Chasm in the bonhomie

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For long Iran and India have had warm friendly relations. However, the shift in Indian foreign policy is creating a wedge between the two countries. Iftikhar Gilani reports.

Iranian delegation in Kashmir

It was a chilly morning of March 1994, with Elbruz Mountains overlooking Tehran airport covered with snow. Braving cold winds, a special Indian military plane touched aerodrome, carrying then ailing External Affairs Minister Dinesh Singh along with three other passengers. The barely walking minister, who had come straight out of the hospital, was to deliver an urgent letter of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao in-person to Iranian President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. It also happened to be the last diplomatic tour in the five-decade career of Singh, known as “Raja Saheb”.

Just two year ago having mortgaged its gold reserves India was still on the economic brink and to top it all, Russia was licking its own wounds after Soviet break-up. The Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), supported by influential Western nations were moving a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to condemn Indian on human rights violations in Kashmir. The resolution after getting approval from the UNHRC was supposed to be referred to the UN Security Council to initiate economic sanctions and other punitive measures against India.

The OIC, like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a convention that all decisions had to be arrived at through consensus. Recalling the events that saved India from virtual disgrace, former ambassador and expert on Iranian affairs M K Bhadrakumar believed that Rao had shrewdly chosen Iran to force it to abstain from voting. “Once there is no consensus, the resolution was bound to fall through,” he added.

Iranians had no clue why the ailing Indian minister was arriving in Tehran at a short and urgent notice. Breaking protocol, Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Ali Akbar Velayati was waiting at the tarmac with a bated breath. As soon as Singh alighted, Velayati holding his hands, asked what on earth could be of such momentous importance for the Indian minister to undertake such a perilous journey in such a poor state of health. Dinesh Singh just smiled and politely handed over a demarche.

For rest of the day, he went through his ‘Kashmir brief’ diligently through meetings with his Iranian interlocutors – apart from Dr Velayati, President Rafsanjani and the Speaker of the Iranian Majlis Nateq-Nouri. By evening, Singh had returned to his bed at a Delhi hospital, but not before seeking a message from President Rafsanjani “an assurance to prime minister Rao that Iran will do all it can do to ensure that no harm comes to India.”  But, what Iran gained by giving in to India is still a mystery.

It took 72 anxious hours more for Delhi to realise Iran had surgically killed the OIC move to table the resolution – starting a new chapter in its diplomatic relations, having far-reaching consequences for next decade in the region. Iran and Pakistan started distancing in Afghanistan. India cohabited with Iran to promote Northern Alliance, inimical to Pakistani interests. With shock and awe, Pakistan termed it backstabbing.

Significantly, Indian delegation at the UNHRC was led by the leader of opposition Atal Behari Vajpayee and comprised minister of state for external affairs Salman Khursheed and Dr Farooq Abdullah. Vajpayee and Abdullah are still drumming up to take credit of this diplomatic victory. But they hardly knew that Dinesh Singh had laid the ground in Tehran three days ago. Rao never attempted to took away credit from Vajpayee or Abdullah.

It came out later that when Pakistani ambassador sought to move the OIC resolution, his Iranian counterpart in Geneva acting on directives from Teheran backtracked. His argument was that since Iran was a close friend of both India and Pakistan, it was ready to sort out their problems and they need not raise them at an international forum.  That was the last time that Pakistan sought to get a resolution over Kashmir issue tabled at a UN forum.

The wheel now seems having turned a full circle. Growing proximity with United States, aspirations for a global economic and political power, early conclusion of civilian nuclear agreements with Western powers has led India to distance itself from Tehran, even to the extent of dumping tri-nation India-Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline, which was to begin gas supplies in 2012. The US$7.5 billion, 2,700-kilometer pipeline has been in discussion for almost two decades. The pipeline is to begin from Iran’s Assalouyeh energy zone in the south and stretch over 1,100 kilometers through Iran. In Pakistan it is to pass through Balochistan and Sindh before linking up Rajasthan and Gujarat in western India.

Bhadrakumar maintains that Iran was harbouring a sense of betrayal. It was further incensed, when India for the first time did not stand by Iran and abstained from the UN General Body meeting that passed a Canada-sponsored resolution against its human right violations, in a tit-for-tat retaliation to its spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei equating Kashmir with Afghanistan and Gaza in Palestine.

The Ministry of External Affairs also summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires Reza Alaei and issued a demarche for Khamenei impinging on the country’s territorial integrity. The row is over the Iranian leader’s appeal to the Muslim elite worldwide to back the “struggle” in Jammu and Kashmir, equating it with the “nations” of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

The government sources said the Iranian leader’s comment factored in India’s decision not to stand by Iran as it has always been doing to oppose the UN resolutions against it. His comments are a matter of “serious concern,” they said.

India disapproved Khamenei’s message to Haj pilgrims that “today the major duties of the elite of the Islamic Ummah is to provide help to the Palestinian nation and the besieged people of Gaza, to sympathise and provide assistance to the nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Kashmir, to engage in struggle and resistance against the aggressions of the United States and the Zionist regime.”

Reports from New York said the UN resolution was adopted with 88 countries voting in favour and 44 against, while India joined 56 countries that abstained. America’s staunch ally in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, also abstained, signifying change in its stand as it had been voting against Iran all these years.

Iranian delegation with Mirwaiz Umer Farooq

In an official reaction, the Ministry of External Affairs said: “Our decision on the vote was made after due deliberation.”  Since July this year, Iran has on three occasions remarked supporting the “struggle” in Kashmir and bracketed the situation in the state with that in Gaza and Afghanistan, sources said.

“We have conveyed to the Iranian authorities our deep disappointment and regret that they have chosen to disregard our sensitivities and chosen to question our territorial sovereignty,” the sources said.

In the same breath, they also said New Delhi would not allow current tension to cast shadow on long-term mutual interests and relations. “We have taken serious note of statements emanating from Tehran (on Kashmir). That does not mean, other factors have gone. This decision (abstaining at the UN) is purely the outcome of the statements that have come from Iran affecting out vital interests and integrity,” they said.

Though the government has often denied that deterioration of relations was due to its hobnobbing with the US and Israel, analysts believe the chill in relations is indicated from events unfolding on the diplomatic turf, including India divorcing from the tri-nation Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and President Obama seeking India’s support against Iran’s nuclear armament.

In 2008, Tehran had protested at India deploying for the first time ever a warship in the Persian Gulf region, which operated in coordination with the Western navies under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the region.

On September 18, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast had also slammed the killing of 15 Muslim protesters in Kashmir who were outraged by desecration of the Holy Qur’an in the US. He had said that countering such reactions could be interpreted as supporting acts of sacrilege.

These comments also invited a strong diplomatic protest in New Delhi in September as it not only banned the Iranian channel Press TV that had shown visuals of burning of holy Quran, but also summoned Iranian envoy to lodge protest.

India then affirmed that law and order in Jammu and Kashmir was an internal matter and Iran had no right to interfere or comment on these issues. More so, officials here say, Press TV allegedly showed clips that were “unverified.”

A Kashmiri Shia intellectual Ghulam Ali Gulzar says Khamenei’s love for Kashmir was not new. “He loves Kashmir. At every Friday prayer in Tehran University, whenever there is talk about Palestine, Kashmir is also mentioned and prayers offered,” he said while expressing surprise over India’s over-reaction to his latest remark.

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