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India steps onto tightrope as talks resume with Iran

Officials plan to discuss energy issues against a backdrop of mounting tension between Tehran and Washington.

February 06, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — Amid mounting tension between Washington and Tehran, Indian and Iranian officials plan to meet today for their second round of high-level talks in less than three months, signaling the eagerness of the two countries to patch up differences that recently have clouded their historically close ties.

Despite American misgivings over the relationship, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee is expected to land in Tehran for discussions on Iran's nuclear program and on boosting cooperation over energy issues. As India's economy continues to boom, the Indian government is increasingly preoccupied with securing reliable sources of energy, including access to Iran's abundant natural gas reserves.

But its relations with Tehran have put New Delhi in a delicate position. The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has staked much of its foreign policy on a growing partnership with Washington, antagonizing both Iran and the Indian left, which has long been distrustful of the U.S. but whose support Singh needs to stay in power.

India is now engaged in a difficult balancing act as it tries to reassure an old friend while cozying up to a new, more powerful and potentially more important one.

In play could be a historic agreement between Washington and New Delhi allowing India access to American nuclear fuel and technology and ending decades of international isolation for New Delhi as it pursued its own nuclear path.

The pact, which has already been ratified by U.S. lawmakers, awaits Indian approval. But one provision of the deal requires the U.S. president to report to Congress each year on whether New Delhi is participating in global efforts to restrain Tehran's nuclear ambitions, which critics here see as an affront to India's sovereignty and its long-standing relationship with Iran.

The White House also has warned New Delhi against going forward on a controversial $7-billion pipeline that would move gas from Iran to India through Pakistan.

With its economy expanding by about 8% a year, India is busy casting about for energy sources to fuel that growth. Officials say they cannot afford to turn their back on the potential lying in Iran's oil and gas fields, especially since China, Asia's other rapidly expanding behemoth, is a major competitor for such resources.

Tata Steel, one of India's corporate giants, announced last week that it had signed a deal to build a $1.4-billion plant in Iran on the Strait of Hormuz. India also wants to take advantage of a highway being built between Iran and Afghanistan to send its exports to the latter; overland access to Afghanistan from the east is blocked by India's longtime nemesis, Pakistan.

Besides economic concerns, deep cultural and political affinities bind India and Iran, whose ties stretch back into the mists of history.

"The relationship goes back 5,000 years," said Gulshan Dietl, an expert on Indo-Iranian relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University here. She noted that 10% of India's sizable Muslim population is Shiite, as is most of Iran, and that linguistic similarities link the two peoples.

More recently, in the latter half of the last century, New Delhi and Tehran joined hands as nonaligned Third World countries in favor of greater regional autonomy.

During the Cold War, India and, in the latter years, Iran regarded Washington with suspicion or hostility. So it is somewhat ironic that the U.S. is increasingly becoming a wedge between them.

As a result of India's economic liberalization, U.S.-Indian trade has shot up. In addition, New Delhi and Washington cast a wary eye at China's burgeoning political and economic clout, making them natural allies in the effort to contain Beijing.

At the time President Bush proposed the civilian nuclear cooperation accord during a visit by Singh to Washington in July 2005, the measure was celebrated as putting a seal on the rapprochement between the world's most powerful democracy and its most populous one.

Almost immediately, however, the Indian government found itself in a diplomatic pickle, under pressure from Washington to join in voting against Iran's nuclear program at the United Nations. New Delhi acceded, declaring that a nuclear-armed Tehran was not in India's interest, which represented "absolutely the nadir" in Indo-Iranian ties, Dietl said.

"Iran felt it had lost a valuable friend and potential interlocutor, while the U.S. -- which saw how easily India buckled -- began to take New Delhi's support for granted," commentator Siddharth Varadarajan wrote in Monday's edition of the Hindu newspaper.

Last November, after months of coolness, Tehran signaled its willingness to restore ties with a stop in New Delhi by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

Today's reciprocal visit could help India regain some influence over its longtime friend, Varadarajan wrote, which could in turn allow New Delhi to play a mediating role in bringing the U.S. and Iran back from the brink of open confrontation.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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