New Delhi: In a visit
laden with immense symbolic significance, Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh heads to Iran Aug 28 to attend the Non-Aligned Movement
(NAM) summit, a trip that is expected to not only reinforce
India's enduring commitment to the movement but also underline New
Delhi's strategic intent to deepen ties with sanctions-hit Tehran.
This will be the first visit by an Indian prime minister to Iran
in over a decade since Atal Bihari Vajpayee's trip in 2001.
The visit is primarily for the 120-member NAM summit Aug 30-31,
but the prime minister is also poised to hold a slew of
high-profile bilateral meetings on the sidelines. There is a
strong possibility of Manmohan Singh meeting Pakistan President
Asif Ali Zardari, but this crucial meeting would only be finalized
a few days before the summit, reliable sources said.
The highlight of the visit will be Manmohan Singh's bilateral
talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a pariah for the
Western powers which accuse him of developing a clandestine
nuclear weapons programme.
The two sides are currently in the process of firming the agenda,
but reliable sources indicated that the two leaders are expected
to discuss a wide array of bilateral and regional issues.
On the bilateral track, the modus operandi of payments for Iranian
oil imports amid tightening Western sanctions are sure to figure
in the discussions. Despite Western pressure, India has continued
importing Iranian oil and has cited its importance for India's
energy security, but has cut down its imports from 12 percent to
around 10-11 percent.
A few months ago, India sealed an agreement for paying 45 percent
of its oil imports from Iran in rupees. However, after the US and
the EU sanctions came into effect over a month ago, shipments have
become difficult with not many insurance companies willing to
provide transportation cover.
India is also expected to ask Iran to buy more wheat and other
commodities to bridge a massive trade deficit, which currently
favours Tehran, sources said.
According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of
India (Assocham), bilateral trade between India and Iran can touch
$30 billion by 2015 from the current $13.7 billion.
Another tricky issue that is set to figure in the talks is about
the accusation of Iran's complicity in an attack on an Israeli
diplomat in New Delhi in February. Iran has denied any link but
has agreed to a visit by a Delhi Police team to pursue leads in
On the strategic plane, the two sides will explore possibilities
of working closely on Afghanistan in view of the withdrawal of
international combat troops by 2014. India partnered with Iran and
Russia to back the Northern Alliance in 2001 that toppled the
Taliban regime. Clearly, an ascendant Taliban is a common enemy of
both New Delhi and Tehran.
"Given the importance of Afghanistan for India, Iran is a crucial
strategic partner as it provides us access through Chabahar into
Afghanistan," P.S. Haer, a former ambassador of India to Iran,
told IANS. Ishrat Aziz, a former diplomat who had key postings in
the West Asian region, agreed: "Iran is a gateway to Central Asia
and is necessary for maintaining our relations with Afghanistan."
Defying Western sanctions, India recently used Chabahar port in
southeastern Iran for the first time to transport 100,000 tonnes
of wheat to Afghanistan. India will also be pushing to fast-track
a 900-km long rail line from the Zabul iron ore mines in southern
Afghanistan to the Iranian port.
Above all, the visit will assuage doubts about India's commitment
to nurturing and developing relations with Iran , said Aziz.
Another important issue, and one which the West will be tracking
closely, is the kind of discussions the two leaders have on the
increasingly complex and intractable Syria issue. Given the
urgency of the Syrian crisis, it is sure to figure in the
discussions, said Haer. With the bloody stalemate persisting in
Syria, India Aug 9 sent a mid-level diplomat to a hurriedly
convened conference by Tehran, the principal backer of Damascus,
to press for what it called an indigenous solution to the Syrian
India has consistently opposed regime change and backed an
inclusive Syrian-led political transition.
(Manish Chand can be contacted at email@example.com)