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    Middle East
     Apr 29, 2008
Iran steps into enemy's territory
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

This week, with his three-nation tour of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will fortify Iran's regional ties and thus achieve a milestone in his administration's "Look East" foreign policy orientation.

Accompanied by a high-ranking delegation, Ahmadinejad's trip transpires at a time of heightened US allegations of Iran's meddling in Iraq and serves as an antidote to the US policy of isolating Iran and castigating it as a rogue or pariah state.

Too bad for the US, which now places the lion's share of the blame for its quagmire in Iraq on Iran's "destructive influence", two key US allies in the sub-continent, India and Pakistan, are now poised to deepen their economic, political, cultural and even

 

geostrategic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, irrespective of Tehran's defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for a halt in Iran's uranium-enrichment activities.

Not only that, Sri Lanka, strategically situated in the Indian Ocean, is also about to enter into a close economic relationship with Iran, in light of Tehran's funding of the US$450 million multi-purpose Uma Oya power project and its billion-dollar investment in Sri Lanka's sole oil refinery [1]. This is bound to enhance Iran's regional clout as well as create new points of geostrategic synergy between Tehran and New Delhi.

After all, India "sees Sri Lanka as a sentinel of its security astride the Indian Ocean", to quote a recent study on India-Sri Lanka relations, and Iran's strong presence in Sri Lanka has definite implications in the broader strategic context. In addition to power and energy, Iran looks to expand its ties with Sri Lanka by expanding tourism, educational assistance, an employee exchange program, supplying vessels for Sri Lanka's shipping industry, among others.

As part of Iran's "Look East" (negahe be shargh) policy steered by a Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki [2] who, compared to his Western-educated predecessors, received his education in (Bangalore) India, the new chapter in Iran-Sri Lanka relations has been conceived in Tehran principally as a reaction to the regime of sanctions and limitations imposed by the West.

Ahmadinejad's "Look East" strategy, taking a page or two from India's own eastern strategy of the 1970s through the 1990s, pins its hopes on building win-win bilateral and multilateral relations and cooperation in the economic, political and cultural spheres with the non-Western world. This is basically a subset of an ambitious global strategy that prioritizes ties with various countries, for example in Asia, Africa, Central and Latin America, that are visibly anti-America, such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Others, such as India and Pakistan, are considered strategic allies of Iran's chief nemesis, the US. Yet as these two countries forge closer connections with Iran based on their pressing national interests, above all energy security, they are forced into a delicate balancing act with respect to their burgeoning US ties, that may suffer due to US backlashes against their willingness to defy Washington's will on isolating Iran.

But, with their Iran diplomacy serving as a litmus test of their independence, both Pakistan and India have mirrored each other by standing up to the US's pressure: this is micro-focused on the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI)"peace" pipeline - a $7.6 billion gas pipeline planned to run from Iran through Pakistan and on to India. After years of wrangling, an agreement might soon be signed.

Recently, at a lecture at Harvard University in the US, Nicholas Burns, the outgoing US under secretary of state for political affairs, cited as one of his accomplishments the US's ability to convince India to stay away from the IPI project that, in the words of his boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at her testimony before the US Senate in 2006, is in conflict with "the US laws". This in light of an Iran sanctions act that penalizes foreign corporations or governments that invest more than $20 million in Iran's energy sector.

But, with the IPI likely to be finalized in the coming weeks, if not days, and with China and other players keen to participate in the international bidding for various aspects of this massive project, the US faces a triple jeopardy. These are:
  • Impose reprisals against its important allies and thus alienate them.
  • Inaction on this project makes US laws redundant and undermines the US's image and prestige.
  • De facto accommodation of the project will play into the hands of Iran in its strategic games in relation to the intrusive superpower.

    However, despite India's explicit turnaround on the IPI after a temporary bout of cold feet, reflected in last week's successful meeting of India's and Pakistan's oil ministers in Islamabad, Washington has not altogether given up hope the Iran-benefiting project will be scuttled at the last minute, or at least postponed further, just as it has been during the past 15 years. (Last week, India and Iran hammered out their main differences, which related to the transit fee to be charged by Pakistan for the Iranian gas going to India.)

    On the eve of Ahmadinejad's state visit to Pakistan, where he is scheduled to sign a gas sales purchase agreement, news from Pakistan that a Baloch rebel group, the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), has blown up a gas pipeline disrupting supplies to various Punjab districts highlights the security problems of the IPI project that traverses 700 kilometers of Pakistani territory, including volatile Balochistan province.

    Given the demands of the BRA for royalties for the region's gas supplies and job-creation for ethnic Balochis, Islamabad could conceivably offset threats to the IPI by pledging to use the project precisely for the economic revival of Balochistan.

    An editorial in the Pakistan daily, the Nation, noted that the IPI will "usher in a new economic era" both internally and also externally by "adding new dimensions to Pakistan-India relations", in the words of Pakistani Petroleum Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif.

    Pakistan will need foreign investment and support to cover the costs of constructing the pipeline going through its territory and expects institutions such as the World Bank, which has done a feasibility study on the project and has come out in favor of it, to provide financial assistance. [3] Yet, the US, which wields enormous clout in the World Bank, may play the spoiler by blocking such assistance, in which case it will earn itself the ire of Pakistan's newly-elected government, as well as India, which needs to upgrade its infrastructure to realize its dream of addressing its energy crunch through the IPI pipeline.

    Ahmadinejad's "whistle-stop" tour in India, to echo a headline in the Hindustan Times, will be the shortest leg of his three-day South Asia tour, yet it has the deepest diplomatic and symbolic significance, coinciding with a week-long festival of Iranian culture in India that serves to highlight the historical ties between the countries.

    According to the Iranian news agency IRNA, Ahmadinejad's visit will deepen ties and in his discussions with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Indian President Pratibha Patil, "discussions are set to cover a number of sectors from energy, the slow moving Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project to bilateral investment to civilian nuclear energy".

    The Indian media, on the other hand, have reported that last week Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee sent a letter to Tehran asserting that India "pursues an independent foreign policy", thus assuring Tehran that Delhi's recent "standing up to Uncle Sam" with respect to Iran is not a one-off, but rather a manifestation of India's "foreign policy realism".

    Concerning the latter, Indian National Security Advisor M K Narayanan recently told a conference in New Delhi that India did not want to be part of a "compact" dealing with Iran's nuclear issue, that India felt it was "better placed" to deal with Iran than many other countries, partly because "we have the second-largest Shi'ite population, so it's not only a foreign-policy issue, but a domestic issue".

    There is a great deal on the India-Iran plate nowadays, and Narayanan made a point of revealing that "a great deal is taking place between India and Iran which is not on the public realm".

    Notes
    1. According to Sri Lanka's official reports, Iran "would cover 70% of the required investment for the refinery's expansion, in the form of a 10-year loan, with a five-year exemption". Iran is expected to yield noticeable benefits from its investment, barring unforeseen developments, such as sabotage and further instability in Sri Lanka from attacks by Tamil separatists.
    2. For more, see the author's interview with Mottaki in www.thepeoplesvoice.org, September 27, 2006, Saving the Peace Pipeline, www.agenceglobal.com, August 17, 2007.

    Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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