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(hold)Iran-India Rapprochement Brings Benefits to Both Sides - 2003-10-16

Iran, faced with international pressure over its nuclear program, its human rights record and suspected links to terrorism is developing closer ties with regional powerhouses such as India as a way to break out of its international isolation.

Iran's blossoming relationship with India was in evidence in January, when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was the featured guest at India's annual Republic Day celebrations.

During that visit, Mr. Khatami and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee signed an agreement establishing a "strategic relationship" between the two countries. Mr. Khatami was accompanied by senior ministers, including the foreign, oil and defense ministers.

Bob Hathaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington research institute, chaired a panel discussion on the Iranian-Indian relationship on Thursday. He said, "Khatami and the Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee pledged to collaborate in energy, in trade and other economic issues, in anti-terrorist actions and in what they called strategic collaboration in third countries, which many analysts took to mean Afghanistan."

The joint declaration also included an agreement to explore possible cooperation in certain, non-specified defense areas. Iran and India conducted joint naval exercises in March.

Jalil Roshandel, a scholar who once worked as a researcher at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, told the panel the joint declaration was only the latest development in a relationship that has been warming up over time.

He said Iran has tried since the early 1990s to break the international isolation it suffered following the 1979 Islamic revolution. "At the international level, Iran was facing tremendous pressure. Israeli and American pressure was increasing because of the involvement in Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in Hezbollah, in terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," he explained. "And under the U.S. embargo, Iran felt a heavy burden of international isolation."

But India also benefits from the relationship. Christine Fair of the Rand Corporation, an analysts group, said the end of the Cold War and the 1991 Gulf War made both India and Iran aware that they had common economic and security interests. These included fighting regional instability and containing the Taleban in Afghanistan.

"Both states were increasingly concerned, of course, over the rise of U.S. hegemony," she said. "The collapse of the Soviet Union brought chaos to Iran's northern frontier in Central Asia. And Iran's commercial interest required a stable Central Asia. By the time the 1990s wrapped up, basically three themes were emerging. Of course, energy; security in Central Asia; Afghanistan and particularly the Taleban became an intense area of mutual concern and cooperation between these two states. And of course, business and other commercial contexts."

Ms. Fair said the strategic relationship need not become a matter of great concern to the United States. She said New Delhi has very sophisticated foreign policy, as well as strong ties to Washington. That, she said, could help India serve as a bridge between the United States and Iran, which broke diplomatic relations in 1980.