April 29, 2008

India and Pakistan Don’t Share US Assessment of Iran

Posted in America, India-Pakistan tagged , , , at 11:29 am by Mazin

Randeep Ramesh, The Guardian

Napoleon is said to have observed that geography is destiny. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be emphasizing the truth of the emperor of France’s words in the next two days as he makes surprise appearances in Pakistan and India.

The president’s visits will last just a few hours and are likely to set in train big changes for the region. Sensing that the clock is ticking for the Bush administration, Iran wants to press ahead with a long-proposed 1,700-mile pipeline to deliver gas to Pakistan and India, at a cost $7.5bn.

Understanding that such a project would see a shared strategic interest develop between three nations straddling the world’s main oil and gas artery, the US peddles a rival scheme: The $7.6bn gas pipeline from Turkmenistan’s Dauletabad field through Herat and Kandahar in Afghanistan to Multan in Pakistan, and finally into India.

Both may go ahead but it is Iran’s proposal that has momentum. Oil ministers met in Islamabad last week and agreed to sign a bilateral agreement and to start construction of the pipeline by 2010. India also wants to put back on track a floundering $25bn deal for getting 5 million tons of liquefied gas from Iran every year for the next 25 years.

In recent months, it has become increasingly clear that the US has been unable to crack the Persian puzzle. The US’s attempts to ostracize Iran over its nuclear program have so far yielded little. Washington’s sanctions strategy has also been undone, principally by China’s announcement that it would develop oil and gas fields in southwestern Iran for $2bn late last year.

None of this has gone unnoticed in New Delhi and Islamabad. Pakistan has had a fractious relationship with Iran in recent years. India’s dealings with Iran have been bedeviled by baubles dangled by the US: Principally a deal that would legitimate Delhi as a nuclear-weapons power in return for the inspection of civilian atomic energy plants. To Tehran’s annoyance, India also voted with the US and against Iran’s nuclear program twice — in October 2005 and February 2006 — at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Indians are likely to be seeking to make amends with President Ahmadinejad in a big way.

Nukes have long been at the center of Iranian dealings with South Asia.

India has never shared Washington’s assessments of Iran as an aggressive regional power. India’s reason is simple: My neighbor’s neighbor is my friend. Hence it sees Iran as offering a road to Central Asia — a key Indian concern — that bypasses Pakistan. To this end New Delhi has been building up Iran’s Chahbahar port and constructing roads that skirt Pakistan’s border.

India and Iran’s energy, strategic and diplomatic ties, likely to be revived this week, may also see more private sector dealings between the two nations. In the past this has led to revelations of Indian transfers to Iran of high-technology goods that could be useful for Iran’s atomic program.

The truth is that in the past few months, Tehran has emerged as the Gulf’s main power center. In Iraq, Tehran has outfoxed competitors, gaining influence at their expense. Iran’s intervention a few weeks ago to end a bloody Shiite conflict on the banks of Iraq’s Tigris did not go unnoticed in Washington.

In Afghanistan both Indian and Pakistani diplomats have noted that the West’s position is becoming seriously eroded, leaving Iran to shape the debate.

This means they have to take seriously President Ahmadinejad’s recent questioning of NATO’s legitimacy in Afghanistan. There is also a feeling that the Western alliance has become lopsided: The US has accepted it will need to airlift more troops because the Europeans will not. If America ends up as the sole defender of the Kabul regime then the attacks on the “coalition” can be construed as a resistance army fighting an occupier.

All this comes at a time when the Northern Alliance, the former rebels in Kabul over which Iran has considerable influence, have been talking to their archrivals the Taleban, something that is anathema to Washington.

However much the Americans might wish otherwise, the reality is that no one can ignore Iran. Involved in bloody imbroglios in Afghan and Iraq, Tehran calculates the US would not use force against Iran, even if it pursues its nuclear ambitions.

To reinforce this point Iran recently announced that 6,000 new advanced centrifuges were up and running at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility.

Ahmadinejad plainly enjoys the taunting the US. This is an Iranian luxury, afforded by geography and geology, that neither India and Pakistan have.

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