Karan Thapar interviewed the former Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, for “The Devil's Advocate,” broadcast over CNN-IBN, on the India Cables published by The Hindu as accessed through WikiLeaks. Excerpts:
There is a whole series of reports from 2005 when you were the Foreign Secretary and David Mulford was the American Ambassador, and he was talking to you about Iran's nuclear programme. The clear impression is that he was arm-twisting you.
I can't see how you can come to that kind of conclusion. In any case, I wouldn't think… the nature of the interaction between Mulford and myself is accurately reflected in these cables...
Mulford is not giving an accurate account of the conversations?
No, I'm not saying that. I'm only saying that I think the public needs to understand what is the nature of these kinds of diplomatic cables, because usually what happens is that when you have a long conversation these are distilled into very short messages, which inevitably reflect the subjective… prejudices or predilections of the person who is sending these…. We have to be always mindful of the fact that these kind of cables need not necessarily be a very accurate reflection of what may have taken place during a meeting.
The bigger story the cables tell is that India's decision to vote alongside the U.S. against Iran at the IAEA in September 2005 happened under American pressure. The cables tell that story directly, distinctly. Would you deny that?
I think it's again a very incomplete picture of what led to the vote…. Firstly, as far as our decision to vote for that resolution was concerned, we were also mindful of the fact that we wanted… a full accounting by Iran to the IAEA with respect to its nuclear programme. Why? Because of the fact that Iran's nuclear programme was linked to Pakistan, was linked to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and I think it was in India's interest that they should come out in the open.
The cables showed that just 14 days before India voted against Iran, you as Foreign Secretary were strenuously arguing against that course of action. How come your views did not prevail?
I didn't. I don't think there was a discussion about how India will vote on that resolution. The discussion was about… the kind of position India would adopt with respect to Iran's nuclear programme, and on that issue we clearly said that any kind of a confrontation with Iran or any kind of a process which might lead to a military conflict with Iran, was not in the interest of India. By the way, we also said it wouldn't be in the interest of the U.S.
Hours before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met George Bush in New York on September 13, 2005, Mulford sent an urgent and desperate cable to Condoleezza Rice where he said Indian officials are being intransigent. He implored her to use her influence to get India to vote against Iran. Days after that meeting with Bush, India did precisely that.
I think you're taking circumstantial evidence and coming to conclusions.
There was some pressure that you responded to, but it wasn't the pressure alone?
Whenever you're taking a decision on a sensitive issue like this, you've to consider a number of factors. The U.S. factor, the fact that a friendly country which was very deeply concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme was making that intervention with us, was one of the inputs. But there were other things as well.
On our programme ‘The Last Word,' Mulford said he had made it clear to you that if India did not vote against Iran it would have an impact on the thinking of Congressmen who were not persuaded by the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, and, therefore, that could endanger the nuclear deal. He was clearly saying: if you want the deal, vote against Iran.
That's Ambassador Mulford's interpretation. When we actually had the agreement… to conclude an Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal, Iran was not one of the conditionalities. There were other things we talked about. How this agreement would go through. But certainly, what India's position on Iran would be was not an issue.
You're telling me that India's decision to vote against Iran was its own voluntary decision… and not under American pressure?
It was after a very careful assessment of what the pros and the cons would be, including the U.S. factor. But also a factor, as I mentioned to you, that there was a link between the Iranian nuclear programme (and) what was happening with Pakistan.
So this was a factor, but it was not the sole factor or the dominant factor?
Most such decisions are not based on a singular factor, I think…It was certainly a factor. How, how, how can I say it was not a factor?
Mani Shankar Aiyar was replaced in the Cabinet reshuffle of 2006 as Petroleum Minister by Murli Deora because, as Mulford says, it was done to ensure U.S.-India relations continued to move ahead. Do you think there could be any truth to Mulford's claim?
Certainly not. I think Mr. Mulford had a rather exaggerated notion of the kind of influence that the United States of America exercises in India. That may be his sense, but I think that is arrogance [to assume] that a country like India would be making Cabinet changes, or will be dismissing or appointing Ministers, at the behest of the United States of America. This is outrageous.
How do you view all these Wiki cables? How significant are they? What do they amount to?
Firstly, you should understand that cables, diplomatic cables, are always, always distillations of whatever conversations have taken place… Even when there are remarks which are put in quotes, they are a reconstruction of what may have happened in the meeting. They are not transcripts, in the sense that they were recorded and then they were reported…. They may be distorted, they may be very subjective in character, and they are certainly very incomplete.