PM heads to Tehran for NAM summit, Iran ties in focus


New Delhi: Amid mounting pressure from West on Iran over its nuclear programme, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh heads to Tehran Tuesday to attend the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, an important visit that will also see meetings with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the leaders of Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

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Manmohan Singh is expected to pitch for reinvigorating the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement in the context of the shifting world order. The world will be, however, watching closely when Manmohan Singh meets Ahmadinajad Wednesday ahead of the August 30-31 summit.

Ahead of the meeting, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said India will seek to scale up trade with Iran and stressed that the economic relations with Iran have been improving for the last two years.

“Our relations have been strong. As for trade, the balance is in favour of Iran and we would concentrate on increasing trade,” said Mathai, who will Sunday attend a trilateral India-Afghanistan-Iran meeting in Tehran prior to the NAM summit.

India’s imports from Iran in 2011-12 were at $12 billion and exports were at $3 billion. On the strategic plane, the two sides will explore possibilities of working closely on Afghanistan in view of the withdrawal of international combat troops by 2014.

In this context, the two sides will explore and discuss different ideas on pushing the Chabahar port project that has several components, including a rail link to Afghanistan.

Asked about the Western sanctions against Iran, Mathai stressed that India only abided by the UN sanctions and was not bound by unilateral sanctions imposed by other countries. He, however, admitted that the US and the European Union sanctions have created logistical difficulties in importing Iranian oil.

India’s imports of Iranian oil have dipped by as much as 40 per cent over the last year. New Delhi has, however, denied any Western pressure and said it was done to diversify India’s energy supply.

Asked whether Washington had raised its concerns over Iran at the meeting here earlier this week between visiting US Permanent Representative to the UN Susan Rice and Indian officials, including Mathai, he said: “We did discuss issues relating to Iran but informally.”

Pressed whether India would convey the US concerns on Iran, Mathai replied: “Peace and security are our (India’s) primary concerns. This is our concern and we don’t have to take anyone else’s concern as a priority.”

To a query whether the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project was still on, Y.K. Sinha, external affairs ministry joint secretary (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran), who was also present at the briefing, said the issue would be discussed at next month’s meeting in New Delhi of the India-Iran joint working group on hydrocarbons.

Mathai said bilateral meetings are also planned on the sidelines of the NAM summit between Manmohan Singh and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as also the leaders of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Mepal.

He, however, would not go into specifics of what was expected of the meeting between Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

“We are also hoping for a pull-aside with the president of Egypt (the current NAM secretary general),” Mathai added.

This will be Manmohan Singh’s third NAM summit after Havana (2006) and Sharm el Sheikh (2009).

Asked about India’s expectations from the summit, Mathai said: “NAM remains as relevant today as when it was created (in 1961). We need to re-invigorate the movement for a greater focus on the issues of global governance, reform of international institutions, food security and energy.”

“The time has come to give grater emphasis to global issues,” he added.

The festering Syria crisis will figure prominently in the discussions. Asked about New Delhi’s stand on the Iran’s reported move to press for a resolution on Syria at the NAM summit, Mathai said India did not believe that the declaration that would be adopted would go beyond what was stated in the final document of the recent ministerial meeting of the NAM coordinating bureau at Sharm el Sheikh.

On Syria, the document says: “The Ministers took note of the efforts of the international community to deal with the situation in Syria. They welcomed the efforts by (former UN secretary general) Mr. Kofi Annan, and called for full implementation of the joint envoy’s plan and its six points, and the Security Council resolutions” on the issue.

“We fully endorse this position,” Mathai said. India has consistently opposed regime change and backed an inclusive Syrian-led political transition.