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Surya Gangadharan
Wednesday, August 29, 2012 at 14 : 35

Indo-Iran relations: time for reality check before diplomatic niceties begin


As the NAM summit kicks off in Tehran, Indian diplomats appear focussed less on those deliberations and more on Manmohan Singh's bilateral with President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khameini.

And while there will be a loud iteration of India and Iran's common concerns in Afghanistan, if you study the tea leaves closely, both have recast their list of friends and enemies and old alliances don't seem that critical as before.

Take the case of the Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara-dominated Northern Alliance. India and Iran were among its strongest backers, providing them money, training and weapons to fight the Pashtun Taliban. But in the years since, India reached out to the Pashtuns in southern and eastern Afghanistan with the aim of making inroads into a community seen as heavily influenced by Pakistan. Aid projects from student scholarships to village development schemes appear to have had an impact.

It's rare to hear of attacks on these projects by the Taliban. The newly built Afghan parliament, a gift from India to that country's nascent democracy, is a sitting duck of a target. But it has not been hit (so far). An Indian-financed and built power distribution station outside Kabul and the Salma dam are other obvious targets.

Indian diplomats say not having a military footprint in Afghanistan is an advantage. There are no Indians fighting the Taliban or acting as proxy for the Americans. The official Indian narrative on the Taliban has also seen a subtle change and India may even be ready to deal directly with them in time.

Iran too is reported to be reaching out to the Taliban, a case of national interest overriding longstanding Shia-Sunni animosities. Tehran wants the Americans out of Afghanistan for which they seem ready to "sup with the devil". A Taliban office has apparently opened, transfers of cash and weapons could be next.

Iran's compulsions are driven by its refusal to bow to the West on its nuclear programme. As the Israeli-orchestrated drum beat for a US strike on Iran's nuclear facilities rises, Iran will look to shore up ties with the Taliban: The enemy's enemy is my friend.

The India-Iran divergence lies here. India would prefer the Americans remain in Afghanistan. Uncle Sam's umbrella, some Indian diplomats say, gives them a degree of protection from another Pakistani strike through its well-known proxies. It also gives India the space to continue development projects and thereby the time to strengthen ties with existing and potential friends.


More about Surya Gangadharan

Surya Gangadharan is International Affairs Editor at CNN IBN and was in Egypt to cover the anti-government movement. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, the UN intervention in Somalia and Rwanda, elections in Pakistan and the civil conflict in Sri Lanka where he interviewed the top leadership of that time. He has worked for the Straits Times Group in Singapore and also for PTI, the Indian Express and India Today in India.