Manmohan declined to visit Iran; inviting Iranian President in 2008 ‘political cover for going ever so slightly forward with the civil-nuclear agreement'

A senior Ministry of External Affairs official notified the Political Counselor in the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would visit India on April 29, 2008, saying “she was providing the Embassy with this information prior to the MEA informing even other agencies within the Indian government, and before the information was to become public.” In this connection, “she noted that Prime Minister [Manmohan] Singh had rejected previous requests either to visit Tehran or for Ahmadinejad to visit India, but has now finally accepted a visit from the Iranian leader.” This is revealed by a U.S. Embassy cable dated April 15, 2008 (149884: secret/noforn), accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks.

What is clear is that Dr. Singh and the United Progressive Alliance government were anxious not to ruffle American feathers at the height of the U.S.-led campaign against Iran over its nuclear programme. The cable also suggests that there is a connection between factoring in the Iranian President's visit and “going ever so slightly forward with the civil-nuclear agreement” with the United States.

Unusually, the cable sent to the State Department under the name of Charge d'Affaires Steven White withholds the name of the “senior Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official” who passed on this privileged information to the Political Counselor.

The Embassy cable comments that “our interlocutor did not explain why the Indian government is accepting Ahmadinejad at this time, but, in giving the forewarning, was clearly aware of U.S. sensitivities over such a visit.” It offers this interpretation of an apparently unexpected development: “India's policy on Iran has been to maintain seemingly healthy but low-key relations, while conforming with UN Security Council Resolutions pertaining to Iran's nuclear development program. By accepting Ahmadinejad, the ‘low-key' part of the relationship is removed.”

“In Post's estimation,” the cable goes on to explain, “the reason for agreeing to an Ahmadinejad visit at this time is to appease the UPA government's domestic Left and Muslim constituencies, i.e., asserting the independence of India's foreign policy, as well as its healthy relations with Muslim neighbours, at a time when the Communists are scoring points with the electorate by criticizing the government for becoming too close to America (and Israel) at the expense of Indian sovereignty.”

The “secret/noforn” Embassy cable offers the insight that “this could be part of a broader GOI plan, in typical Indian give-and-take fashion of governance, to make a gesture to Left and Muslim constituents before going ever so slightly forward with the civil-nuclear agreement.” It further notes that “one theory for when the government would move forward on operationalizing the civ-nuke deal is after the current parliament budget session ends May 9, and that meeting with Ahmadinejad would provide a level of political cover for entering into what is seen by critics here as an agreement to cement Indo-U.S. relations.”

Seeking a meeting

The New Delhi Embassy informed the State Department that it was urgently seeking a meeting with the MEA Joint Secretary responsible for Iran “to seek further clarity on this visit and raise concerns about Ahmadinijad and the Iranian government.”

Finally, the cable mentioned that the unnamed MEA official “offered for the Indian government to pass any messages the USG [the United States Government] might want to give to Ahmadinejad during the April 29 visit” and asked for guidance, if any, on whether the offer should be taken up.

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks)