Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived in Tehran on Tuesday for the 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit (NAM), despite the Obama administration bluntly calling Tehran “a strange and inappropriate” place to hold the 120-member body’s summit. Singh’s participation in the summit in Tehran is partly driven by New Delhi’s strong desire to make the NAM relevant once again.
Still, Singh’s schedule while in Tehran is indicative of India’s intention to engage with Iran and Syria. Indeed, Singh’s first working day in Iran on Wednesday will include a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Indian Prime Minister will also be holding a separate meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during his stay.
Significantly, Singh is also reportedly considering holding a one-on-one meeting with his Syrian counterpart Wael Nader al-Halqi, a close confidant of the besieged President Bashar al-Assad. Al-Halqi took over as the prime minister earlier this month after his predecessor defected to the rebels and left the country.
Singh’s trip to Iran- the first by an Indian PM in a decade- as well his itinerary while there, is bound to upset the U.S. given Washington’s efforts to push for regime change in at least Syria, if not Iran itself.
It’s worth noting, however, that India, as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has voted against both Iran and Syria at that body on a number of occasions. Still, when asked whether India would convey U.S. concerns to Iran, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai stated, "We don't have to take anyone else's concern as a priority."
Nor is Singh’s attendance at the summit a one-time endeavor. Indeed, immediately preceding the summit India held a trilateral meeting with Iran and Afghanistan at the Deputy Foreign Ministerial level. The issues discussed at this meeting were reportedly wide-ranging, from specific ones like how to best utilize Iran’s Chabahar Port to more general ones like regional security and economic cooperation. These issues are not entirely unrelated from India’s perspective as New Delhi has strong interests in using Chabahar for both economic and strategic ends. With regards to the former, the port facilitates India’s trade with Central Asia, and is an integral part of the International North-South Corridor that India has long supported.
Strategically, the port can act as a conduit for India to exercise influence in Afghanistan and help shape a post-NATO Afghanistan to its liking. Given Tehran and New Delhi's overlapping interests in Afghanistan, it is not altogether surprising that Iran has asked India to invest $100 million in Chabahar. India is reportedly holding out for Afghan participation in the project before deciding whether to accept. Curiously, the U.S. suggested this week that it would support this undertaking.