two points — on the second subject as a logical corollary of the Islamic revolution in their country. This used to irk Indians who would point out that God belonged to entire mankind (Rab-ul-Aalmein as mentioned in their scriptures) and not only to Muslims (not Rab-ul-Musalmein). In sharp contrast to the past cases, Mr. Khatami's public comments on the role of Muslims here were integrative, not divisive in character.

Another pet subject in Teheran — the Iran-India gas pipeline — did figure in pro-forma comments but, during substantive discussion, the Iranian side became aware of New Delhi's lack of interest in the project, because of the security problems at the transit stage in Pakistan. Interestingly, the daily, Teheran Times, prominently featured the New Delhi Declaration as also the report of the ceremony where the honorary degree of doctorate was conferred on Mr. Khatami (and where he referred to the relevance of Gandhi in the contemporary situation).

The Khatami visit was notable both for its symbolism and substance. The BJP-led coalition could derive satisfaction that it was able to get the most prominent head of state from the Muslim world as the Republic Day guest — that too not very long after it had been denounced by the world community for the riots in Gujarat. At the Republic Day parade, the sight of Mr. Khatami joining the applause during the presentation of posthumous awards to those who lost their lives in the fight against terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir did not go unnoticed.

As for the substantive matters, the New Declaration put forth "the vision of strategic partnership between India and Iran for a more stable, secure and strategic partnership for a more stable, secure and prosperous region". New Delhi had reason to be happy over the agreement that "combat against international terrorism should not be based upon double standards" and that "States that aid, abet and directly support international terrorism should be condemned".

The plans for economic and defence cooperation were intended to be multi-dimensional. The growing strategic convergence, it was felt, needed to be underpinned with strong economic relationship. The energy sector, with the complementary interests of the two countries, would provide scope for promoting project participation in Iran in upstream and downstream industries. India will help in constructing road and rail links, meant to open up Central Asia, on the one hand, and Afghanistan, on the other, by providing access to the sea. They will, thus, be able to by-pass Pakistan, which had been obstructive for political reasons.

India is to help in the development of Iran's Chah Bazar port and in the construction of the rail line linking it with the Iranian network in the interior so as to complete its connection with Central Asia and Europe. The defence ties, too, are to be strengthened — with New Delhi taking care that it does not cause problems in its relationship with the U.S.

New Delhi will do well to take note of the developments in the Iran-Pakistan relationship. Iran's ties with Pakistan were strained on at least two counts during the cold war period. The sectarian conflict in Pakistan, with the Shias at the receiving end from the dominant Sunnis, caused deep resentment in Iran. This concern was compounded by the killings of Iranian diplomats and engineers in Pakistan. Teheran was perturbed by Islamabad's role in creating the Taliban and in helping it to take control of the Government in Afghanistan. Iran did not take kindly to Pakistan's bid to seek a strategic depth in Afghanistan which, apart from other factors, was seen as adding to Islamabad's Shia-bashing clout.

Iran, backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and, thus, found itself in the company of India — which had equally strong reasons to be worried over the emergence of the Taliban, not far from its frontiers — and with Russia. This triangular convergence, a major politics-strategic factor in the region, was based on their shared interests. Those who had interpreted it as a negative concept — born out of Teheran's reaction to the U.S. bid to contain Iran had to revise their opinion.

After the decimation of the Taliban, conscious efforts by both Iran and Pakistan to mend fences made some headway — of which Mr. Khatami's Islamabad visit was a concrete manifestation. A changed scenario now.

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