India calls trade mission to Iran ‘very successful’

By Penny MacRae ,AFP

NEW DELHI — A major Indian trade delegation to Iran to explore export opportunities created by U.S.-led sanctions against the Islamic republic was a big success, a leader of the mission has said. The 80-member delegation spent five days in the Persian Gulf nation last week in a bid to boost Indian exports as a way of paying the country’s huge oil bill to Iran. “The visit was very good and very successful,” said Rafeeque Ahmed, president of the government-backed Federation of Indian Export Organizations, which spearheaded the mission. “We saw a lot of interest from the Iranians in buying Indian goods,” Ahmed told AFP late on Saturday. “We talked about the excellent opportunities in food grains, food processing, pharmaceuticals, auto parts and other areas.” India has been walking a diplomatic tightrope as it seeks to drum up more exports orders from Iran while managing its growing relations with the United States and keeping ties on an even keel with Israel, a top arms supplier. Fuel-scarce India buys around US$11 billion worth of oil from Iran a year — its second-largest crude supplier after Saudi Arabia — but sells Tehran just US$2.7 billion in goods. The trade mission, headed by Indian Joint Commerce Secretary Arvind Mehta, came as the intensifying sanctions campaign dries up dollar and euro payment routes that India has been using to pay for Iranian oil imports. India and Iran have worked out a deal under which New Delhi will seek to pay for close to half of its Iranian oil imports in rupees.

The rupee payments will be used by Iran to purchase Indian goods and the countries plan to reach a bilateral trade target of US$25 billion within the next four years. On Friday, India announced tax changes to facilitate greater trade with Iran, citing “national interest.” U.S. lawmakers and pro-Israel groups have accused New Delhi of undermining efforts to isolate Tehran and force it to abandon its nuclear program. The United States and its allies say the program is aimed at making an atomic bomb but Iran says it is for civilian energy. A bomb attack that severely injured an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi last month has further complicated matters. Israel accuses Iran of masterminding the attack, which Tehran has denied. Indian police have issued arrest warrants for Iranian nationals but New Delhi has assigned no blame for the bombing. India says it will abide only by U.N. sanctions and will not implement others imposed unilaterally by the United States and European Union. Indian officials insist recent events should not overshadow its “rich civilization” ties with Iran, seen by New Delhi as an important counterweight to archrival Pakistan in the troubled region. India, which has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, is also uneasy about joining a U.S.-led drive against the Islamic republic that could have domestic political repercussions, analysts say. New Delhi has said Western accusations that it is playing sanctions spoiler “overlook the imperative” of its dependence on Iranian oil imports.