By Raj Chengappa Editor-in-Chief
Everyone in Tehran drives at breakneck pace and a ride in taxi is, as one diplomat says, “always rough”. It’s not just traffic that drives diplomats trying to do business with Iran to the edge. Iran’s approach to dealing with the world is as fickle as the weather that its capital city is currently experiencing: It can blow hot and then rapidly turn cold.
The Indian delegation, headed by External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, which arrived here Saturday evening to participate in the G-15 summit being hosted by Iran, was greeted warmly enough at the airport. But then a bilateral meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, which was expected today, didn’t happen.
That was compensated though by a 40-minute meeting with Ali Larijani, speaker of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, who was formally his country’s chief nuclear negotiator and is now a rapidly rising star in the power hierarchy. Krishna and Larijani dwelt over a range of bilateral and regional issues, including Afghanistan. Both were careful not to mention the ‘N’ or nuclear word, which is a sore spot for Iran.
India, like other countries, can never really predict how Iran would behave. In November, Iran had written what an official described as “a nasty letter” to India after it supported a resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to recommend a fresh set of UN sanctions in case Tehran continued its defiance over its nuclear programme.
But with Iran keen on showcasing to the world that it has not been isolated, at the G-15 summit, a Third World relic, the regime set aside its hang-ups and launched a charm offensive. Krishna is now expected to have “a pull-aside” meeting with Mottaki after the summit, apart from a meeting with President MahmoudAhmedinejad. Set up in 1989, the G-15 was to symbolise South-South cooperation and currently has a sprinkling of 17 countries from Latin America, Africa, South Asia and the Far East as members. (India and Sri Lanka represent South Asia).
Only six heads of states are attending the summit that begins on Monday, and the rest, including India, are being represented by their respective foreign ministers.
Despite the low turnout of world leaders, Iran trumpeted the attendance of the summit as “a blow to Iran’s enemies” as a headline in today’s Tehran Times put it. And Mottaki at his opening speech at the meeting of foreign ministers used the occasion to launch a diatribe against “domineering powers” (meaning the US) that are using “hard power” in Iraq and Afghanistan and “threats to use sanctions or military strikes against independent countries (read Iran) in a bid “to maintain status quo”.
With the G-15 agenda filled with humdrum issues, most countries, including India, were using the occasion to renew their bilateral ties. Despite its relative isolation, Iran is regarded as the major power in the Middle East with nuclear ambitions that threatens not just its neighbours but the rest of the world also.
It’s the world’s fourth largest oil producer - Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US are ahead of it. Apart from oil, Iran is a key player in the ongoing international peace process in Afghanistan.
For India, Iran is its second largest supplier of crude oil next only to imports from Saudi Arabia. Last year, India imported about 22 million tonnes of crude oil worth $ 10 billion. Krishna said, “Maintaining cordial relations and improving trade” were India’s two major interests in relations with Iran.
Bilateral trade now stands at $ 14 billion and is growing. Iran though remains unhappy with India’s unwillingness to support it or even remain neutral as the US and other major powers mount pressure on it to comply with international nuclear regulations.
India’s stand is that while it supports Iran’s legitimate nuclear aspirations it needs to fulfill its international obligations and has voted thrice at the IAEA in favour of imposing sanctions, if Iran continues to be in violation of them.
Meanwhile the G-15 summit is being used by Brazil and Turkey to work out a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme to stave off fresh sanctions against it.
Since its November vote against Iran at the IAEA, India on its part sent Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao in February to smoothen ruffled feathers.
Relations between India and Iran have in the past few years resembled a roller coaster. Iran was keen that India lift gas from it through a 2,700-km land-based pipeline routed via Pakistan. But India had major concerns over the pricing of the gas, transit fees and security of the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline or Peace Pipeline as it is known.
Finally after years of negotiation, Iran went ahead and signed the deal with Pakistan in March 2010, in Ankara. India was given the option of joining in later. Much to its chagrin, Iran began negotiating with China as well.
Meanwhile, India is exploring a number of projects such as a long term annual supply of 5 million tonnes of LNG, the development of the Farsi oil and gas blocks and the South Pars gas field.
India has proposed a meeting of the Joint Commission meeting towards the end of May to finalise these projects and make a fresh attempt to sort out contentious IPI gas pipeline issues.
On Afghanistan, India’s interests somewhat converge with that of Iran. Both countries do not want the return of the Taliban or Pakistan to have an overbearing influence over Afghan affairs. But unlike India, Iran is keen that the US pull out its troops immediately, as it fears American presence right next door to it.
Iran is even suspected of indirectly backing sections of the Taliban in doing so though it vehemently denies it. There is plenty that India and Iran have to discuss that would require more than “a pull-aside” meeting.