Emerging Indo-Iran relations despite US factor

Witnessing the legacy of over 6000 years at an unusual national seminar on “Iran during 30 years of Islamic Revolution” on February 11, 2009 at the Ho Chi Minh conference hall in the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi in Indo-Iran relationship was a crucial occasion.

The presence of Seyed Mahdi Nabizadeh, Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to India at the inaugural session underlined its significance who referred to the Indo-Iran Commission', which was established in 1983. This commission signed seven MoUs in November 2008. He added, "Natural gas from Iran to India through Pakistan is a venture which may change the face of regional politics in South Asia. It should not be characterized solely by economic factors."

The highpoint of the relationship came when a path-breaking strategic partnership between India and Iran when Tehran Declaration was signed for enhanced bilateral co-operation in 2001. The declaration was signed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Iranian President Syed Mohammad Khatami, stressed the importance of a comprehensive convention against international terrorism at the United Nations, an initiative taken by New Delhi.

In 2003 India and Iran signed seven accords, including a landmark New Delhi Declaration although problems remained on the Iranian proposal for a gas pipeline to India through Pakistan. The Delhi Declaration, signed by Vajpayee and Iranian President Syed Mohammed Khatami, said the two sides agreed that ‘the combat against international terrorism should not be based on double standards. States that aid, abet and directly support international terrorism should be condemned'. Khatami said the memorandum of understanding outlining a roadmap for strategic cooperation covered all fields and that interests of both sides would be taken care of. India and Iran agreed that the Iraq crisis should be resolved peacefully under the UN auspices. The two sides called on the international community to remain committed towards speedy reconstruction and development of Afghanistan.

The two countries resolved to work for an early finalisation of a Comprehensive Convention against International Terrorism at the UN, an initiative spearheaded by New Delhi. In a significant step, the two countries agreed to explore opportunities for cooperation in defence. The agreements included cooperation in science and technology, roadmap for strategic cooperation, vocational training, urban water management and cultural exchange programme. India-Iran initiative to develop the Chahbahar port in Iran and to link it by road to Afghanistan commenced a welcome trend of investment in infrastructure development.

In 2005 India and Iran signed an $18-billion gas deal that opened up the possibility of establishing a foothold in the Persian Gulf oil and gas reserves. India planned to buy five million tonnes of Iranian gas annually for 25 years. The agreement cemented a three-way Asian energy tie-up involving Iran, India and China. China's state-run oil company Sinopec is operating the Yadavaran field, with a 50 per cent shareholding, along with Iran, which has a 30 per cent stake.

From 2001 to mid 2005, the relationship between both the countries was reaching its zenith.

But India’s vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) against Iran brought the relationship to its nadir because US made such an action as a condition for US-India’s nuclear deal, which was given the final seal of approval by President Bush during the July 2005 visit of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington. US had all along disapproved the Iran-India energy deal. In September 2005, India chose to vote alongside the US and European Union in referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council. India again voted against Iran in 2006.

In 2008, India launched an Israeli spy satellite into orbit. The launch was the second commercial mission on behalf of another country that has been carried out by the Indian Space Research Organisation. It is being claimed that the launch was an "important milestone" in the commercialisation of India's 45-year-old space programme, which put an Italian satellite in orbit in April 2007 for a fee of $11m. India is eager to compete against the US, Russia, China, the Ukraine and the European Space Agency in providing commercial satellite launch services, a market worth about $2.5bn a year. The Israeli press reported that the satellite will improve Israel's ability to monitor Iran's military activities. It is considered to be one of the most advanced spy satellites that India has put into orbit to date.

While acknowledging that Indo-US nuclear deal and its adverse impact on relation with Iran was a foreign policy disaster, he said, Iran has the third largest reserve of oil and second largest reserve of gas but the India-Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline but it remains in the pipeline, Ambassador Rajiv Sikri, a former Secretary in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and a member of the executive committee of Indian Association for Central & West Asian Studies (IACWAS) said that there is no denying that India needs to be solicitous and sensitive to Iran’s concerns but Iran too needs to do the same. He pointed out that India was aware of the secret talks that were underway between US and Iran. However, although he did not elaborate, the fact is that US had rejected Iran’s offer of May 4, 2003 that covered every trouble spot in the Middle East region. For instance it included Iran’s offer to end its support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and pressure them to cease attacks on Israel. On Hizbollah, its most reliable partner in the Arab world, it had offered to support the disarmament of the Lebanese militia and transform it into a purely political party.

Iran had offered to open up the nuclear programme completely to intrusive international inspections in order to alleviate any fears of Iranian weaponisation. It would sign the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran did sign it later. It also offered extensive American involvement in the programme as a further guarantor and goodwill gesture. On terrorism, Teheran offered full cooperation against all terrorist organisations – above all, Al Qaeda. On Iraq, Iran would work actively with the U.S. to support political stabilisation and establishment of democratic institutions. Iran offered to accept the Beirut declaration of the Arab League, the Saudi peace plan from March 2002 in which the Arab states offered to make peace collectively with Israel, recognising and normalising relations with the Jewish state in return for Israel’s agreement to withdraw from all occupied territories and accept a fully independent Palestinian state, an equitable division of Jerusalem, and an equitable resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Iran had proposed that it would formally recognise the two-state solution and consider itself at peace with Israel.

Iran wanted the members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organisation, an Iranian terrorist organisation based in Iraq, handed over to in return for Al Qaeda operatives it held.

The U.S. and Iran had no diplomatic relations. Switzerland looked after their “interests” in both capitals.

US State Department has been for a more diplomatic approach dealing with Iran but Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield were the stumbling blocks.

Sikri welcomed the offer made by Barak Obama to start talks with Iran. He concluded that India relations with both Iran and US. The same holds true for Iran but he added a rider that countries and civilizations must blend religious and national elements by factoring in the historical heritage. He submitted that the relations between Iran and India stablized and he referred to the visit of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year. An Iranian official, A A Abbaszadeh responded to him saying, better relations are in mutual interest not only from economic point of view but also from the sub-continental perspective.

There were questions raised about the possible outcome of the upcoming Iranian and Indian elections that too can set the tone of the future relations.

Although the author missed the opportunity of hearing his presentation, during lunch one heard Prof. Mushirul Hasan, vice chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia University telling some of his official that public money meant for books etc should not be wasted on sumptuous feasts and got sense of his sanity. The seminar was organised by IACWAS and Jamia in association with Indo-Iran Society.

Much meaning might not be attributed to the choice of venue of the meeting as Ho Chi Minh conference hall but it also seemed significant. Hồ Chí Minh was a Vietnamese Communist revolutionary and statesman who was Prime Minister and President of the Vietnam (North Vietnam). Ho led the independence movement in his country and established Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 and defeating the French Union in 1954. He remained as the highly visible figurehead president until his death in 1969. Perhaps it reflected the remnants of an ideology that helps one understand the world in a context.


P.S: Analysts note that the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s nationalist prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, was largely orchestrated by American and British intelligence agencies. It saw power shift from a democratically-elected government to the US-backed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose reign continued until 1979 when fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to be religious and political leader of the world’s first Islamic republic. It is 30 years since the revolution that overthrew the Shah in Iran, and pretty much 30 years since the Islamic Republic and the American republic last had a real conversation. There is now, with the election of President Barack Obama, a chance to change that. Both sides should take it. The future of the wider Middle East depends on it.

Obama, in his inaugural speech and in an interview with an Arab TV station last week, said the US would extend its hand if Iran unclenched its fist. No doubt launch by Iran of a space satellite – using long-range ballistic technology it could use to carry warheads – was not quite what he had in mind. Iran was a conundrum long before it embarked on nuclear research its neighbours and the west fear could lead to a bomb.

Now, Obama is setting no preconditions – even if he has made clear the US and its allies are determined to prevent Iran becoming nuclear-armed.

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