The Telegraph
Friday , August 2 , 2013
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Signal to US in Iran trip

- Ansari, not Khurshid, to go for Iran President coronation

New Delhi, Aug. 1: India has decided to elevate its presence at the anointment of Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani on August 4, dropping an earlier plan to send foreign minister Salman Khurshid and instead picking Vice-President Hamid Ansari for the role.

The decision represents a key message from New Delhi, not just to Tehran but also to Washington, that it is committed to balancing its relations with both after a drift in traditionally strong ties with Iran over the past eight years, top officials here said.

This will be India’s first major official meeting with Rohani after the man widely perceived as a moderate replacement to the divisive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won comfortably in June’s presidential polls.

The Manmohan Singh government decided to send Ansari instead of Khurshid for Rohani’s swearing-in after most other neighbours told Tehran they would be sending officials higher than their external affairs ministers.

Ansari, a retired diplomat, was India’s ambassador to Iran, a country crucial as New Delhi’s most viable gateway into Afghanistan and central Asia without depending on Pakistan.

This time, India is counting on Ansari to play the role of goodwill ambassador after recent bumps in relations, coming on the back of consistent cuts in imports from Iran because of US-backed international sanctions.

“It’s not just a visit,” an official here said. “It’s a definite signal we are sending that we want to balance our relations with the US on the one hand, and traditional allies like Iran on the other.”

Getting that message across became a priority for the ministry of external affairs as soon as Iran invited India and all other nations except the US and Israel for the inaugural ceremony. India has slashed its oil imports from Iran by more than 50 per cent over just the past year to avoid US sanctions.

But Iran remains strategically critical for India, particularly because the two nations share concerns about any growth in Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan after Nato forces withdraw in end-2014. Warmth with Shia-dominated Iran is also useful politically in an election year with India’s domestic Shia population, estimated at about 16 million.

Khurshid was chosen first as India’s representative to Rohani’s anointment, as The Telegraph reported on July 30, and this was indicated to the Iranians. The occasion, India felt, would give the external affairs minister, who had visited Tehran and met Ahmadinejad in April, a chance to personally clear any “incorrect perceptions” about New Delhi’s position on Iran.

Iran was miffed when Khurshid, addressing the media with visiting US secretary of state John Kerry in June, said India would not let its “friendship with Iran come in the way of our commitment to non-proliferation”. Iranian diplomats read that statement in conjunction with a four-day wait after Rohani’s election before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wished the cleric-turned-politician.

Khurshid’s family ties with the Iranian regime, some officials hoped, would also help. The minister’s father, the late Khurshid Alam Khan, is remembered fondly in Tehran because he helped broker a deal between Iran and Iraq to not target civilian areas during their bitter war in the 1980s. A junior foreign minister, Khan was then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s negotiator with Iran and Iraq during the war.

The Presidents of other key neighbours like Pakistan and Afghanistan will be present at the ceremony. China, a close economic ally of Iran, is only sending its culture minister.

India then realised it needed to elevate its representation. Ansari, who served as ambassador between 1990 and 1992 when Iran neighbours Iraq and Kuwait were at war and has edited a book on Iran’s Islamic Revolution, was an obvious candidate.