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Tame Israel, Normalise Iran Ties, Isolate Saudi: A new deal in W Asia?

Swiss radiation experts have confirmed the worst suspicion nurtured by independent observers of West Asia—namely, that the death of Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat in 2004 in France was not natural. Doctors were unable to specify the cause of Arafat’s death, which occurred barely a fortnight after he vomited during a meeting and then lapsed into a deepening coma. No autopsy was conducted in keeping with his widow’s request.

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India - Iran: Course Correction

[Inter Press Service, 2 May 2008 ||en]

by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, May 2 (IPS) - Relations between India and Iran, which deteriorated over the past three years from traditional friendship and warmth into mutual suspicion and tension, have started looking up again.

This development has significant implications for India’s role in West Asia and Central Asia as well as ties with its new 'strategic partner', the United States.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s one-day visit to New Delhi on Tuesday is expected to kickstart talks aimed at reviving long-stalled contracts for the purchase of natural gas, and at improving cooperation in a number of areas, including industry, communications and trade.

This was the first visit to India by an Iranian President since January 2003.

Ahmadinejad was originally meant to stop over in Delhi en route from Colombo for refuelling his plane.

But as soon as it was sounded out on this, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) seized the opportunity to make the stopover a full-fledged official visit, with a meeting with Indian President Pratibha Patil, and a dinner meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to which petroleum minister Murli Deora was also invited.

At the top of the agenda of the meeting with Singh was a proposed 7.4 billion dollar 2,600 km-long gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan and India, which has become an icon of mutual cooperation, friendship and peace, as well as a test for India’s willingness to chart out a foreign policy course independent of Washington.

The pipeline, considered relevant for India long-term energy security, was stalled for a variety of reasons. Some of these are commercial, but the more important ones are related to political pressure from the U.S., which regards Iran as a rogue state or "state of concern" and wants to isolate it.

More talks will be needed to finalise the pipeline agreement. But if India, Iran and Pakistan do complete the deal, New Delhi will have to reorient its overall foreign policy posture and prepare to face more explicit opposition and greater pressure from the U.S.

"India signalled a small shift in that direction just before Ahmadinejad’s visit," says Qamar Agha, a Middle East expert who was until recently a visiting professor at the Centre for West Asian Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia university here. "Last week, the MEA issued an unusually strong statement rebuffing the U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Tom Casey, which asked India to tell Iran that it must meet the obligations imposed upon it by the Security Council to suspend its uranium enrichment activities."

The MEA statement said: "India and Iran are civilisations whose relations spans centuries. Both nations are perfectly capable of managing all aspects of their relationship with the appropriate degree of care…. Neither country needs any guidance on the future conduct of bilateral relations as both countries believe that engagement and dialogue alone lead to peace."

A day later, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee also said that it is not for the U.S. or any other state to usurp the power to declare Iran a rogue nuclear state; it is entirely for the UN watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to decide if Iran is developing nuclear weapons or not.

Earlier, India’s National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan too had stressed India’s "civilisational and economic ties" with Iran, which give India a vantage point to engage with it. Iran, he said, "is a major country with tremendous influence, and you need to deal with it diplomatically... (with) erudition and understanding ..."

India’s new position stands in sharp contrast to its votes against Iran at the IAEA in September 2005 and again in early 2006, which resulted in Iran being brought before the United Nations Security Council for sanctions.

A former U.S. official and chief arms-control negotiator, Stephen Rademaker, has publicly said that India’s votes against Iran were secured through "coercion".

The reason for India’s recent change of stance has been attributed to various factors, including the ruling United Progressive Alliance’s need to demonstrate its "foreign policy independence" ahead of a general election due within a year, a desire to ensure the Left parties’ support, and keenness to tie up long-term energy supplies in an era of historically unprecedented oil prices.

"Perhaps the most important consideration," says Agha, "is that the Indian government knows that the nuclear cooperation deal with the United States is unlikely to be clinched soon, under George W. Bush’s presidency. This means that India does not have to look over the shoulder all the time at Washington, and that it can have greater autonomy in practice."

Agha added: ''New Delhi is also anxious to broaden and deepen its relationship with Tehran, not least because Iran holds the key to India’s access to Afghanistan, and to Central Asia, with its enormous natural wealth, including oil and natural gas. If India is to sustain 8 percent GDP growth, its policymakers believe it must establish guaranteed access to Central Asia’s resources before China and Russia consolidate their position in the region."

In recent weeks, India has discussed possibilities of deepening industrial and economic cooperation with Iran, beyond oil and gas.

India has agreed to help Iran build a crucial 600-km rail link in the north-south corridor of the proposed Trans-Asian Railway project. This will run from the Iranian port of Chabahar to Fahraj, and through Azerbaijan and Russia all the way to St Petersburg.

India is already constructing a road link between Zaranj and Delaram in Western Afghanistan, which will be linked to a transit corridor to Chabahar, which is close to India’s upper West coast.

This will enable India to trade with Afghanistan while bypassing Pakistan, which is reluctant to grant it India transit rights.

Other projects - including metallurgical industries, gas liquefaction and port development - are also under discussion. India is being offered large contracts in Iran for laying railway tracks, supplying electrical equipment, and upgrading railway signalling systems and train operations.

However, what of the crucial Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline? Ahmadinejad expressed the hope that the three countries’ petroleum ministers would reach an agreement on the project within the next 45 days.

But India’s Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon was more cautious and said a "lot of work" needs to be done to ensure that the pipeline is commercially viable and secure, and that gas supply is not interrupted.

However, it is clear that India sees the pipeline as a "confidence-building measure", not just a commercial project.

"Yet, that does not mean that the project will go through without major problems," says a high official in India’s petroleum ministry, who requested anonymity under briefing rules. "At least three issues need to be resolved. First, India wants a dedicated gas field to be nominated for the project, with detailed development plans. Second, India wants custody of the gas only at the India-Pakistan border, and not at the Pakistan-Iran border near Gwadar, as proposed."

Adds the official: "And then there’s the issue of pricing of the gas. India, Iran and Pakistan reached an agreement in January last year on the base price. But Iran wants any future price revision based on a shifting band, not a fixed one. This may not be acceptable to major consumers of gas in India, who can only pay a limited price for fuel in power generation."

None of these problems is insuperable but most agree that political will is needed to resolve them.


Iran: freedom under squeeze

Khaleej Times, April 28, 2007

The Iranian Artists' Forum is becoming a target of censorship as part of a new drive by Iran's authorities to regiment individual conduct, writes Praful Bidwai.

The Iranian Artists' Forum is the kind of institution any country would be proud of — a lively, pulsating place, with auditoria, seminar rooms and exhibition halls, where exciting events happen. The Forum exudes the freedom and creativity of Iran's flourishing art world. Not many developing countries have anything comparable.

The Forum is a redesigned military barracks located next to what was the United States embassy. Hundreds of young people "hang out" there. Its vegetarian café serves "chapatti bread", besides sandwiches, soft drinks and teas (including ayurvedic tea). It even offers "Gita Set" and "Lotus Set" thalis.

It's tragic, therefore, that the Forum is becoming a target of censorship. Last week, it hosted the release of a special issue of a remarkable magazine "International Gallerie", published from Mumbai, devoted to Iran's contemporary culture. But its management refused to allow live vocal music during the event, nor a display of some posters based on the issue.

"The Forum management isn't censorship-minded", said an art critic, insisting on anonymity. (Nobody wants to be quoted in Iran for fear of harassment). "But it's being watched. If it's to keep the institution running, it must not say anything critical of the regime. It ends up practising self-censorship."

Opponents of self-censorship were offered an object-lesson last week. The authorities closed down Aban Street's cheerful "Café 78". This was the favourite haunt of radical students, who would chat animatedly about avant-garde art, music, culture, Che Guevara and politics.

Both events are part of a new drive by Iran's authorities to regiment individual conduct. There's a nationwide campaign against the wearing of skimpy headscarves by women. Such campaigns are customary at the beginning of summer.

Yet, the drive has generated great fear because it follows countless other repressive measures. These include detention of dozens of feminists for collecting one million signatures demanding gender balance in the Constitution. Schoolteachers have been arrested for agitating for higher pay.

Worse, secular teachers have been purged from universities. More than 110 pro-reform periodicals have been closed over six years.

The repression isn't a response to a particular threat. "It's part of 'regime maintenance'," says a political scientist. "Iran's hardliners don't want people, especially the youth, to feel free. The youth loathe regimentation. The hardliners cite the Constitution's "Islamic" values and vilayat-e-faqih (government guided by clerics) to enforce discipline."

True, this discipline isn't extreme. Iran is no "Taleban Lite" — a Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. Iranian Islam is more about ritual than rigid doctrine. Iranians interact closely with the West through their million-plus expatriates, the Internet, and consumption of American mass culture, including Hollywood, jeans and fast food. The mismatch between "regime maintenance" and popular aspirations to freedom produces duality. For instance, debate on "sensitive" subjects, including nuclear issues, is banned. But people discuss these in classrooms, buses, homes, and cafes.

Women "jump" communications barriers ingeniously — through dummy websites and blogs. (Iran has the world's third highest number of blogs.) Officially, liquor is a strict no-no. But it flows like water in Iran's living rooms.

Iran is one of the few West Asian countries which hold relatively free and fair elections. But Iran's democracy is deeply flawed, with restricted freedom of political association. Parties are registered only if they conform to Islamic tenets.

Freedom in this deeply paradoxical society has had many ups and downs. Today, it's badly threatened. Three factors will influence Iran's short-term evolution: President Ahmedinejad's growing unpopularity; the ability of reformists to counter the government's use of the current slogan, "Islam and the Nation"; and Iran's confrontation with the West, in particular, the US.

Ahmedinejad recently suffered several setbacks, including defeat of his nominees in local elections. His populist handouts have blown up the special fund financed by Iran's oil sales, estimated at $40 billion. He's considered unreliable and isn't fully trusted by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

If he's reined in by the Establishment—as happened during the recent British sailors' detention and release—the reformists will be strengthened and could exercise a restraining influence. The reformists' success will critically depend on preventing nationalism from being used as a self-legitimising hardline platform. Britain's adventurism on the sailors issue played straight into their hands. They drummed up national pride and won a public relations victory. Britain had to make a deal through clandestine talks.

Much will also depend on how the West deals with Iran's nuclear programme. The US is implacably hostile towards Iran, which it wrongly sees as an "evil", pro-terrorist state.

In fact, Iran is anti-Al Qaeda and behaves with restraint in Shia-majority Iraq despite its considerable influence there. Iran feels humiliated at the sanctions on it for running a nuclear programme which is legitimate—despite relatively minor infractions of International Atomic Energy Agency rules.

The more Iran is cornered over its nuclear activities, the more it'll be defiant — and make boastful claims about its uranium enrichment prowess. Iran is many years away from enriching enough uranium for a Bomb. Its facilities for uranium conversion into hexafluoride (Natanz) and its centrifuge plant (Isfahan) are under IAEA safeguards and cannot make weapons.

Contrary to the claim of installing 3,000 centrifuges, the IAEA says Iran has 1,300 primitive machines. It's unlikely that Iran has stabilised the centrifuges, which are extremely delicate and fragile. (Even India has had serious difficulties here.)

Worse, Natanz's uranium gas is too impure to lead to enrichment. IAEA director-general Mohammed ElBaradei discounts Iran's claim to "industrial-scale" enrichment and says "Iran is still at the beginning stages".

This offers the US, UK, France and Germany an opportunity to negotiate nuclear restraint with Iran while not denying its right to enrichment for peaceful purposes. Iran is willing to talk. A way out is possible. But the US must muster the will to negotiate while abandoning ill-conceived plans to attack Iran.

Much of what happens to and in Iran will depend on the US—as in 1953, when it toppled Iran's first elected leader, and in 1979, when it courted the Revolution's hostility by backing the Shah.