Trilateral summit in Tehran

At the initiative of Iran's President Ahmadinejad, a summit meeting between him and the Presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan has just been held in Tehran. Its purpose was to strengthen cooperation for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, where the ravages of a prolonged war are yet to draw international assistance on the required scale. The leaders also discussed the threat of militancy and the dangers posed by the trade in drugs. Their summit was preceded last month by a top-level meeting in Kabul between the three foreign offices. There are expectations that a mechanism for regular high-level consultation between the three parties will come into being. The photographs from the Summit suggest that the participants found a good deal of common ground: we see President Ahmadinejad flanked on either side by his guests from the other two countries, all seemingly in high good humour. Just a short while earlier, the same two visitors had been together in Washington at the invitation of President Obama: to judge from the visual evidence, that was a rather more sombre occasion. Mr. Karzai and Mr. Zardari were asked to visit Washington to line them up effectively beside the USA in the re-shaped anti-Taliban policy of Mr. Obama. Neither of the visitors is currently very popular in Washington and they may well have been under pressure to be more active in their efforts to contain and overcome the Taliban. One measure of this could be the resumed Pakistani campaign in Swat against the tribal groups with which a 'peace deal' had been recently agreed and implemented. Both 'Afpak' countries are uncomfortable with the fallout from the heavy fighting, especially the drone attacks by the USA, where civilian casualties have been heavy and the public has protested vigorously. The photo-ops at the recent summits provide only meagre evidence and too much should not be read into what they seem to indicate. But the Tehran meeting is an interesting initiative by Iran that needs proper evaluation. For one thing, it comes as a reminder that the security problem in Afghanistan has a wider regional connotation and is not confined to the countries where the battle currently takes place. India is all too aware of the fact that terrorism from the 'Afpak' region can spill over into its territory. The Tehran meeting is a reminder that Iran is also affected by these events, in one respect more so, for it has been obliged to provide shelter to large numbers of Afghan refugees. Insofar as responding to the Taliban threat is concerned, Mr. Ahmadinejad's initiative makes it plain that there is no difference of interest between these three countries. Iran has been an uncompromising foe of the Taliban from the start. State interests no less than ideological considerations have divided them. Indeed, at a time several years ago when much of the rest of the world was beginning to come around to establishing some sort of modus vivendi with the Taliban as they spread across Afghanistan and seemed impossible to remove, Iran remained staunchly opposed. It gave its backing to the Northern Alliance that resisted the Taliban to the end under the leadership of Ahmed Shah Massoud. Nothing has happened since those early days to encourage a change of policy: Iran has its own assessment and interests in its neighbourhood but there is nothing in its approach that could complicate the task of the 'Afpak' countries in their life-and-death struggle against Taliban extremists. Although in this important aspect their interests obviously converge, there are other issues that continue to divide the USA from Iran. A major point of contention is the Iranian nuclear programme which fuels deep suspicion in the West. Another disruptive issue is the Iranian support for radical Middle Eastern groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. These groups have been in confrontation with Israel which has given a severe military response to the threat it apprehends from them, and that in turn has made its quarrel with Iran more uncompromising. As a result, it has been impossibly difficult for the USA to broaden its 'Afpak' strategy to draw in Iran, even though it might be useful for this particular purpose. But there may be some sort of change ahead. Repairing relations with Iran, in however limited a fashion, has been mentioned as part of the foreign policy re-orientation that the Obama Administration intends to pursue. Where this will reach, and whether it is possible to bridge the gap between the two sides, remains to be seen. But something is stirring in the region, and it could have useful consequences. From India's point of view, the most interesting outcome from Tehran was the decision by Iran and Pakistan to go ahead with a natural gas pipeline project. This is something that has been spoken of for well over a decade, as a trilateral venture between the two countries that have now signed up, with India as the third party. Now the other two have gone ahead without first tying it up with India. However, at the time of signing, the Iranian spokesperson said that India would be free to join in the future, when it felt it was in a position to do so. In fact, the door was left open for other countries also to join, with some expectation that China may be drawn in. With this development the long discussed pipeline project seems to have begun to take concrete shape. What has been agreed in Tehran seems to be a framework for a more detailed accord that is to be signed shortly. The two parties seem to have concluded that the venture is viable as a bilateral project and does not depend on access to India to make it feasible. When first conceived, the pipeline was designed to bring natural gas from Iran to India across Pakistan, which seemed adequately supplied from its own resources. But that no longer seems to be the case. Indeed, some years ago Mr. Shaukat Aziz, then Pakistan's Prime Minister, had called for a quick decision by India because the other two were ready to proceed bilaterally if India were unable to decide. This is what now seems to have happened. It remains to be seen, however, if the present agreement becomes a goad and incentive to India or whether the other two will be satisfied with the much smaller venture that has emerged in Tehran. The real market for piped natural gas is in India and the project will have to be re-designed on a much larger scale if and when India decides to join. Nor could Pakistan be expected readily to forgo the substantial transit fees that will come its way if the pipeline is to reach as far as India. So the last word on this subject may not yet have been said. Whatever shape the project takes, it marks a more active and constructive phase of Iran's regional policy. The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary. The Statesman of India also published this article today.

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