New York: The powers that be in Washington are hardly thrilled about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip later this month to Iran to attend a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. But they have no choice but to grin and bear it.
The US has tried to pressure India to alienate old friend and oil supplier Iran but it hasn’t really worked. Singh’s high-profile visit to Iran will be the first by an Indian prime minister in over a decade. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was perhaps the last to visit Iran in 2001.
Singh’s trip is expected to spur trade ties and the two are expected to discuss purchases of crude oil by India as well as exports of commodities to Iran. On the strategic side, it’s important for India to have a close relationship with Tehran as Iran is India’s only corridor for land access to Afghanistan, through which is routed most of its development and reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan.
Geopolitics aside, India has genuine reason to want to participate in the sixteenth NAM summit from August 28-31 as one of NAM’s founders. Ahead of Singh’s visit to Iran, the US is asking India to counsel Iran on its nuclear program.
“We talk to India bilaterally about all of our concerns with regard to Iran,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters on Tuesday.
“We would hope, as we always do when our partners and allies are involved in any kind of intersection with Iran, that the larger points are made about the importance of Iran coming back into compliance with its international obligations using the opportunity that the P-5+1 has offered for diplomacy,” she added.
Iranian officials have met with the P5+1 powers that include the US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany three times this year. The UN General Assembly meets on September 13, so one can expect some sort of P5+1 meeting there. Analysts say the six governments will presumably never admit that talks with Iran are over or they have failed lest they seem to justify an Israeli strike on Iran.
The Indian government feels it is unfair for the West and the US in particular, to put India in a position where it has to lecture or choose one friend over another.
“India’s relationship with Iran is neither inconsistent with non-proliferation objectives, nor do we seek to contradict the relationships we have with our friends in West Asia or with the US and Europe,” the Indian Embassy in Washington finally said in exasperation in March this year, while blasting the US media for projecting a “distorted picture of New Delhi’s foreign policy objectives and energy security needs” by using data selectively about its imports from Iran.
Indian refiners are targeting an 11 percent overall reduction in crude imports from Iran this fiscal year. Indian refiners plan to import around 15.5 million metric tons of crude from Iran in the 2012-13 fiscal year, down from the 17.44 million tons purchased in 2011-12 and 18.50 million tons in 2010-11, according to Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas RPN Singh.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in June that India will be exempted from financial sanctions because it has significantly cut purchases of Iranian oil.
India has voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005 and 2009, and encouraged it to accept the provisions of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT which it signed. India has never signed the NPT and now enjoys a de facto legitimacy for its nuclear weapons, boosted by a landmark 2008 deal with the US.
But India endured its own years of US sanctions (after it tested five nuclear devices in 1998 in Pokhran) and isolation over the nuclear issue; it doesn’t like the policy, and it doesn’t believe it works.
Not surprisingly, India is against isolating Iran and believes Iran must be involved in regional issues and brought back into the international fold for any compromise to work.