New Delhi, Aug 12: 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 the investigation.
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 crisis.
India has consistently opposed regime change and backed an inclusive Syrian-led political transition.
(Manish Chand can be contacted at email@example.com)