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Iran in India

Today, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New Delhi on his first official visit there. On the agenda is the 1,625-mile gas pipeline that will connect supplier Iran to consumers India and Pakistan. Yesterday, the Iranian president was in Islamabad, where he and his Pakistani hosts said they had resolved “all issues” regarding the proposed link.

Iran is making headway in implementing its “Look East” strategy, and in India Tehran has found a willing partner. The Bush administration, to put pressure on Iran, has opposed the pipeline, but New Delhi, famed for its independence, is pushing back. “India and Iran are ancient civilizations whose relations span centuries,” the Indian foreign ministry said last week. “Neither country needs any guidance on the future conduct of bilateral relations.”

Of course. There are many reasons why New Delhi wants to improve ties with Tehran. Among them are New Delhi’s desire to show that it is not dependent on Washington, India’s need for Iran’s energy, and the Indian government’s concern about the country’s Shiites, who look to Tehran.

Fortunately for Washington, Iran and India have yet to settle their differences over the pipeline. Among the outstanding problems is something that Tehran has no power to solve: New Delhi’s concern about relying on energy that has to travel through archrival Pakistan. Nonetheless, some believe construction on the US$7.6 billion project could begin next year. Consequently, the Bush administration does not have much time to figure out how to keep India from joining Iran.

I don’t think the solution for Washington to this particular problem can be found in New Delhi, however. As the Indians see it, they cannot afford to help the Americans in opposing the Iranians as long as the Iranians retain the support of the Chinese. This same dynamic drives India’s unattractive policy of assisting the junta in Burma-it does so to counter China’s influence there.

So if Washington wants to stop Iran with diplomacy, it will have to work magic in Beijing. If it fails to do so soon, the pipeline will reach India and extend crucial support to the mullahs-and their nuclear weapons program.


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