Shyam Saran responds to questions based on the The Hindu-WikiLeaks revelations.

Karan Thapar interviews former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on some of the revelations in the India Cables published by The Hindu as accessed through WikiLeaks. Among other issues, the questions cover the suggestion in the cables that the United States was arm-twisting India, and that sometimes Indian officials were speaking far more than they should have. Here is the edited transcript of the interview, broadcast over CNN-IBN in the programme titled ‘The Devil's Advocate,’ on March 20, and being repeated on March 21 at 4-30 p.m.:

Mr. Saran, let’s start with the cables that feature you. There are a whole series of reports from 2005 when you were 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. Can you accept that?

No, I can’t see how you can come to that kind of conclusion. In any case, I would not think that, you know, … the nature of the interaction between Mulford and myself is accurately reflected in these cables which have been leaked.

You mean, in other words, David Mulford is not giving an accurate account of the conversations he had?

No, I'm not saying that. I’m only saying that I think the public needs to understand what is the nature of these kind 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, you know, prejudices or predilections of the person who is sending these.

In other words, these could be distorted accounts of the conversations?

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.

All right. Bearing that caution in mind, I want to quote to you what Mulford’s cable of September 6, 2005 says, and I’m quoting: “The Ambassador took Saran to task for what he had perceived in media reports as an unacceptably weak set of statements on Iran’s nuclear programme by Natwar Singh while visiting Iran.” To most people that sounds as if he is rapping you across the knuckles.

No. That may be Mr. Mulford’s own interpretation of what went on in that conversation. In fact, there were several conversations on Iran between India and the United States and I’m not surprised that the United States of America did try to persuade India to accept its viewpoint concerning Iran. India has its own viewpoint concerning Iran, and I think in most of these conversations that is precisely what happened. The United States of America tried to convince India that its particular stance towards Iran was the correct one. We said we do not agree with that.

But what about the language, “the Ambassador took Saran to task”?

How can I be responsible for his language? I am… [I] can only say what my recollections of those meetings are whenever these meetings took place. And certainly I think it is only right that the representative of the United States in India would try to persuade, as forcefully as possible, India of the justified sort of concern it has about Iran.

So at the time when these conversations were happening, you found nothing objectionable or offensive or high-handed about Mulford’s manner, tone or language?

No, I don't think these conversations were of that kind. There was certainly nothing impolite that I could perceive in those conversations. As I said, I consider it perfectly legitimate that any representative of any government should come and try to persuade the representatives of India of whatever issue that they want India’s support on.

All right, let’s come to the bigger picture. The bigger story these cables tell is that India’s decision to vote alongside the United States against Iran at the IAEA in September 2005 happened under American pressure. The cables tell that story very directly and distinctly. Would you deny that?

No. I think it is again a very incomplete picture of what led to the vote in the IAEA. Firstly, as far as our decision to vote for that resolution was concerned, we were also mindful of the fact [that] we wanted there to be 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 problem with that explanation is that the cables showed that just 14 days before India voted against Iran at the IAEA, you as Foreign Secretary were strenuously arguing against that course of action. How come your views did not prevail in the end?

I did not. I don't think there was a discussion about how India will vote on that resolution. The discussion was about what is the kind of position that 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. And by the way, we also said it would not be in the interest of the United States.

Let me read to you the conclusions that The Hindu comes to, and they published this in fact on the editorial page: “Senior Indian officials argued strenuously against a change in the country’s stand. They told the U.S. that more time was needed for dialogue and diplomacy and a referral to the UN Security Council would lead to a slide into confrontation.” Clearly, just 14 days before India’s vote, India had a very different opinion.

Again, I do not know which senior officials The Hindu is referring to. I can only tell you about my recollection of the events. And my recollection of the events is: Yes, we certainly tried very hard in New York. We were involved in many of those discussions where we tried to bring the Iranians as well as the Europeans, and at a distance the United States, on to the same platform. So that there would be no vote on the resolution. In fact, earlier most of the resolutions were not even voted on. There was consensus on the resolutions.

Let me give you another reason why so many people are convinced that India had to change its position on Iran under American pressure. Look for a moment at the chronology. Just hours before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met George Bush in New York on September 13, 2005, David Mulford sent an urgent and desperate cable to Condoleezza Rice where he said Indian officials are being intransigent. And he implored her to use her influence to get India to vote against Iran. Days after that meeting with Bush, India did precisely that. Doesn’t the chronology suggest that this happened under American pressure?

I think you’re taking circumstantial evidence and coming to conclusions.

Why shouldn’t that be the right thing to do?

No, no! Why should there be a connection that this matter was raised with the Prime Minister by Condoleezza Rice?

You mean this is just a coincidence?

This was important.

Just a coincidence?

No. What I’m trying to say is that the American intervention with us was not the only reason which made us vote in favour of the resolution at the end.

Was it an important reason?

Well, obviously a reason. Why?

So there was some pressure that you responded to, but it wasn’t the pressure alone?

No, there are. .. Whenever you are taking a decision on a sensitive issue like this you have to consider a number of factors and 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 this very channel, on our programme ‘The Last Word’ on Friday [March 18, 2011], David Mulford openly said that he had made it clear to you in particular that if India did not vote against Iran it would have an impact on the thinking of Congressmen in America who were not persuaded by the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, and therefore that could endanger the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. He was clearly saying that, if you want the deal vote against Iran.

That is Ambassador Mulford’s interpretation. When we actually had the agreement with the United States of America 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.

So you’re telling me, as the man who was Foreign Secretary at the time, as a man who had these conversations with David Mulford, that India’s decision to vote against Iran at the IAEA was its own voluntary decision, taken of its own volition, 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?

It was not. Most such decisions are not based on a singular factor. I think.

But it was a factor.

It was certainly a factor. How, how, how can I say it was not a factor?

Mr. Saran, let’s come to a second issue exposed by WikiLeaks, that Mani Shankar Aiyar was replaced in the Cabinet reshuffle of 2006 as Petroleum Minister by Murli Deora because, as David Mulford says, it was done to ensure U.S.-India relations continued to move ahead. Now, at the time you were Foreign Secretary. Do you think there could be any truth to Mulford's claim?

Certainly not.

You are sure of that?

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.

Let me tell you why some people might be inclined to accept at least part of what Mulford claims. The reason is this. One of the reasons why the Americans had problems with Mani Shankar Aiyar as Petroleum Minister was his support for Iran’s gas pipeline. As soon as he was replaced, that project was effectively and quietly sidelined. How do you explain that?

That is, that is completely incorrect. As far as the pipeline is concerned, the Prime Minister of India, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Petroleum all were united on one single factor: that whether we go for this pipeline or not will be dependent upon the economic viability of such a pipeline and its should not be politicised.

So, the fact that it got sidelined after Mani Shankar got replaced as Petroleum Minister is just a coincidence, it wasn’t the intended reason for Mani being replaced?

Again, the United States of America made a number of interventions with us saying that this pipeline is not something that we would support, because it would in some way strengthen the Iranians with increased energy income. Our response to them always was whether or not India will go ahead and conclude such a deal would be dependent upon its economic viability, and also the fact that the routing that such a pipeline would take would be through some very, very disturbed territory.

So it was economic concerns and geographic concerns that led to India not concluding any arrangement on the pipeline, not American objections?

By the way, the discussions on the pipeline have continued off and on. There are a number of issues. I think the public opinion here somehow or the other is being oriented to look only at the political aspect. There are number of very, very important technical issues, economic issues, security issues, that we have to consider.

Once again, though, was the American objection a factor in Indian thinking?

No, I do not concede that there was any kind of, you know, consideration of an American, you know, view on this particular project. I think for India itself, there was every reason for us to move very cautiously on this proposal.

All right. Let’s come to a third set of WikiLeaks, this time concerning Ambassador Roemer’s cable of August 2009 after his first meeting with the then National Security Adviser, M.K. Narayanan, when Mr. Narayanan himself voluntarily said that he had differences with the Prime Minister over Pakistan policy, and Mr. Roemer then says, “Narayanan's willingness to distance himself from the Prime Minister in an initial courtesy call would suggest that PM Singh is more isolated than we thought within in his own inner circle.” I put this to you, was this not an indiscreet and rather silly thing for Mr. Narayanan to say to someone he barely knew at the time?

Well, number one, you have to first of all direct this question, you know, to Mr. Narayanan — whether or not he made such a remark to the American Ambassador.

But would the American Ambassador lie?

Well, as I mentioned to you, what appears in many of these cables need not necessarily be a complete transcript of the conversation which may have taken place.

Mr. Narayanan hasn’t denied it as yet.

Well, that’s not my problem. That’s Mr. Narayanan who has to… has to say whether or not such a conversation took place and what he meant by it.

Let me put it like this. As someone who has been Foreign Secretary and risen to the top of his profession, if Mr. Narayanan as NSA did say these things, would you accept that it was indiscreet and unwarranted?

I’m afraid that’s a very hypothetical question, and I don’t think it is fair to ask me to respond to this. What I can say is this: that the Prime Minister of India is certainly very sincere about a peace process with Pakistan, for reconciliation between India and Pakistan, because he genuinely believes — and I think he correctly believes —that this is something which will really open up more prospects for India.

That, I accept.

So, as far as [the] Prime Minister’s, you know, commitment to pursuing a peace process with Pakistan is concerned, I don’t think either Mr. Narayanan or anybody else is revealing something very important.

No. In fact, to the contrary, what Mr. Narayanan is revealing is that the Prime Minister is alone in the commitment, that others around the Prime Minister, including his NSA, have different views.

I can only say that as Foreign Secretary I certainly had no problem with [the] Prime Minister’s approach with regard to our policy towards Pakistan.

In fact, the sad part is, according to Mr. Roemer, Mr. Narayanan went further. Mr. Narayanan said that the Prime Minister’s Office controlled foreign policy in 2009, and that S.M. Krishna was in fact marginalised. Now once again, that is not just denigrating the Foreign Minister…..

You are, you are, you know, quoting these kind of remarks attributed to somebody by the American Ambassador. I don’t think, first of all this is fair. You know, I think it is important that the person who is being quoted should be asked whether this is correct.

Except the person doesn’t want to speak. He’s gone on record to say he doesn’t want to speak.

That’s his choice.

Okay, let me put this to you then. How do you view all these leaks or Wiki cables, that have now emerged? 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.

So they could be distorted?

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.

So they are subjective and they may even be distorted?

They may be distorted, they may be very subjective in character, and they are certainly very incomplete.

Then my second question, should these leaks have been made public? Is there an argument for saying that a greater public good is being served which justifies the infringement of confidential official reports? Or do you refute that?

I can… I can only give my view, and that is the view of a diplomat. You know, diplomacy is the ability to be able to share information, share assessments, share confidentially with your diplomatic counterparts.

Is that impaired?

Beg your pardon.

Is that being impaired?

Yes, of course it is impaired. Because I don’t know for how long… but what it may do is make people very reluctant to engage in this kind of frank and open conversation with their counterparts, because you never know what will happen tomorrow, whether you will see your remarks in the newspaper tomorrow.

So will this, therefore, affect the manner in which Indians talk to U.S. diplomats hereafter?

I think it’s not only a question of whether it would affect how India talks to the Americans, it would affect diplomacy all around the world. It is not merely a question of what impact it would have on India-U.S. relations. It is really, in my opinion… it is something which has dealt a big blow to diplomacy, and at a time when actually diplomacy is required for maintaining peace and security in the world.

So you deeply regret what has happened?

Yes. I do regret what has happened. I don’t think, maybe one could not have stopped it, but I think it is certainly my view that this has not done any service to the craft of diplomacy, which is very essential.

Shyam Saran, a pleasure talking to you.

Thank you.

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