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PM will have to do a balancing act at NAM
16th Summit begins today at a time when Iran faces increasing global isolation over its N-plans
Raj chengappa writes from Tehran

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landed at the Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran late Tuesday evening, he found himself once again walking the tightrope. Having tried his best to douse the coal fires that had ignited Parliament, the beleaguered Manmohan Singh must now perform a difficult balancing act at the 16th Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) Summit that is to begin on Wednesday.

Top on the agenda is a bilateral meeting with Iran's Vali Faquih or Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, a rarity for an Indian Prime Minister, at a time when the US is doing its best to make Iran a pariah state for its alleged quest to gain nuclear weapons. Then the Indian Prime Minister is to have bilateral meetings with heads of three key Indian neighbours Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The meetings have assumed significance because of the critical crossroads that each of these nations find themselves at.

The meeting between Manmohan Singh and Khamenei is not expected to yield anything substantial in terms of India-Iran relations. But its significance lies in the photo-op of the two turbaned heads of state shaking hands in the glare of international attention. Manmohan Singh's presence at the summit will give a boost to the sagging and tattered image of Iran which is struggling to regain international credibility and approval after the UN and the US imposed crippling sanctions to thwart its nuclear ambitions.

Iran has, in fact, gone out of its way to impress the 120 nations attending the summit. As many as 20 heads of states, including Manmohan Singh, are attending. Tehran has been spruced up with twinkling multi-coloured lights and banners.

The irony is that it is happening at a summit meeting of non-aligned countries when most nations now regard NAM as a bit of sham. Born in 1961, when the Cold War was red-hot, the movement, that had India as one of its founding members, had lost its clout long before the world turned uni-polar with the US emerging as the sole superpower in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet the 16th NAM summit has become the cynosure of the world albeit for vastly different reasons. Much of it is because of the host country itself. The US has been carrying out a sustained international campaign to make Iran a pariah state for its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Then there is the Syrian question that looms large over the NAM jamboree that has set diplomatic circles abuzz. Syria is a NAM member but with President Bashar Hafez al-Assad waging a do-or-die battle he has sent his powerless Prime Minister to attend. But there is talk of the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who is flying in to hand over NAM leadership to Iran, getting together with a few other countries to engage Iran in a dialogue to find a way to end the bloody civil war.

There is also the Afghanistan issue which Iran has a major stake in, as does India and Pakistan. In all these international issues, the Indian Prime minister has to perform a delicate balancing act. While engaging with Iran, Manmohan Singh must also keep American concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions in mind and press for an early resolution of the issue. He must also ensure that Iran is not offended as it is India's second largest supplier of oil apart from being a critical conduit to Afghanistan.

On Syria, with India having a major stake in Arab countries (apart from oil, 6 million Indians work in these countries bringing in $30 billion in remittances every year) it has to carefully calibrate its response. While a majority of the Arab countries are demanding a regime change in Syria, India abstained from supporting such a resolution in the UN General Assembly while in the Security Council it backed measures to prevent human right violations and to bring the bloody civil war to a negotiated close.

Manmohan has also to tread carefully when he meets Pakistan President Zardari on the sidelines of the summit. The flak he got for being accommodating when the two met at the previous NAM meeting at Sharm-El-Sheik in 2009 hasn't been forgotten and in his meeting he is likely to follow the beaten track of pushing the Pakistan President to deliver on curbing terror.

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