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Delhi & US at odds on Iran

St. Petersburg, May 30: India differs with the US on its assessment of the situation in Iran and the push for a tougher line on Tehran, foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said here today.

The US thinks that Iran is harbouring al Qaida elements and is interfering in Iraq by encouraging Shia resistance there. India does not think so. The US is also alleging that Iran is developing nuclear weapons clandestinely.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld is spearheading efforts to make “regime change” in Iran the official policy of the George W. Bush administration. Such a policy change would not necessarily lead to military action. However, it would mean the US severing diplomatic ties, increasing economic pressure on Iran and lending support to Opposition groups there.

Differing with the perspective, the Indian foreign secretary said: “Our reading of the situation is not quite the same (as that of the US)…. I think everybody is aware of our growing relationship with Iran and the strategic importance we give to it. No one can have any doubts about how to view Iran,” Sibal said. India’s relations with Iran have seen a steady improvement and they have developed strong ties in economy, trade and transit (to Afghanistan and Central Asia). Such is the warmth in the relationship that Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was the chief guest at the Republic Day parade this year.

Sibal, however, ruled out India acting as an intermediary between the US and its western allies on one side and Iran on the other. He pointed out India was not alone in not sharing the US view on Iran — some European nations also disagreed with the American approach and wants diplomatic pressure to be used on it.

About the US concerns of Iran developing nuclear weapons, Sibal said the EU wanted Iran to sign some additional protocols under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. “But we have our own position on the nuclear issues. The nuclear issue in Iran relates to NPT, which it has signed. We do not want to get involved in this debate — it is between Iran and its interlocutors,” he said.

Bush is expected to raise the Iran issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin in his meeting with him here tomorrow.

He is also expected to discuss it with President Hu Jintao of China at Evian in France on Sunday. Only last week, US imposed sanctions on a Chinese company, Norinco, for allegedly providing missile technology to Iran.

Since the developing situation in Iran was brought up for discussion by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder with Atal Biahri Vajpayee, could it also come up for discussion at St. Petersburg'

“If the existing instability spills over to Iran, the focus will shift from Iraq to Iran. The situation in that region would then get further complicated. I can quite imagine that this concern is shared not only by Germany but by others also. But it is certainly not on our agenda,” the foreign secretary said.

Vajpayee will hold bilateral talks with French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Putin and Hu Jintao. He will meet Chirac and Putin for bilateral meetings on board the luxury liner, Silver Whisper, berthed on the Neva River that flows through this city.

Chirac is meeting Vajpayee here instead of at Evian where is he is the host to the G8 meeting and is expected to be extremely busy. Putin is hosting a dinner for all the 40-odd visiting heads of state on the Silver Whisper tonight.

Vajpayee will meet the French President before dinner on the ship and Putin after dinner.

Vajpayee’s meetings with Blair and Hu are on Saturday. The meeting with Jinato will be the first contact between the Chinese President and Vajpayee before the Indian Prime Minister goes to China in June.

Sibal said Vajpayee was primarily here to participate in the 300th year celebration of St. Petersburg and “this is essentially a ceremonial visit”.

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