Even as the proposal for the laying of a pipeline to bring Iranian natural gas to India hangs fire, President Khatami's high-profile visit to New Delhi succeeds in articulating common areas of concern.
BY inviting Mohammed Khatami, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to be the chief guest at this year's Republic Day parade India has reiterated the close ties between Teheran and New Delhi. President Khatami was accompanied by a high-power delegation, which included Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani, Petroleum Minister Bijan Zangneh and Minister for Science and Technology, Mostafa Moeen. Iran's strategic location at the crossroads of Central and West Asia, surrounded by the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, adds to its geopolitical importance.
Although the United States has included Iran in the "axis of evil" category, the country is not short of friends. The politics of the region and the fact that Iran is rich in oil and gas resources are factors that have brought New Delhi and Teheran closer.
India and Iran have been cooperating in the international arena. In the early 1990s, there was even talk of a Moscow-Teheran-Delhi-Beijing axis. In Afghanistan, Iran and India, along with Russia, were the earliest backers of the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban. Both Teheran and New Delhi are keeping a wary eye on the developments in Afghanistan and are evidently coordinating their strategies.
The importance given to the Iranian President's visit is also being interpreted as a signal to Washington about New Delhi's growing disenchantment with its policies in the region. Of late, the Bush administration has been striving to isolate Iran diplomatically. In November 2002, U.S. agencies had circulated pictures relating to the Bushehr nuclear power plant, alleging that Teheran was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. Washington is not too happy with Iran's support to Afghan warlords such as Ishmail Khan in Herat and Rashid Dostum in Mazhar-I-Sharif. New Delhi is also close to these two important players in Afghan politics.
During Khatami's visit, both countries agreed to coordinate their efforts in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. India and Iran signed the "Delhi Declaration" and a "Road Map to Strategic Cooperation", which put forth the vision of a strategic partnership between the two countries. The Delhi Declaration envisages a more stable, secure and prosperous region and calls for enhanced regional and global cooperation. Significantly, the two countries agreed that the fight against international terrorism should not be based on "double standards". This reference alludes to the Bush administration's brazen use of the terrorism issue to pursue its hegemonistic policy. Both Teheran and New Delhi have been highly critical of the U.S.' war efforts against Iraq. In the Delhi Declaration, India and Iran said that the situation in Iraq should be resolved peacefully under the auspices of the United Nations. Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Saddoun Hammadi had said in Delhi in the last week of January that his government appreciated the positions of both Teheran and New Delhi on the issue.
India and Iran also issued a call to the international community to remain committed to the reconstruction of a united and sovereign Afghanistan. There are signs that the Americans will leave Afghanistan once the war against Iraq gets under way. There is a fear in the region that Afghanistan could once again be sucked into a vortex of violence, leading to the re-emergence of fundamentalist forces.
THE major focus of the Iranian President's visit was on trade and economic issues. Before his arrival, there was considerable speculation about the proposed gas pipeline connecting Iran to India. Owing to geographic constraints, the pipeline will have to pass through Pakistan. Teheran has been trying to sell this idea to New Delhi since the mid-1990s, arguing that it is a win-win situation for all the parties concerned (Frontline, April 12, 2002). Recently the Russian oil and gas company Grazprom showed keenness to be involved in the project. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Adeli, who was in Delhi a few weeks earlier, had expressed his keenness to expedite the gas pipeline project. He had told the media in New Delhi that Islamabad had given its consent to the project and that Iran took full responsibility for the security of the pipeline.
However, New Delhi has been concerned, as the pipeline will have to be routed through Pakistan. Islamabad will get a considerable sum as royalty every year if the project materialises. The growing hostility between Islamabad and New Delhi in recent months has forced Teheran to reappraise the situation and put the project on hold. Instead, both sides concentrated on other trade and investment issues, while identifying the energy sector as the strategic area for their future relationship. The two sides officially agreed to develop a mutually satisfactory mechanism to transport natural gas from Iran to India.
In what is being described by Indian officials as a significant development, both countries have agreed to take up jointly transport projects that would facilitate and expedite the movement of Indian goods to the Central Asian region, including Afghanistan. India will help lay a track to connect Chah Bahar, one of Iran's major commercial ports near the border with Pakistan to the Iranian railway system, which is linked to Central Asia and Europe. This will be used to transport Indian goods to Iran and neighbouring countries like Afghanistan. The port is linked to Afghanistan by road. India will also help build a road from the Iranian town of Zaranj to connect it to a main transport artery that serves the major cities of Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told the media after the signing of the Delhi Declaration that the "full significance" of the agreement will only be clear after some time. President Khatami said he welcomed the presence of India in "the commercial and scientific fields in Central Asia". Both the leaders, however, emphasised that their cooperation is not directed against any third country. "Iran and India are situated in a region that is quite susceptible to crisis, and that is why the regional countries' shared efforts are aimed at strengthening the foundations of peace and stability," President Khatami said at a banquet hosted in his honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
India and Iran also plan to consolidate defence cooperation. India's Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Madhvendra Singh, was in Iran prior to Khatami's visit to India - the first time in five years that an Indian armed forces chief had visited Iran. Joint India-Iranian naval exercises are expected soon.
ADDRESSING a meeting of Muslim intellectuals and clerics in New Delhi, President Khatami said that the West is using "psychological operations" to demonise Islam. According to Khatami, the West had to create a "new enemy" after the "collapse of Communism". He said that powerful countries like the U.S. needed "enemies" so that huge amounts of money could be allocated to their defence budgets. He pointed out that it was not only the U.S. which has been subjected to terrorist attacks. He reminded his audience that the Palestinian people have been the target of terrorism since a long time.
Khatami, who was elected twice with a huge popular mandate, told his audience that Islam and democracy are not incompatible. A flawed democracy, he said, was preferable to an authoritarian dictatorship. In his country, Khatami is currently engaged in a political struggle with authoritarian clerics, under the leadership of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's spiritual leader.
In his speech Khatami noted that Islam, after it came to India, was enriched by Indian mysticism and spiritualism. He urged Muslims to play a constructive role to strengthen the country. Religious conflict and intolerance would only strengthen the hands of the "enemies inside". Khatami paid tribute to India's pluralistic political culture.
According to Indian officials, the sensitive Kashmir issue did not come up during the bilateral discussions. The government of Iran has on many occasions said that it wants a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Kashmir. This position was reiterated during President Khatami's recent visit to Pakistan. In a speech during that visit Khatami had said that there "must be a resolution of the (Kashmir) issue in line with the aspirations of the people of Kashmir. As a Muslim, as a human being and as an Iranian, the acute suffering of the people of dear Kashmir are unforgettable for me and I sincerely hope, God willing, that the Kashmiris achieve their goals." He also reminded his Pakistani audience that Islam was the strongest link binding the people of Iran and Pakistan.
Khatami's speech in Pakistan did not go unnoticed in New Delhi. But Indian officials are also aware that Teheran is also wary of the U.S. military presence in Pakistan and Central Asia. Teheran knows that it could be next on the hit list of the U.S. after Baghdad. Israel, America's closest ally in the region, has for long been arguing that Iran constitutes a bigger threat than Iraq. Given the circumstances it is in, Teheran, at this juncture, cannot be too choosy about its choice of friends. The same holds true for New Delhi, which today has stronger strategic links with Tel Aviv than with Teheran.