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Iran Prez visit: Modi, Rouhani to talk Chabahar port, regional security

Archis Mohan/New Delhi 15 Feb 18 | 11:55 AM

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves to his supporters upon arrival in a campaign rally for May 19 presidential election in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, May 13, 2017. Photo: PTI

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will be on a three-day visit to India from Thursday. Bilateral talks are likely to focus on the progress on the Chabahar port of Iran that New Delhi is helping develop, bilateral trade — particularly the issue of Indian investment in Iran's Farzad-B gas field and India’s oil imports from Iran.

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Mutual concerns over regional security, especially the situation in Afghanistan, should also come up for discussions between Rouhani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi when they hold their delegation level talks in New Delhi on Saturday.

Rouhani's is the first visit by an Iranian President to New Delhi since that of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who had visited India in 2003, at the invitation of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Rouhani, as the national security adviser, was a member of Khatami’s delegation. Rouhani, 69, was elected Iran’s president in 2013, and re-elected in 2017.

Rouhani is scheduled to land in Hyderabad on Thursday evening. On Friday, the Iranian President will offer prayers at the Makkah Masjid and also address a gathering of religious leaders and intellectuals.

The circumstances of Rouhani's visit, which comes amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the Donald Trump administration in Washington DC, are somewhat akin to the visit to New Delhi of Khatami in January 2003.

Then, the George W Bush administration had included Iran in its category of "axis of evil", along with the governments in Iraq and North Korea. Khatami was the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade in 2003. The visit of the Iranian President comes in the wake of rising oil prices, and Prime Minister Modi's West Asia outreach. India-Iran trade was $12.89 billion in 2016-17, of which India imported $10.5 billion worth of crude oil from Tehran and exported commodities worth $2.4 billion.

While Iran remains a leading source of India’s crude oil requirements, its share in New Delhi’s oil imports had gradually come down, but has shown an uptick since December.

Tehran has almost doubled its oil exports after the end of sanctions in January 2016 following an agreement between the United States, several European and Iran. However, the Trump administration has been threatening to re-impose the sanctions on Iran.

Given Narendra Modi government’s proximity to the US at a time of increased Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and India’s immediate neighbourhood, most recently in the Maldives, it would be interesting to watch how New Delhi reacts to Iranian requests to keep the oil imports at an even keel in the coming months.

Rouhani’s visit also comes on the heels of India’s West Asia ourtreach. In January, Modi Government had hosted Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. On Tuesday, Modi returned from a four-nation visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Palestine and Oman.

An agreement signed during that visit between India and Oman will give Indian Navy access to the Duqm port in Oman, which should extend India's strategic reach in the region. It is also being claimed that the agreement would —along with Indian presence in Chabahar port — help New Delhi counter the Chinese presence in Pakistan's Gwadar port.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of External Affairs said that during the visit of the Iranian President, "both sides would review the progress achieved in bilateral relations and also exchange views on regional and international issues of mutual interest."

India and Iran relations have remained vibrant during the tenure of the Modi Government, with frequent ministerial visits from both sides. Iranian Roads Minister visited India in November 2014, and Foreign Minister in August 2015.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Oil and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan visited Tehran in April 2016. A month later, in May, 2016, PM Narendra Modi visited Tehran. The highlight of the PM's visit to Tehran was the signing of the 'trilateral transit agreement' for the Chabahar port.

In October, India supplied 15,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar, and is in the process of sending another consignment. The port is expected to be operational by the end of 2018.

In a related development, the ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) on Wednesday offered to invest $6.2 billion in developing Iran's Farzad-B gas field in the Persian gas. Negotiations had been stuck over pricing of natural gas. New Delhi hopes for a breakthrough on the deal during Rouhani's visit.

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