‘We have made it clear that dallying with Iran puts civil nuclear deal at risk.’

One month after India voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna for the first time, a diplomatic cable of October 20, 2005 (43172: confidential) noted with alarm the fact that the barrage of criticism of the Manmohan Singh government's controversial decision “is increasing rather than dying down.”

The cable said that Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran had recently summoned Ambassadors from the EU3 (the U.K., France and Germany) to push to resolve the Iran issue without referral to the UN Security Council (UNSC), where he “urged [them] to encourage Tehran to compromise by presenting a ‘face-saving' way to return to the negotiating table.” “Public interest in the debate is continuing, spurring speculation that the GOI [Government of India] is under growing pressure to backtrack from its earlier stance.”

The Embassy lamented that “only a minority of strategic analysts supported India's decision.” The cable said: “In a recent London School of Economics speech, [The] Hindu Editor-in-Chief N. Ram described India's vote as a massive foreign policy ‘blunder,' contrived to convince the US that it was an ally… Ram was not alone in this assessment — a variety of pundits and politicians have painted India's decision in the same harsh light, increasing the pressure on Manmohan Singh's government to abstain in any future IAEA vote.”

The cable ended on a pessimistic note: “Although India voted with the U.S. in September, the GOI may not have the required domestic support to sustain that position. The GOI faces intense domestic criticism and pressure to back down from its stance, and is hoping to avoid further controversy by resolving the Iran issue through behind the scenes diplomatic negotiations that would avoid a November IAEA vote. Our German colleague told us that Saran mentioned an ‘exit in honor' for Iran. As New Delhi pursues this course, we will need to be very clear about our own red lines, especially if those diverge from the EU3.”

The November board meeting of the IAEA passed without any further action being taken against Iran, but a December 12, 2005 cable (47275: secret) lamented the fact that India “has not shown the capability to formulate its Middle East policy in a comprehensive way” and was overly preoccupied with “individual issues like energy security or citizen protection.” It said the last “major breakthrough in Indian policy” towards the region was the expansion of its relations with Israel, in the 1990s. “A new breakthrough came in 2003, with the NDA's [National Democratic Alliance] serious consideration of a major troop deployment to Iraq, but that move was scuttled by domestic considerations and looming national elections, proving again the Muslim overlay in India's approach to the Gulf.”

The same cable spoke positively of India's Iran vote at the IAEA in September and said: “New Delhi's decision in that case to advance its broader strategic interests with America, instead of simply following the path of least resistance for energy supplies, is a signal of more far-sighted thinking regarding the region. Whether the GOI continues to develop its thinking on broad and long-term interests in the Middle East may hinge in part on the interests and capabilities of the next Foreign Minister.”

The fact that senior MEA officials continued to harbour doubts about the correctness of India's IAEA vote on Iran is revealed by a December15, 2005 cable (47728: secret) in which K.C. Singh, an Additional Secretary in the MEA who was the Indian Ambassador in Tehran in September 2005, suggested that India no longer had the requisite leverage to influence the Iranians as the Americans assumed. “Clarifying that he spoke personally and not in his official capacity, Singh responded that India's role in resolving the nuclear issue would have been greater had New Delhi abstained in the September 24 IAEA vote. The Iranian reaction has been emotional, he emphasized, with ordinary Iranians asking visiting Indians why they let Iran down. As a result, India's influence has been weakened,” he noted.

India would like to vote against Iran when the matter came up in the IAEA again, U.S. Ambassador David Mulford quoted National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan as telling him (in a January 12, 2006 cable, 49618: secret) but was worried about its “domestic political constituency.”

“The Ambassador noted that the US would likely seek an affirmative vote from India on referring Iran to the UNSC. Abstaining at this stage is not enough, he said, highlighting the importance of India's September 24 BOG vote and the fact that an abstention now would be seen as walking back the GOI's non-proliferation commitments.”

Despite this blunt talk, the U.S. was unsure of India's intention till the very end. On the eve of the crucial February 2006 IAEA meeting — when Iran's file was finally referred to the UN Security Council — a February 2, 2006 cable (51571: confidential) acknowledged the government's dilemma. “When pressed [Shyam] Saran asked if we knew how other states — he mentioned Egypt and South Africa in particular — would vote. When told it seemed we had a solid number of votes, including those of the P-5, but did not have a country-by-country breakdown of likely supporters, Saran asked if he could receive that information… The PM told the media February 1 India would vote in its ‘enlightened national interest' as an emerging global power, but intense domestic political controversy around this issue is leading the GOI to look for as much political cover as possible — including flimsy fig leaves like Egypt and South Africa.”

Even after India's second vote, the leaked cables suggest there was no lessening of the pressure to tow the American line on Iran. And the fate of the civil nuclear agreement was the bait. “India is clearly rattled by Iran's refusal (after the IAEA votes) to confirm the preferential price for the sale of five million tonnes of LNG per year, and perceives that some conciliatory motions would help salvage its important energy relationship,” a March 27, 2006 cable (58266: confidential) noted. “However, we have made clear to the GOI that dallying with Iran is not only dangerous for regional stability but also puts at risk Congressional support for the civil nuclear deal.”