While India steps up its efforts to conclude a civil nuclear power deal with the international community, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is due to visit Tehran shortly.
The visit, beginning February 6, will be his first bilateral visit outside the immediate neighbourhood and comes a few days after a visit to India by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Civil nuclear power collaboration is high on the bilateral agenda when Putin meets Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday.
Mukherjee is scheduled to co-chair a meeting of the India – Iran Joint Commission, along with his counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki, officials at the Ministry of External Affairs said. The last meeting of the Joint Commission was held in New Delhi in February 2005.
According to Iranian diplomats, however, the visit is a bilateral one in response to Mottaki's visit to India last November. It is unlikely, an Iranian diplomat said, that the Joint Commission meeting would be held, but "all issues of bilateral interest, including the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, will be discussed," the diplomat said.
The visit is bound to raise concerns among many countries of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), including the United States. India hopes to finalise an India-specific waiver, to allow it to resume nuclear commerce with countries of the 45-member NSG.
The United Nations Security Council has recently imposed some sanctions on Iran in a bid to stop Tehran's nuclear fuel enrichment programme. The sanctions were imposed after efforts by the P-5 (permanent 5 members of the UNSC) plus one (Germany) failed to stop the nuclear fuel enrichment programme.
Iran recently asked 38 nuclear inspectors with the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to leave that country, but has opened its nuclear facilities for inspection by representatives of the Non-Aligned Movement, Iranian diplomats said.
India, which has expressed reservations about Iran's nuclear programme, however wants the issue resolved through dialogue, within the ambit of the IAEA.
Mukherjee's visit, coming before state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, will be viewed as an affirmation of the government's independence in the conduct of its foreign policy. There is a sizeable Shia community in Uttar Pradesh.
The last time an Indian foreign minister visited Tehran was in September 2005, when Natwar Singh went to Iran. Singh was the first foreign dignitary to visit Iran after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed office.
Subsequently India voted twice against Iran's nuclear programme at the IAEA, in September 2005 and February 2006, causing a chill in "age-old civilisational ties" between the two countries.
Mottaki visited India in November 2006, to attend a donor's conference on Afghanistan. India and Iran had collaborated closely with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, before it was ousted in 2001.