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Archive for February 8th, 2007

Balancing Act: Trilateral Relations between America, India and Iran

Posted by K.E. White on February 8, 2007

The Balancing Act of America, India and Iran


Yesterday, the foreign ministers of Iran and India met in Tehran. This meeting highlights the critical role India will play in 1) the resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis and 2) America’s future influence in Asia and the Middle East.

Why such significance?

The Bush administration has placed a large strategic bet on India: pushing a nuclear deal that gives de facto recognition to India as a nuclear power. (India being a country that illegally–i.e. going against the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of which India is not a member–revealed its nuclear weapon capability in 1998.

The return for such a precedent-breaking offer?

The Bush administration is looking towards the long-term: searching for an ally to expand influence in both Asia (India borders China) and the Middle East (only Pakistan divides India from Iran).

Many see India’s durable democratic form of government (a long-lasting puzzle in comparative politics and international relations given India’s relative poverty to other long-lasting democracies) making India a natural fit for a robust American alliance.

Yet, as the Tehran Times reports today, India has not forgotten other players–particularly Iran.
The Foreign Ministers of Iran and India, Manuchehr Mottaki and Pranab Mukherjee from left to right.
Today the foreign ministers of Iran and India (Manuchehr Mottaki and Pranab Mukherjee, respectively) held talks in Tehran. The topics? Energy cooperation, the Afghanistan security situation, and, of course, the Iranian nuclear “issue” (or crisis in much of the American media).

On the nuclear front, Tehran Times reports:

Mukherjee noted that he and Mottaki also agreed on the need to adopt long-term and strategic arrangements on the shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Iran to India.

“We believe that the Iranian nuclear problem should be resolved peacefully and through negotiations,”he added.

He described the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in settling the row over Iran’s nuclear program as very important, and said that in order to reach a negotiated solution, it is necessary for Iran and the IAEA to cooperate closely.

The Indian foreign minister also urged Iran and all parties involved in the nuclear standoff to be more flexible. New Delhi greatly values the importance of establishing peace and security in the region, he stated, adding, “We attach special importance to Iran as a main factor for peace and stability in the region.”

Doesn’t sound like India is pushing the preferred American approach–talks with Iran on the condition Iran cease its enrichment activities.

Also of note, was discussion of the gas line between India, Pakistan, and Iran–a proposal the Bush administration opposes:

Iran, Pakistan, and India agreed recently on a pricing formula for the export of Iranian gas to India through Pakistan to be delivered via a proposed $7 billion pipeline. The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline project has been dubbed the peace pipeline. “In the recent meeting of the deputy oil ministers of the three countries, positive steps were taken, and we hope that new steps will be taken promptly.”

In a separate meeting with Mukherjee, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that Iran sees no limitations in cooperation with India.

“Iran and Pakistan’s agreement has been finalized on transferring 5 million tons of gas in 25 years, and thus Iran will be among the most important countries that supply India’s energy,” Mukherjee told the president.

Yesterday in New Delhi, the Indian Oil Minister confirmed the project:

Oil minister, Murli Deora, said on Tuesday a final agreement between Iran, Pakistan and India on a pricing formula for gas to be delivered by a proposed $7 billion pipeline should by signed by June-end.

Both New Delhi and Islamabad are comfortable with the formula suggested by a global consultant, he said.

The pipeline if built will bring Iranian gas to the energy-hungry South Asian nations.

The U.S. response (as perceived by India) can be observed in this report by

The United States will be following Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Iran next week with “interest” for any violations of its legislation — the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, US ambassador to India David C Mulford said here on Thursday…

Under its Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, the United States government is required to penalize any foreign firm that invests more than USD 40 million in the energy sectors of either country, the daily said, adding that with the US making it clear that it will be keeping a watch on the forthcoming discussions, Washington has sent a clear signal on what it expects from New Delhi.

This is not the first time though that the US Administration has expressed its disapproval of the gas pipeline project between the two countries.

Clearly we are seeing a game of diplomatic hardball. But the critical question is: Which way will it this three way balancing act break?

India has clearly stated its preference:

Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee Sunday termed its relationship with Iran and the US “excellent.”

“I am going to Iran and we have excellent relations with Iran and the US. With both countries we have good relations,” Mukherjee told reporters here when asked about the threats against Iran and whether India will use its influence to defuse the situation.

And while both Washington and Tehran would prefer a less balanced approach, India seems to hold all the cards for the time being.

And this might not actually be a bad thing for either country. With Iranian regime change not an option for the Bush administration, India has the ability to become a broke between the two countries.

And while India mediates, it will accrue benefits from both countries.

The American nuclear gambit with India has not paid—at least not yet.

The downside? By making a nuclear exception for India, America has paved the way for Iran to justify their civilian nuclear activities–lest not nuclear weapons.

But America still has diplomatic pressure to exert on India, in addition to the nuclear deal:

Washington would not give a commitment on backing New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council until a ‘significant and true reform’ of the world body is accomplished, US Ambassador David C Mulford said.

“The US has made clear that it wants to see a reform of the United Nations and it has indicated that in that process…ultimately…part of that will be to address a future Security Council that is more reflective of the current world,” Mulford told a press conference in Bangalore, Tuesday, PTI reported here.

Unfortunately any hope that this would be enough to wedge India away from Iran ignores the geographic and energy realties India faces.

But by making India a “satisfied” and recognized power, India could become a valuable ally to the United States if the worst-case Iran–a nuclearly belligerent, border aggrandizing, and Israel eradiating one–comes to pass.

But this would be true with or without a nuclear deal.

But perhaps the growing importance of India to both countries will ultimately play a moderating role, paving the way for a new U.S. administration to come to some sort of accommodation with Iran.

Posted in India, Iran, Iran pipeline, Manuchehr Mottaki, Pranab Mukherjee, U.S. India Nuclear Deal, United States | 5 Comments »