Scepticism over Iranian nuclearisation

In the run-up to the IAEA's crucial board meeting, the U.S. believed that India was “engaged in a risky balancing act in its Iran policies.”  

Barely two weeks before India cast its landmark vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency on September 24, 2005, 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 that a referral to the U.N. Security Council would lead to “a slide into confrontation.”

Once India voted against Tehran, the Manmohan Singh government defended its decision by pointing to the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran. But what the U.S. Embassy cables accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks reveal is that the Indian establishment was not overly concerned about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and treated with scepticism American claims that nuclearisation was imminent. The Indian side was also wary of what voting against Iran might do to the country's energy security as well as its strategic interests in Afghanistan.

Though the government subsequently denied there was any connection between its anti-Iran vote and its fears about the fate of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, the cables capture the linkage American officials often made between the two issues.

In the run-up to the IAEA's crucial board meeting, the U.S. believed that India was “engaged in a risky balancing act in its Iran policies.” A cable sent off on September 2, 2005 ( >39738: confidential ) noted: “While the GOI has no illusions about Iran's nuclear ambitions or support for terrorism, these concerns are subordinate in its foreign policy and economic considerations. New Delhi does, however, fear the consequences of being forced to choose between Iran and the US… if the nuclear standoff escalates. Against this danger, India sees Iran as an enormous actual and potential energy supplier, and a balancing power on Pakistan's opposite border. Thus, Indian policy tries to advance its interests with Tehran, appease the West, and largely ignore the looming crises.”

The challenge for Washington was to get India off the fence, especially when this would be seen in India as siding with the U.S. “An op-ed by a reliably anti-American reporter for The Hindu on >September 1 encouraged the GOI to stand by Iran as the ‘litmus test' of India's willingness to pursue an ‘ independent' foreign policy,” the cable noted.

In a lengthy cable sent on September 6, 2005 ( >39910: secret ), David C. Mulford described a meeting with Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on the Iran issue as “delivering the mail (wrapped in a brick)”. The cable noted: “The Ambassador took Saran to task for what we had perceived in media reports as an unacceptably weak set of statements on Iran's nuclear program by Natwar Singh while visiting Tehran. Ambassador explained that the time was drawing near for fence-sitters to make hard decisions... Many in Congress and throughout Washington, he reminded Saran, were watching India's treatment of Iran prior to Congressional debate on the US-India civilian nuclear initiative. The IAEA BOG meeting September 19 offered India a chance to be helpful. The Ambassador stressed the moment of truth was approaching, particularly as it was now clear that the Iranians were working feverishly to weaponize despite their public statements and undertakings to the EU3. India had a key voice in the NAM and could swing opinion in the BOG; it was time, he said, for us to know where India stood.”

The Foreign Secretary, however, pushed back. He “listened attentively to Ambassador's views on Iran.” But he “also repeatedly questioned what he characterized as the ultimate outcome of our aggressive approach to Iran — namely, military confrontation.” The Foreign Secretary urged “giving dialogue with Iran more time.” He said India believed Iran's nuclear programme was best “sorted out” with the EU3, and “a slide into confrontation” would not be useful. “After Natwar's visit to Tehran, India realized the regime was ‘ hard line,' but Saran affirmed India's support for continued dialogue. Any rupture, said Saran, would end whatever leverage the EU3 or IAEA might wield. Saran professed his belief that referral to the UNSC would cause greater turmoil in energy markets, which would be detrimental to India”.

Mr. Mulford was peeved by the Foreign Secretary's failure to note the dangers of a nuclearised Iran. “The Ambassador called Saran out on neglecting to mention one key element of India's long-standing position, that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability was unacceptable. Saran demurred, saying even the IAEA had cited Iranian cooperation in its latest report, while noting unresolved questions; was that, he said, not enough proof that Iran was trying to be in compliance?”

At this juncture, the cable continues, experts from Washington briefed the Foreign Secretary on the latest U.S. evidence against Iran. But the Indian side remained unconvinced. “Saran characterized the briefing as being more evidence of a delivery system than a bomb program... [He] again asked what it would take for the US to avoid the UN route... [He] conveyed that the Iranians had affirmed to Natwar their desire to avoid a confrontation, but needed a ‘face-saving way out'.”

The cable also suggests the Indian side was wary of the eventual consequences of any IAEA decision to refer Iran to the Security Council. The Foreign Secretary told Ambassador Mulford “armed confrontation was not helpful. It would, he said, be “quite disastrous” and the consequences needed to be thought through carefully. Armed conflict with Iran would impact India's interests. War was unacceptable to India, insisted Saran, and counselled us not to pursue a course of action with an unforeseen outcome. The Ambassador emphasized that India now had to calculate for itself which option was the least destructive of its national interests. America could not afford a nuclear Iran; could India? When Ambassador for the second time reminded Saran of India's long-standing policy that a nuclear Iran was unacceptable, Saran reiterated that third pillar of the formula. However, he again insisted that armed confrontation was also problematic. “How do we get where we want to get?”

The meeting concluded with Mr. Saran promising to convey the U.S. points to Natwar Singh. Mr. Mulford also offered to have his team brief Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “preferably before he saw POTUS at UNGA in September.”

Mr. Mulford ended his cable with a comment under the hopeful title “Do We Detect a Chink in the Armor?” India, he said, needs to balance its strategic interests with Iran with its expanding ties with Washington. “We pushed Saran pretty hard, and although he pushed back with equal vigor we may have gotten our message through: it is time for India to make some hard decisions. We are approaching the moment when fence sitting will not be an option.”

Three days later, a U.S. diplomat held a follow-up meeting with S. Jaishankar, Joint Secretary (Americas) in the MEA ( >cable 40223: secret), September 9, 2005. Hoping to ratchet up the pressure on South Block, the Bush administration had already gone public on India's Iran policy in Congressional hearings on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. But an Indian guarantee of help at the IAEA was still elusive: Mr. Jaishankar promised a non-paper to “clarify any misunderstandings” on Iran. “In any case, he said, Iran should figure in [Prime Minister] Singh's conversation later September 9 with the Secretary and in Foreign Secretary Saran's conversation the same day with U/S Burns. Much, he speculated, would be cleared-up that way.”

In a comment, titled ‘Smelling the Coffee', the cable notes caustically that statements on Iran by members of Congress “served as a wake-up call to India that its Iran stance would directly impact its desire for legislative fixes that would implement the July 18 POTUS-PM Singh agreements, especially on civil nuclear technology. India is sufficiently concerned to restate its position on Iran's nuclear weapons. We have an opportunity as a result. The Indians believe they have been helpful in the IAEA on Iran, but we should press for more.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush met in New York on September 13. Soon thereafter, instructions were sent to the Indian Ambassador in Vienna to go with the U.S. in the IAEA, should the Iran issue come to a vote.

A cable after the vote, dated September 26, 2005 ( >41355: confidential ) described India's decision to support the US/EU resolution on Iran at the IAEA as “the most important signal so far of the UPA's commitment to building a transformed US-India relationship”.

At the same time, the U.S. was aware of the risk the Manmohan Singh government had taken: “We need to appreciate that this is the UPA's first significant step away from the relatively risk-free comfort zone of the NAM (and Russia and China, both of whom abstained), but exposes the government to severe domestic criticism, runs the risk of losing vital support from NAM partners on issues such as a UNSC seat, and, not least of all, endangers traditionally friendly relations with Iran.”

The U.S. Embassy advised Washington to be mindful of its public comments: “In the midst of the intense public debate on a highly complex domestic political issue in which the GOI finds itself being criticized from the left, right, and sometimes the center, there is no benefit for the USG to insert itself... While we need to be careful to not publicly exacerbate the downside of New Delhi's choice by giving fodder to critics who complain that India is kowtowing to the US or marching to our orders, we should appreciate the political and diplomatic difficulty of this step for the GOI.”

The cable was prescient. Future dispatches would capture the mounting public criticism of the government's decision and warn against the danger of India failing to cooperate with further American requests.

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