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Saturday, Dec 14, 2019

It takes three to tango

Given India’s dire need for energy, both nuclear as well as oil and gas, the IPI pipeline is in our national interest, writes Amit Baruah.

india Updated: May 01, 2008 21:34 IST
Amit Baruah
Amit Baruah
Hindustan Times
Hindustantimes
         

A regime change in the United States by the end of the year presents an opportunity for India and Iran. Though a lot depends on events, a future occupant of the White House is likely to show more diplomatic dexterity when it comes to dealing with Tehran. After years of shunning North Korea, and repudiating Bill Clinton’s policies, President George W. Bush had to engage Pyongyang in a bid to resolve the nuclear issue. Iran may be a different cup of tea, but a Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or even a John McCain is unlikely to do a Bush on Tehran.

We never tire of talking about US influence in the world having an impact on regional policy. Despite all the talk — and even recent talk of narrowing down of differences — there has been little forward movement on the Iran-India energy front due to the Bush administration’s worldview. Even before the change in Washington actually happens, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a brief visit to New Delhi on Tuesday. His was a stopover while returning to Tehran from Colombo. On Monday, Ahmadinejad was in Islamabad. An Iranian President was in India after over five years — Mohammad Khatami visited India in January 2003 as the chief guest for our Republic Day celebrations.

Much has happened in India-Iran relations since the Khatami visit, especially India’s twin votes against Tehran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) governing board in September 2005 and February 2006 and subsequent efforts to repair the damaged relationship. Apart from the shock in Iran at India’s votes, Tehran also refused to implement a deal to sell 5 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to India on the very day New Delhi cast its vote at the IAEA board on September 24, 2005. Nothing much has happened on the LNG front, including an agreement to add 2.5 million tonnes of LNG to the original five, in the past three years.

After considerable drift in the relationship, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Iran in February 2007 had the necessary impact. In candid conversations with the Iranian leadership, Mukherjee convinced Tehran that while India was no Venezuela, New Delhi would not blindly follow any foreign lead on Iran. Since then, there has been some opening up in the relationship, but Iran taking centrestage on the nuclear issue internationally has obviously not helped bilateral ties with India. However, India, quite uncharacteristically, took strong exception to remarks made by the US State Department spokesman ahead of the Ahmadinejad visit.

This was, perhaps, the most dramatically divergent public statement that India has made vis-à-vis the US since the Manmohan Singh government took power in May 2004. With the civil nuclear deal in the doldrums, and India entering the hurly-burly of domestic politics, distance from Washington can only help the UPA government. By receiving Ahmadinejad at this point of time, the UPA government has sent a signal that its foreign policy remains an independent one; and that it is cutting free from the baggage surrounding the nuclear deal.

However, independent thinking and actually moving forward on the India-Iran bilateral agenda are two different things. With Iran, energy is at the core of the relationship. But there has been no ‘real progress’ — as opposed to meetings and statements — on the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline or the sale of LNG. Ahmadinejad, who seemed more interested in peddling his worldview rather than concentrating on the nitty-gritty of the pipeline deal during his brief stay in Delhi, has pretty much stuck to the line that the project was moving forward.

He informed Manmohan Singh about Pakistan’s proposal that China should be involved in the IPI project, but stressed that Iran wanted the pipeline to come to India first. At his press conference, the Iranian President said “all aspects of this proposal would be discussed”.

Though senior Indian officials have time and again told me on background — that the IPI pipeline was a ‘pipe dream’ — it appears that New Delhi seems willing to show more seriousness than it has previously in negotiating with the Iranians on the issue. At the same time, Iran, too, needs to display that it is serious about pursuing the dialogue on the pipeline and take it to its logical conclusion. Given that there’s been only talk and little result, Iran, Pakistan and India would do well to set a time-frame for the talks. And if there is no agreement they should say so. Iran must show that it’s a reliable supplier. Pakistan must show that it is willing to play the role of a secure host for the pipeline. And India must show that it is really keen on clinching this deal.

Given India’s dire need for energy — both nuclear as well as oil and gas — the IPI pipeline is in our national interest. An energy-rich Iran needs an energy-hungry India and vice versa. In the case of the pipeline, it will take three to tango — and that includes Pakistan.