Menon in Tehran on Tuesday. (PTI)
Washington, March 9: For Manmohan Singh, it must have been the most distasteful diplomatic act since he became the Prime Minister, having to write a letter this week to Irans President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that was carried to Tehran by national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon.
The letter, which was predicted by The Telegraph on February 28, may turn out to be the pivot around which Indias West Asia policy may be calibrated to meet the new realities of this increasingly volatile region.
Like most high-level diplomatic communication, the contents of Singhs letter have not been made public, but it is understood that Menon tiptoed around a proposal that the Prime Minister should visit Iran later this year.
This would be a tectonic shift in the Manmohan Singh governments consistent policy of whittling down relations with Iran and gradually positioning itself firmly in the US and Israeli camps against Tehran.
The extreme sensitivity of Menons mission can be gauged from the total silence on the part of the Indian government that the national security adviser travelled to Tehran.
The Indian embassy in Iran, which normally makes much noise during the dwindling number of visits from New Delhi to Tehran in order to retain its credibility with the host government, has also been silent about Menons meetings in the Iranian capital.
But it is clear from the ecstatic response, in Tehrans carefully guided media and government channels of communication, to Menons talks that the Iranians sense an opportunity to revive their moribund relationship with New Delhi.
Tehran Times may be exaggerating when it today quoted Menon as having told Ahmadinejad that many of the predictions that you had made about political and economic developments in the world are becoming true.
While that has shades of north Korean reporting about Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, the national security adviser may well have said this to Irans President. The world order is changing and the current condition has contributed to the expansion of relations between Iran and India, the newspaper quoted Menon as saying. Indeed, it is true.
The Iranians have actually played their cards right in recent weeks and convinced key officials like Menon that they are reliable partners for New Delhi in these troubled times in their region.
Although India gave in to Washingtons persuasive powers in December and wantonly disrupted the long practice of settling payments to Tehran for oil imports through the Asian Clearing Union (ACU), Iran was not provoked into a response.
According to petroleum secretary S. Sundareshan, the Iranians continued to supply crude to India even though no payment was forthcoming since December.
Last month, the two sides agreed that importers of Iranian oil products, all of them public sector undertakings, will make payments in euros to the National Iranian Oil Company through Germanys Europaisch-Iranische Handelsbank.
Despite a steady decline in bilateral relations in recent years, the compulsions of the global oil market put Iran above Saudi Arabia as the biggest source of Indias oil needs in 2009, much to the chagrin of the Americans and their lobbies in New Delhi.
The disruption in the ACU payment mechanism was the result of a successful effort by these lobbies to cripple crude purchases by Indian refineries from Iran.
Oil accounts for 75 per cent of Indo-Iranian trade and if crude supplies had been disrupted, the bilateral relationship would have been left with little else.
The troubles in West Asia were not on the horizon in December, but when they erupted, serious bumps in the Indian economy were silently averted because of Tehrans decision to continue with crude shipments during two months without any payments.
It was this economic reality which convinced the Prime Minister that he needed to change course, belatedly, on Iran.
If Singh does go to Iran this year, Menon would have pulled it off with the diplomatic finesse that he is known for. An invitation from the Iranians for the Prime Minister has been pending for years and the Iranians have been reminding him regularly about it.
So although it will be reversing course on Iran, the UPA government would have done it without loss of face. The Prime Minister has been personally involved in decisions to vote against Iran on the nuclear issue at the International Atomic Energy Agency and, more recently, to abstain from a vote in the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights situation in Iran.
Foreign secretary Nirupama Rao visited Tehran in February last year for foreign office consultations and external affairs minister S.M. Krishna deputised for Singh at a Group of Fifteen summit in May 2010.
But neither of them could use their visits to significantly augment bilateral relations in the absence of clear directives from the Prime Minister who has always been lukewarm about ties with Tehran.
Writing a letter to the Iranian President may, therefore, have been distasteful for the Prime Minister, but yet another compulsion for him was the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (Brics) summit next month in Sanya in Chinas Hainan province.
India would have been the odd man out on Iran at this summit because every other Brics country has been following a proactive agenda on Iran while India has been standing by until the West Asian turmoil forced it to change course now.