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India, Iran resolved to focus on connectivity, economic cooperation

Tehran, The three-day visit by Iran's President Hassan Rouhani to India-his first after becoming president in 2013-is testimony that India's 'Think West' Policy, like its 'Act East' Policy, is thriving and blooming.

President Rouhani's visit will give a decisive shot in the arm to India's growing engagement with West Asia, idsa.in wrote.

**The Visit

President Rouhani's visit provided a welcome opportunity to the two sides to give a vigorous push to bilateral ties in the areas of connectivity, energy, infrastructure, trade, investment, security, defense, culture and people-to-people contacts. The nine Agreements signed during the visit covering a wide gamut of issues, including all the above subjects, will provide a strong impetus to bilateral engagement. In addition, deliberations between the two leaders were helpful to develop understanding and iron over some wrinkles that have appeared in bilateral ties during recent years.

Rouhani's presence in India was evidence of the keen interest that both countries have in promoting bilateral ties and taking them to the next higher level.

**Connectivity

As expected, connectivity through Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran emerged as one of the most significant aspects of bilateral Talks. India's recent accession to the Ashgabat Agreement in which Turkmenistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Oman are members, and to the TIR Convention will help enhance its engagement with the region.

Chabahar Port provides a strategic option for India to connect with Afghanistan and Central Asia and beyond. An Agreement was signed to provisionally hand over the management of Chabahar Port to India for the next 18 months. Extension of this Agreement is expected to take place on the expiry of this period.

It is a matter of considerable satisfaction that the Trilateral Agreement on the use of Chabahar, which was signed during Modi's visit to Tehran in May 2016 in a ceremony attended by Iranian and Afghan presidents, has been put into operation in a little more than a year. India has invested $85 million in upgrading the first phase of the port from 2.5 million tons to 8.5 million tons.

India has also committed to construct the railway line from Chabahar Port to Zahedan in the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan which is close to Zaranj on the Afghanistan-Iran border. To maintain its credibility, India will need to ensure that there is no slackness in implementation of this element of the project.

Gwadar Port in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province is barely a 100 kilometers away from Chabahar Port and is being developed by China. Chabahar will face stiff competition from Gwadar. India and Iran will have to make certain that to-and-fro business handled by Chabahar is significant. For Afghanistan, it could prove to be, as Modi said, 'a golden gateway'.

Chabahar enjoys several advantages over Gwadar as the possibilities for establishing manufacturing and downstream petrochemical industries in the Iranian port are much greater than the counterpart as ready, easy, cheap natural gas is available in plentiful in Iran. Above all, Chabahar is a natural harbor and can serve as the sourcing point for the International North-South Transport Corridor which has also been taken up much more seriously in recent years.

**Energy

During President Rouhani's visit, it was decided that India will set up ''plants in sectors such as fertilizers, petrochemicals and metallurgy in Chabahar Free Trade Zone (FTZ) on terms mutually beneficial to the concerned parties. This will be a win-win investment as it will promote India's energy security while providing financial resources and employment opportunities to Iran.

These ventures will also provide additional cargo and business for transportation, both in and out, to Chabahar Port.

Discussions on the exploitation of Farzad B gas field, which was discovered by an Indian consortium comprising OVL (ONGC Videsh Ltd.), Oil India Limited and Indian Oil Corporation in 2007, have been going on for the last many years. Its mention in the Joint Statement is significant as it implies that both sides wish to resolve the issue in the very near future.

**Trade and investment

Both sides agreed to facilitate issuance of visas to promote tourism and people-to-people contacts between the two countries. It will be mutually beneficial if more businessmen and common people travel to each other's countries. More frequent travel by Indian businessmen and people will provide a huge boost to Iran's economy and also promote understanding and cooperation between the two countries.

The agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation was signed to promote bilateral trade and investment. India has also decided to permit Indian investments in Iran in Indian rupees. Currently, this facility is available only for Bhutan and Nepal.

This decision, which has been taken in view of the absence of international banking facilities in Iran as also to skirt the uncertainty due to continuing pressure by the US on Iran, will go a long way in facilitating Indian investments in several areas in Iran. The opening of a CII, Confederation of Indian Industry, office in Iran last year can also be expected to give strong boost to two way business and economic ties.

Bilateral cooperation in security, defense and fight against terrorism emerged as significant areas of discussion during Rouhani's visit. A Bilateral Extradition Treaty was signed and it was also decided to have enhanced cooperation in the maritime domain.

The two countries agreed to hold dialogue to look into measures for cooperation in defense sphere, including port calls by naval ships, training and regular exchanges of defense delegations.

**Conclusion

Both India and Iran seem to have come to the conclusion that there are a large number of areas in which their interests coincide and converge. They also recognize that they have divergent views on some issues. They hence appear to have taken the decision to collaborate in spheres where they agree and hold frank and candid discussions on subjects where they have different of views while not allowing these issues to block or vitiate bilateral ties.

The seriousness of the two countries to strengthen bilateral engagement is evident from the decision to further intensify and diversify the existing high-level engagement through frequent and wider range of bilateral exchanges at all levels. In this context, it was decided to convene within this year the meeting of the India-Iran Joint Commission and all its working groups, foreign office consultations, dialogue between defense and national Security Council structures of the two countries, policy planning dialogue, and to promote parliamentary exchanges.

India and Iran have decided to focus their energies on areas of concurrence and rapidly embark on a mutually beneficial and fruitful partnership.

*Ashok Sajjanhar is the president of the Institute of Global Studies and India's former ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.

Source: Islamic Republic News Agency


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