Trust the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to set the cat among the pigeons.
When India’s national security adviser M.K. Narayanan told the International Institute of Strategic Studies-Citi India Global Forum meeting on a sleepy Sunday afternoon that Ahmadinejad had asked to stop over on 29 April — and New Delhi had said yes — he knew it would stir things up.
Narayanan wasn’t disappointed. Within 24 hours of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) confirming the “stopover”, a US state department spokesperson in Washington was giving India gratuitous advice on how to deal with the Iranians.
Possibly the American diplomat was completely unaware of the historical relationship between New Delhi and Tehran, as long ago as the 1530s, when Mughal emperor Humayun fled to Tehran to escape Sher Shah Suri’s ire. After Sher Shah died, Humayun returned to reclaim the throne, bringing with him hundreds of masons (who built what is now known as Humayun’s Tomb, a favourite cultural halt of visiting US diplomats) and miniature artists, who later unleashed an art movement on Indian soil. The magnificent Taj Mahal, a much later edifice, belongs to the same school of Persian architecture.
But back to the US diplomat who, earlier this week, sought to advise the Indian government on how to conduct its own foreign policy. “We would hope,” he said, “that the Indian government, or any government that was engaging with the Iranians, including with President Ahmadinejad, would (ask) him to meet the requirements that the Security Council and the international community has placed on him in terms of suspending their uranium enrichment activities…”
For a country that has been trying, since Yalta in 1945, to break all the conventions that have governed the world’s nuclear architecture, and get India to join up as a de facto member of the exclusive nuclear club, the US sometimes seems remarkably naïve.
Moreover, just when New Delhi was trying to airbrush its two anti-Iran votes in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by inviting Ahmadinejad — even if the visit is essentially a refuelling halt the Iranians sought — the US comment seems to have underlined the feeling in many minds, especially among the Left Front, that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is nothing but a toady of the Americans.
But MEA had already anticipated the political storm in a tea cup. “It is important,” the ministry said, “that the genius of each nation living in a particular region is respected and allowed to flower to meet the expectations of enriching relations with neighbours.”
Considering external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee has only just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia and is expected to visit Iran in July for a joint commission meeting, India’s rediscovery of its extended neighbourhood is a welcome development. Over the last couple of years, as India wooed the Bush administration to consummate the nuclear deal, it sometimes seemed as if no other capital in the world mattered except Washington. The two anti-Iran votes at IAEA were also cast in deference to the US’ hostility towards Iran. As the Left parties cried foul over the strategic alliance, New Delhi ignored everyone else.
During Mukherjee’s visit last year to Moscow, India did not sign a nuclear pact with the Russians because the Americans felt “it would go down badly in Washington”. At a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Bishkek, Kyrghysztan, last year, India sent oil minister Murli Deora instead of the Prime Minister, because Manmohan Singh did not think it worth spending time with, among others, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Hu Jintao of China and Ahmadinejad.
Clearly, the Iranian President’s visit to Delhi is a signal by Singh to the Left that the UPA has not sublet its foreign policy to the Americans. The government hopes that when it meets the Left Front on 6 May to discuss the nuclear deal, it can point out that it is fully prepared to nurture several seemingly contradictory relationships at the same time. It will point out that “stopovers” simply don’t happen; the Iranian President’s plane could have refuelled elsewhere, or not refuelled at all—Tehran is hardly that far away.
Significantly, the IAEA board is meeting on 5 May, only a day before the Left-UPA meeting. By then, the current Parliament session is also expected to be adjourned, after the Left helps with the passage of the finance Bill. If the government still wants to go ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal after this, it can.
Ahmadinejad’s visit already has a full agenda. Both countries are discussing many deals in the hydrocarbon sector, including the much-stalled Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. Then there is Afghanistan to talk about, where the US-led war on terror is going badly, and where both India and Iran have definite and direct interests. The summer of 2008 is already sizzling. Trust Ahmadinejad to liven it up.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and will write on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week.
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