President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is taking Iran's outreach strategy to South Asia this week, with high-profile visits to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India aimed at making energy deals and curbing Western influence.
Mr. Ahmadinejad and Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf said Monday – during the Iranian leader's first stop – that no barriers remained to signing a $7.6 billion pipeline deal that will provide both energy-starved Pakistan and India with natural gas.
But the biggest challenge on Ahmadinejad's latest goodwill trip to counter US influence and rekindle diplomatic friendships would be in India.
"India is very short on energy, so there are economic reasons for India to maintain a working relationship with Iran," he adds. "However India's long-term and strategic relationship is definitely with Washington, and I think that has been made very, very clear."
Although India has long been friendly with Iran, its policies have turned increasingly pro-American since the Bush administration began work on a substantial nuclear energy package in mid-2005, giving US nuclear equipment and fuel to a country that secretly developed nuclear weapons and never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Old friends, new differences
Earlier this year, India launched a spy satellite for Iran's archfoe Israel that was designed to more closely monitor Iran's nuclear program. And officials, according to The Times of India, in October last year seized 1,150 kg of nuclear graphite, a proscribed dual-use material that an Indian company had bought from China and was shipping to Iran.
Still, diplomatic niceties between the US and India disappeared in the run-up to the official visit.
A public State Department call for India to encourage Iran to suspend uranium enrichment in its controversial nuclear program – as required by three Security Council resolutions – was met with a stiff reply.
"India and Iran are ancient civilizations whose relations span centuries," said India's foreign ministry. "Neither country needs any guidance on the future conduct of bilateral relations as both countries believe that engagement and dialogue alone lead to peace."
Officials say they are nearing agreement on the stalled project called the "Pipeline for Peace and Progress," which is meant to deliver 30 million cubic meters of Iranian gas daily each to Pakistan and India.
Washington opposes the pipeline because of what it brings to Iran, despite benefits also for US allies India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since they were partitioned in 1947.
"There is a great deal happening between India and Iran which is not in the public realm," India's National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan said last week. India would not take part in "conflict diplomacy," Mr. Narayanan said, adding that Iran has "tremendous influence" in the region and that "India is better poised, better placed than anyone else" to talk to Iran.
US officials have refused to rule out military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last week said Iran was "hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons," one part of a renewed array of US accusations against Iran that include Iranian meddling in Iraq.
IAEA inspectors continue to study several remaining allegations that Iran once pursued nuclear weapons, though a US intelligence assessment last December concluded that Iran stopped any such activity in late 2003.
Iran denies wanting nuclear weapons.
Shoring up support
The South Asia trip is the latest in which Ahmadinejad has acted as Iran's goodwill ambassador, previously patching up frayed relations with Arab countries that are wary of Iran's growing power and its nuclear ambitions.
Ahmadinejad last year became the first Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic revolution to be invited by Saudi Arabia to attend the hajj (pilgrimage), and the first to join a summit of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council – an organization first created to counter the spread of Iran's revolutionary ideology.
"A lot of it has to be seen within his overarching conflict with the West," says Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at St. Andrew's University in Scotland, noting recent speeches in which the Iranian president suggested that the 9/11 death toll was a hoax and that the power dynamic is changing.
"He said the post-1945 world order is coming to an end … that power is shifting to India and China, and this is what Iran needs to look at," says Mr. Ansari, author of "Confronting Iran."
In Sri Lanka, the start of Ahmadinejad's two-day visit on Monday was marked with posters showing him and Sri Lankan leader Mahinda Rajapaksa smiling over the words "The Friendly Path to Progress" and "Traditional Asian Solidarity," the Associated Press reported.
During a visit to Iran last November, the Sri Lankan president was pledged $1.9 billion in Iranian loans and grants for oil refining, irrigation, and hydroelectric projects.
By contrast, the US and European nations are strongly criticizing human right abuses in Sri Lanka's fight against the Tamil Tiger rebels.
"In Asia, we don't go around preaching to our neighbors and our friends," the AP quoted Sri Lanka's foreign affairs chief Palitha Kohona as saying. "This public naming and shaming process that seems so popular in the West is really not so accepted here."