By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
The Associated Press
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; 1:35 AM
NEW DELHI -- A $7 billion gas pipeline that would link Iran and India topped the agenda Tuesday as the Islamic republic's president made his first visit to New Delhi, despite strong U.S. objections to the project.
The trip came as India and the United States are struggling to finalize a landmark nuclear energy deal.
But New Delhi has made it clear that it will look to any source to feed its energy hungry economy, and India saw the brief visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a chance kick-start the long-stalled pipeline project.
Ahmadinejad arrived in the evening and met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil during his five hours in New Delhi, India's foreign ministry said. His visit was the first by an Iranian leader in five years.
The pipeline needs to run through Pakistan, India's longtime rival. But disagreements between the two over costs, and Indian fears about the pipeline's security have held up the project.
However, the South Asian countries are reportedly close to striking a deal on how much New Delhi should pay Islamabad for the fuel shipped through Pakistani territory.
That would put the project back on track _ a prospect that clearly dismays Washington, which has repeatedly pressed India to back its efforts to end Iran's nuclear program.
The United States last week said India should press Ahmadinejad to end Iran's atomic program and its alleged aid to Iraqi militants. Washington also said India should tell Ahmadinejad to stop supporting Islamic militant groups in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
India responded by saying it would decide what _ if anything _ to discuss with Ahmadinejad, tartly telling Washington that it did not need "any guidance on the future conduct" of its foreign affairs.
On Tuesday, Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon told reporters that India believes engaging with Iran is far more productive than isolating the Islamic republic.
"From our point of view, the more engagement there is, the more Iran becomes a factor of stability in the region," he said after meeting Ahmadinejad.
Apart from the pipeline, the two sides agreed to try to triple trade from $10 billion a year but did not set a timeframe. They also discussed the situation in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
India's desire to build on its long-standing ties to Iran highlight New Delhi's eagerness to avoid taking sides in international disputes and work with as many countries as possible _ even if its partners disdain each other.
Its willingness to seek energy supplies from both Tehran and Washington is one example of New Delhi's desire to play the middle. Another is its developing relationship with Iran's archenemy Israel. Earlier this year India launched an Israeli spy satellite, which is in part intended to monitor Iran's nuclear program.
Menon said Ahmadinejad did not bring up the satellite during his time in New Delhi.