External affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee will fly into Teheran on Tuesday amid mounting tension between the United States and Iran over the nuclear issue and developments in Iraq.
Last week, US Secretary of Defence Robert M. Gates publicly stated that the US was “not planning to go to war with Iran”,
but that did not stop three top retired American generals from warning, on Sunday, of “disastrous consequences” of any military strike. Meanwhile, Teheran stepped up its own diplomatic offensive by taking a group of non-aligned envoys on a tour of its Isfahan uranium-enrichment facility on Sunday.
While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad maintains a tough line on the sanctions, Iranian nuclear agency officials emphasise that they continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring system. Teheran faces sanctions under the UN Security Council resolution 1737 if it does not suspend uranium enrichment at its Natanz plant by February 21.
An Indian official involved with the Mukherjee visit, which ends on Wednesday, said it should be seen in a purely bilateral India-Iran context. Former ambassador to Iran Hamid Ansari noted: “The visit stands on its own and there are many issues of our own that we need to work out.”
Yet, India cannot ignore the nuclear issue. Two weeks ago, Hasan Rowhani, supreme leader Ali Khamanei’s representative in Iran's Supreme National Security Council, had told Indian ambassador Manbir Singh that India should play “a constructive role” in resolving the nuclear stand-off with the US. While South Block would prefer to pass what could be a poison pill, Ansari was more forthright: India simply lacks the kind of relationship with Iran that would enable it to play a mediatory role. In any case, between the US and Iran, he maintains that “no one else can be an intermediary” — referring to the criticism of Washington for not engaging Teheran directly.
Meanwhile, US ambassador David Mulford has issued a public reminder that there are some US laws that penalise companies doing business with Iran, and resident diplomats from the EU too have expressed unhappiness over the timing of the visit. “All countries protect their national interests, and we are doing the same,” said the senior official. He said the US and EU blew hot and cold on Iran when it suited them, so they had no business questioning our timing. Indian strategic interests, he pointed out, are quite manifest: promoting peace and stability in a region where 50 lakh Indians work and from where 65-70 per cent of our oil is sourced. Furthermore, Iran remains the best means of protecting Indian strategic interests in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
He explained that the visit was long overdue, coming nearly a year-and-a-half after former foreign minister Natwar Singh’s visit in September 2005. As a result of the gap, a backlog of unfinished business has built up. Primary among these are two oil-related agreements yet to be clinched — one for the import of liquefied natural gas and the other for a pipeline through Pakistan to bring the Iranian gas to India. Besides this, there are issues relating to the land corridors to European Russia and Afghanistan. “Everything has been in deep freeze since September 2005,” said Ansari. There is an urgent need for some political impetus to revive India-Iran relations.