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For India, Iran deal alters mood in US
Tehran on top of Delhi’s agenda

Iranians read newspapers in Tehran on Monday after their country reached a nuclear deal with world powers. (AFP)

Washington, Nov. 25: A landmark agreement yesterday temporarily freezing Iran’s nuclear programme has dramatically altered the atmospherics that await the foreign secretary when Sujatha Singh arrives here on her maiden bilateral visit in two weeks time.

Singh’s visit was conceived to give a shot in the arm for Indo-US relations, which are often perceived as having hit a plateau. But the Geneva deal between Iran on the one hand and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the EU on the other has pushed New Delhi’s relations with Tehran up the agenda of her talks in Washington.

Plenty of Singh’s formidable diplomatic skills will have to be conjured up during her meetings here as the Americans prepare for an about turn on what was once called the “peace pipeline”, a conduit for Iranian natural gas to India via Pakistan.

That is so because New Delhi has blown hot, then cold and hot and cold alternately on the pipeline proposal in the last 15 to 20 years, often due to external pressures than steely determination to preserve its interests or vision.

Singh’s task in the coming days before she packs her bags for the US will be to get some clarity from the political leadership on where the UPA government now stands on the future of the pipeline.

Right now the political leadership is weighed down with a mountain of other priorities. But her task is complicated because President Barack Obama’s historic outreach to Iran this autumn has thrown the Manmohan Singh government off balance despite its brave face.

The UPA has systematically whittled down its relations with Tehran under sustained pressure from Washington and against sage advice from Iran experts like Vice-President Hamid Ansari and former ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar. The latter acted as P.V. Narasimha Rao’s midwife in blazing a new trail in bilateral relations with Iran in 1992-93 by weaning it away from Islamabad.

In Washington, however, the foreign secretary will have a personal advantage while discussing Iran, which few Indian diplomats have: her husband Sanjay Singh was ambassador in Tehran recently for nearly three years during a critical period in Iran’s nuclear diplomacy and would have shared insights with her that are not on any files and may not even have been put on paper.

Before becoming foreign secretary, Sujatha Singh was herself ambassador in Berlin, which is a key player in the so-called P-5 + 1 talks with Iran and one of the earliest initiators of Iran’s civilian nuclear programme well before the Islamic revolution which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

The Americans are eagerly looking forward to such insights when they are lapping up anything on Iran that is not available to them through regular channels.

Having had little contact with Tehran for three and a half decades, American diplomacy and intelligence are woefully lacking in substance on Iran as Obama embarks on reversing Washington’s “axis of evil” policy.

What American diplomacy lacks in substance is often made up in form. That is no different in the case of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Preparing the ground for an about turn, Washington think tanks have got into the act on Iran.

The most noteworthy among such preparations has been at the Atlantic Council here, where strategic thinkers are advocating infusion of new life into the pipeline project. The seriousness behind these efforts was obvious in the run-up to concluding the Geneva negotiations when Barnett Rubin, until recently senior adviser to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, spoke in depth and knowledgeably.

Another speaker at the event was a serving Senior Research Geographer with the US Army Corps of Engineers, Laura Jean Palmer-Moloney. Significantly, the programme was put together by the Council’s South Asia Center although Iran is not a part of South Asia. It forged a consensus that “successful nuclear talks with Iran could pay dividends in Afghanistan and the rest of South Asia”.

Washington’s interest in the pipeline reflects its desire to stabilise Pakistan, meet its energy needs without having to give it an India-type nuclear deal and in turn to strengthen the Pakistani economy.

All of which is vital for America’s Afghanistan policy, post the 2014 “withdrawal” of US troops. The Obama administration is also ready to do a lot for Pakistan in order to keep the Nawaz Sharif government and the army on their current course of systematically decimating the Pakistani Taliban.

Serious setbacks have recently been inflicted on the Pakistani Taliban by US drones on Pakistani space and troops on the ground within Afghanistan with the obvious connivance of the main patron of the militant outfit, the Inter-Services Intelligence.

Support for Pakistan’s energy needs by realising the pipeline from Iran and on to India will convince Islamabad of American goodwill. New Delhi can hope to hear some US sermons in the coming months about the pipeline’s role in prosperity for all of South Asia if the arrangements with Tehran move forward.

It will not, however, be lost on Indian diplomats that until Obama’s outreach to Iran and the Geneva nuclear talks Washington has been a consistent backer of an alternative pipeline: one for sending Turkmenistan’s gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India known as the TAPI pipeline. The foreign secretary may also run into the Jewish lobby here which is in angry convulsions over the Geneva agreement with Iran.

The US Jewish lobby played an important role during the Indo-US nuclear negotiations and afterwards in influencing New Delhi’s downgrade of ties with Tehran.

 
 
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