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Last Updated: Friday, 2 September 2005, 19:55 GMT 20:55 UK
India embarks on Iran diplomacy
By Sanjeev Srivastava
BBC News, Delhi

Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani (l) and Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh
Iran may see India as a go-between
The Indian Foreign Minister, Natwar Singh, was beginning†a three-day visit to Iran on Friday.

The visit marks India's first high-level political exchange with the new government in Tehran.

The two sides are likely to discuss a proposed $7.4bn (£4bn) joint gas pipeline programme, as well as Tehran's controversial nuclear programme.

These talks follow the visit of Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, to Delhi earlier this week.

Iran is an old friend of India.

Natwar Singh's visit is largely aimed at reiterating that relationship at a time when Tehran finds itself increasingly isolated due to its controversial nuclear programme.

'Delicate balancing act

The two sides will discuss the ambitious gas pipeline project and the possibility of increasing co-operation in areas like science and technology.

Isfahan plant
Iran resumed uranium conversion despite international pressure
They may also discuss ways of boosting trade between India and Russia and central Asia through Afghanistan.

But there is, perhaps, also a more strategic edge to this visit.

Indian diplomats are not willing to say anything on the record but some foreign affairs analysts believe that Iran wants Delhi to play the role of an intermediary and to convey Tehran's point of view to the West, particularly the US.

It's a theory which has gained more acceptability after Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, visited Delhi earlier this week.

Whether or not India plays the role of a mediator, or even a messenger, there's a realisation in Delhi that it's playing a delicate balancing act.

It's not easy to maintain a longstanding relationship with Iran, while also moving closer to Washington.

But Indian diplomats see no contradiction in their efforts to be friendly with both Tehran and Washington.

Some of them even believe that such a relationship may eventually benefit all three countries.

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