India's first major embarrassment from the Wikileaks closet came tumbling out on Friday with the revelation that a top official had initiated unauthorised contact with the United States embassy to complain about Iran and pitch for a U.S. visit, where he could receive inputs that would then “feed the [Indian] discussion of Iran policy options”.
On May 4, 2007, K.V. Rajan — described in a confidential cable by U.S. Charge d'affaires Geoffrey Pyatt as “Former Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs and then Chairman of the Prime Minister's National Security Advisory Board (NSAB)” — sought an urgent meeting with the U.S. embassy to inform it that he and a number of other Indian “politicians, scholars and commentators” had been invited by Iran on an “all-expenses-paid trip” to visit nuclear installations there and meet officials.
“Rajan told the Charge [Pyatt] that this trip was part of an effort of the Iranian government to encourage anti-American, pro-Muslim scholars and think-tanks in India to influence Prime Minister [Manmohan] Singh's supporters to take a more pro-Iranian, anti-U.S. view, and that his presence on the delegation would have handed Iran a Public Relations coup. In light of his suspicions, Rajan cancelled at the last minute, citing a sudden family emergency.” The cable then notes that Mr. Rajan provided the embassy a list of invitees.
“To counter this new and worrying effort to reach out to Indian opinion-makers”, the U.S. Charge d'Affaires wrote, “Rajan proposed a visit to the United States starting May 14 in his NSAB [chaiman] capacity for five-seven days to talk to officials, think tanks, and the intelligence community to discuss ways to better understand U.S. assessments of Iran.” Mr. Rajan “would expect this to feed the NSAB discussion of Iran policy options”, the confidential cable titled ‘New Iranian Mischief' added.
After hearing him out and noting reports of a visit to Iran's heavy water reactor at Arak that had appeared in The Hindu and The Asian Age, the cable records Mr. Pyatt's recommendation: “To counter this insidious new Iranian effort, we recommend that Rajan receive meetings, if possible, with [xxx]”. The names of his recommended interlocutors are blanked out.
Mr. Rajan was unavailable for comment and it is not known if the proposed trip materialised. But Indian government officials speaking to The Hindu on background said it was most inappropriate for an NSAB member to have approached the U.S. embassy in this way.
M.K. Rasgotra, the actual chairman of the NSAB at the time — Mr. Rajan having been a mere member of the board, it is not known why Mr. Pyatt described him as its head — reacted angrily to the revelation that a board member had approached the U.S. embassy to provide information and propose a trip for himself. “Firstly, I was chairman and there was never any mention of this bloody nonsense. I never sought to go out on any one's account nor did any member approach me to discuss this. He was clearly acting on his own. I am really surprised.”
Mr. Rasgotra, a former foreign secretary, said that all NSAB members take an oath of secrecy. Speaking on background, a former official of the National Security Council Secretariat said NSAB members are meant to provide reports only to the Government of India. “They are not meant to approach foreign embassies/governments. It is not their job to be doing diplomacy.”
The names of the respected Indian commentators who visited Iran in April 2007 are blacked out in the cable but their identities are no secret: Vikram Sood, former head of Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency; A. Gopalakrishnan, former head of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board; Anuradha and Kamal Chenoy from Jawaharlal Nehru University; Bharat Karnad from the Centre for Policy Research; and Amit Baruah, the then Diplomatic Correspondent of The Hindu.
Correspondents from this newspaper and other publications routinely visit foreign countries on official invitations. Asked for his reaction to Mr. Rajan's apprehensions about the Iran trip, Mr. Sood said he was amused at his presumption that seasoned commentators and ex-officials would be unable to form their own opinions on places they visited.