US-Iran thaw frees up India to ramp up Tehran ties

iran-talksThe historic deal between the US and Iran, which promises to curb the nuclear programme of Tehran and bring it into the global mainstream, has set the stage for a potential multi-pronged acceleration of India-Iran ties which has been held back so far by a protracted Washington-Tehran impasse.

In a major triumph of diplomacy over the sanctions-driven approach, leading US and Iranian negotiators clinched a defining rapprochement in Geneva November 24, that entails Washington easing sanctions in return for Tehran and unblocking $4 billion in frozen accounts in return for Iran agreeing to accept the level of uranium enrichment that’s good enough for civilian uses, but will not be adequate for developing atomic weapons.

Clearly, a lot of hard work remains to be done to convert the understanding into a comprehensive and verifiable agreement, but the US-Iran deal has been touted as “historic” as it seeks to end more than three-decades old rivalry between the two sworn enemies and has the potential to shape the power balance in West Asia.

For India, which has consistently advocated dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse and has over the years refused to cave in to the relentless US pressure to downgrade its ties with Tehran, it’s a moment of vindication and a boost to its drive to step up relations with Tehran.

Barely hours after the deal between Iran and the P5 plus 1, India promptly welcomed the US-Iran thaw. “India welcomes the prospect of resolving questions related to Iran’s nuclear programme through dialogue and diplomacy,” Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesperson of India’s external affairs ministry, said in New Delhi.

“We also welcome the earlier agreement reached on November 11 between Iran and the IAEA, which is the only competent technical agency to verify the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities, on practical measures for enhanced IAEA verification activity at Iranian nuclear sites,” he added.

Although it voted against Tehran twice in the IAEA, India has had argued all these years that the Iranian issue should be resolved diplomatically on the basis of a recognition of Iran’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy and in accordance with Iran’s international obligations as a non-nuclear weapon state.

India is now hoping that the pact flowers into a durable and long-term resolution that could free up its diplomatic energies to scale up energy and strategic ties with Tehran. A lasting settlement, diplomatic sources told, will require the same spirit of mutual respect and accommodation on part of the powers-that-be in Iran and US, as seen in the last two months.

The installation of the new reformist president Hassan Rouhani in Tehran early this year had kindled hopes for an Iran-US thaw, but the process only picked up momentum on a crisp bright day in New York on September 24.  The conciliatory noises from both Washington and Tehran bolstered the hope for some mid-way solution to a seemingly intractable Iran-US deadlock. At the UN General Assembly, the leaders of the US and Iran didn’t shake hands or smile much, but were picture of purposeful statesmanship.

Mr Rouhani’s speech at the UNGA was refreshingly free from the virulence and anti-American rant that one had come to expect from his predecessor Mohamed Ahmedinejad. He underlined that Iran’s nuclear programme is peaceful and signalled that Tehran is ready for “constructive engagement” with the US. “We can arrive at a framework to manage our differences,” he said. “Nuclear weapons and weapons of mass rhetoric have no place in Iran’s defence doctrine.”

President Obama, too, had cautiously extended a hand of friendship to the new regime in Tehran. “We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course,” Obama said during his address at the UNGA September 24. In a pragmatic vein, Obama admitted that “the roadblocks may prove to be too great,” but added in a tone of cautious optimism:”…but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”

Refreshingly, diplomacy has got another chance even as seasoned observers point out that the provisional six-month agreement between the US and Iran will require resolute commitment and accommodation on part of both sides to translate it into a lasting deal.

For New Delhi, the US-Iran rapprochement could not have come at a more apposite time as India and Iran held talks in New Delhi Nov. 25. India’s Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh met Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour and discussed the roadmap for the India-Iran relations in the context of the changed climate in Iran-US relations.  “The visiting deputy minister provided a detailed briefing to the foreign secretary about the scenario in the region in the light of the interim agreement between Iran and E3 plus 3 and outlined prospects of moving forward in the evolving situation,” said official sources. Mr Rahimpour also called on External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid.

The US-Iran deal is expected to lead to a spike  in India’s oil exports from Iran, which it had to cut drastically due to logistical constraints arising out of the US sanctions. Moreover, it makes the Iranian oil more attractive as Tehran is amenable to selling more oil to India in rupee. Iran, which was India’s second largest supplier of crude oil, has slipped to the 6th position due to the cumulative impact of the US-EU sanctions, but is now set to regain its position.

Strategically, the deal will also allow New Delhi greater room for manouever to proactively seek Iran’s cooperation in stabilising Afghanistan and to counter Pakistan’s Taliban games. The plan for modernisation and expansion of the Chah-bahar port, which will provide India and the international community access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, is also expected to get a renewed momentum. India has already pledged $100 million for the strategic port’s development. Long-time Iran watchers say that the US-Iran thaw has also opened the possibility of India rethinking its options of joining the proposed multi-billion dollar tri-nation Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline.  It’s, however, early days to predict how the US-Iran deal will impact the trajectory of India-Iran relations as much will depend on how the deal pans out in the coming months.



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