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The middle path


As unusual turmoil engulfs the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and as India heads into a NAM summit, New Delhi must look to play its cards well, especially its Iran one.

Short of something catastrophic happening, prime minister Manmohan Singh will be heading to Iran later this month for a Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. All you need to do is google Iran, India, nuclear and USA, and you will see what I mean when I say this has explosive potential.

This is not any old NAM summit. It comes in the middle of unusual turmoil in the Middle East-Persian Gulf region, with the so-called 'Arab Spring' segueing into a renewal of a centuries-old sectarian conflict that has been spiced up by Iran's concerted activities to build up an offensive nuclear weapons programme. Throw the Syrian unrest into this mix and the future of this region becomes as clear as mud.

Iran is reeling under some of the toughest sanctions ever imposed against its energy and financial sectors. It is virtually impossible to buy oil from Iran - unless you want to pay in suitcases of cash, because we can't pay them in hard currency, we can't pay them using established banking systems, and we cannot insure our ships carrying Iranian oil. Ships belonging to the now-banned National Iranian Tanker Co can only come into Indian ports after getting a CIF (cost, insurance, freight) clearance on a case-bycase basis by the Indian government.

So Iran has slipped from being India's top source of oil to number three, behind Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Saudi Arabia, on a determined course set by their King Abdullah to reset relations with India, is our new BFF. Not only have they climbed the charts to become the top oil supplier to India, but with the deportation of Lashkar-e-Taiba operative, Zabiuddin Ansari to India, India and Saudi Arabia are at what I call the "July 4" moment (that was the moment India and the US set off on a different course after Bill Clinton broke away from independence day celebrations in 1999 to get Nawaz Sharif to climb down from Kargil).
New Delhi and Riyadh are cooperating on intelligence and counterterrorism, especially considering the number of India's enemies who routinely end up in the holy kingdom. Defence cooperation is rising, and so are the millions of Indians living and working in that country.

Saudi Arabia dislikes Iran with a passion, the reasons for which are clear to anybody with an interest in history. So does Israel, which is our other BFF in that region. Israel believes the first Iranian bomb (when they get one) is aimed at their heart - "every generation there is someone who wants to remove us from the face of the earth!" Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, you name it, they are all flooding the MEA's letterboxes on the subject of Iran, and nobody is being kind.

And we will not even get to the US, where Congress and the all-powerful Jewish lobby are likely to break out into hives when they see visuals of the PM landing in Tehran.

But Iran is close to India's heart. Quite apart from civilisational links, India has assiduously kept Iran on its side despite many challenges. Iran has been known to use NAM to go after India and the US, specially asking India to sign the NPT a while ago. Iran's Supreme Leader has made references to Kashmir that has pissed off New Delhi.

They have reneged on LNG deals in revenge, while the Chahbahar port is taking longer than necessary because of Iran's delays. Most important, Iran kicked India in the teeth when its agents recently carried out a terror attack on an Israeli diplomat in the heart of New Delhi earlier this year, an embarrassment India could have done without.

But we want Iran on our side. As our neighbour's neighbour, they are our friend. After 2014, when the US and NATO pack up their bags and leave Afghanistan, India and Iran might want to renew an old cooperation against the Taliban and their Pakistani masters. But it's more than that.

In the struggle for power in that region, Iran, India feels, continues to have more than a fighting chance of triumphing. The balance of power that shifted after the second Gulf War, functions in Iran's favour, India believes. Our diplomats also believe that given the realities, it may not be long before the US executes one of its deft changes in policy towards Iran.

Besides, as Indian officials explain it, this is a multilateral summit. India has only missed one NAM summit so far - in 1979, at a time of intense domestic political crisis. There is a strong political constituency in India to show that we're not under the American thumb, and there's nothing better than this opportunity. Besides, didn't Manmohan Singh go to a NAM summit in Cuba in 2006, before travelling to New York? He survived, right?

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