Cocking a snook : South Asia hosts Ahmadinejad

April 29, 2008

India, Pakistan and even tiny Sri Lanka have all ignored U.S. concerns, and have hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the past two days. It is a fleeting visit with less than five hours scheduled in Delhi, but it seems like a carefully calibrated piece of diplomacy tiptoeing around the elephant in the room.
 
For, as relations go, India and Pakistan have become bound up with the United States in ways that would have been unthinkable not very long ago. Islamabad is a frontline ally in Washington’s war on al Qaeda and the Taliban, India a growing strategic partner with whom it is pushing a far-reaching civilian nuclear deal that gives it de facto recognition as a nuclear state.

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So what’s this dance with Iran, accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism and seeking to develop nuclear weapons ? Some of it is down to economics : Iran holds the key to India’s energy  insecurity, as a piece in the Asia Times argues.

With oil prices skyrocketing, India’s thirst for cheaper imported gas has acquired a greater urgency than before and if this means jumpstarting the 15-year-old proposal to pipe gas from Iran through Pakistan, now estimated to cost $7.5 billion, so be it. Pakistan too needs the natural gas to meet its growing energy demand, as also the millions of dollars it will earn in transit fees.

And if history is any lesson, the “pipeline of peace” could promote security in the region with the costs of a conflict between India and Pakistan that much higher.

But is there also a desire to assert or rather be seen to be asserting independence of action in hosting Ahmadinejad at a time when tensions are rising again over its nuclear ambitions ?

Pakistan has a new civilian government which has pledged to pursue a more independent course, including in the fight against al Qaeda, than followed by President Pervez Musharraf.

India’s government is under pressure from its communist allies who think it has gone too far in seeking warmer ties with America and risks losing its independence of action. In any case, New Delhi has been acutely sensitive of being seen as anything other than a fiercely independent nation.  

What of Sri Lanka ? Perhaps the island has had enough of lectures on human right violations and veiled threats to hold back assistance if it continues to seek a military solution to the insurgency by Tamil Tiger rebels. Iran will probably abjure such admonitions.    

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