The successful visit to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India by Iranian President Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad points to a greater, more assertive role by Iran in regional and global arenas. The growing ties between Iran and South Asia also indicate a general trend where more developing countries share their wealth and resources for development, instead of depending on Western aid. Such South-South cooperation is vital in the age of globalisation.
One cannot underestimate Iran's increasingly visible profile on the global stage vis-a-vis the energy issue. Iran has the second largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia and it is a key supplier of oil and natural gas to the rest of the world. It is in this context that we should appraise Iran's spearheading of the US$ 7.5 billion Iran-India-Pakistan natural gas pipeline and two energy projects in Sri Lanka costing around US$ 1.5 billion.
The former will be very significant for both India and Pakistan, two of the fastest developing nations in South Asia. Next to China, India has the second biggest energy consumption in Asia. Its energy needs will rise exponentially over the coming years.
Moreover, the envisaged pipeline has also become a symbol of closer rapport between India and Pakistan. Indeed, there were many positive comments about President Ahmadinejad's behind-the-scenes diplomatic skills which literally cleared the way for the massive pipeline.
As for Sri Lanka, it already imports 70 per cent of the crude oil requirement from Iran. Iran's help for the Sapugaskanda refinery expansion will help Sri Lanka to refine more crude oil, saving foreign exchange currently spent on importing finished products such as petrol and diesel. The Uma Oya project will be a vital lifeline for the people in Uva-Wellassa and the South, irrigating thousands of acres and as a bonus, adding 100 MW to the national grid.
Although the power generation capacity is low when compared with the proposed coal power plants, it will nevertheless help address the present power needs up to a certain extent. Another significant aspect is that these projects are being implemented with local expertise, which will also lead to a substantial foreign exchange saving. It is well known that many donors specify that their construction firms be awarded the tender(s) as a prerequisite for granting aid.
Many Western countries and donor agencies also attach various conditions to their aid packages, such as human rights. However, the key donor countries in the South including China and Iran have perceived the need to keep these issues quite separate from the development agenda.
They are of the view that such issues should not be tied with development as that could ultimately negate the very purpose for which aid is provided. Increased trade and development cooperation among the developing countries is one way of reducing or nullifying the Western influence on the world development agenda.
Although some Western countries publicly cautioned the South Asian countries not to host the Iranian leader, the fact that all three countries accorded him the highest possible welcome indicates their desire to work with Southern partners to achieve peace and prosperity.
Indeed, Southern hemisphere countries have been assuming a bigger profile in world fora and through their own groupings such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77.
Heads of State and Government from South Asian countries will be meeting in July in Sri Lanka for the annual SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Summit, which should be seen as yet another opportunity to cement their bonds of friendship.
While the SAARC Charter generally does not sanction the discussion of bilateral issues, the SAARC leaders would do well to ponder on development issues affecting their region including the prevailing food and energy crises.
One prime example is India's willingness to provide rice to Sri Lanka in spite of an export ban on non-Basmati rice. The whole of Asia is being affected by the rice crisis and Asian countries must necessarily cooperate to overcome it. They should take the lead in developing higher-yielding rice varieties and helping each other to modernise paddy cultivation.
Similarly, India will help Sri Lanka to build a power plant in Sampur and lay a transmission line between the two countries.
This will make it possible for both countries to supply electricity to each other in times of need. These are fine instances of South-South cooperation which is emerging as the best solution for the woes confronting the Third World.