India- Nuclear Diplomacy At Stake

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

NEW DELHI- The nuclear dilemma affecting Indian foreign policy as well as political stability at home has placed a crucial test for country’s calculations at both the levels, diplomatic and domestic. The issues demanding attention include the Indo-US civilian nuclear accord, India’s ties with Iran and India’s nuclear diplomacy. Developments of late suggest that certain sections in US are giving second thoughts in giving a final shape to Indo-US nuclear agreement, primarily because they do not welcome India’s ties with Iran. In addition to the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project, Indo-Iranian “proximity” is marked by New Delhi having authorized its navy to train Iranian sailors. Defense Minister A.K. Antony recently confirmed in the Parliament that 496 personnel from 25 navies, including that of Iran, were undergoing training here. The foreign personnel are reportedly undergoing one-year courses in gunnery and missile operations, anti-submarine warfare and navigation.

A lobby in United States seems fairly agitated by such Indo-Iranian proximity. Two senators- Jon Kyl (Republican-Arizona) and Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois) have written to US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, asking whether this was the right time for US Congress to support the 123 agreement, particularly as India was enhancing “military contacts” with Iran. The letter states: “As supporters of the US-India civil nuclear accord, we’re apprehensive that the agreement could be sidetracked by what appears to be a growing relationship between Iran and India.” The letter is reportedly being circulated by Jewish lobby in US to raise sentiments against India for its ties with Iran. US undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns recently said: “We hope that India, as well as all other states – China, Russia, France, Britain and Japan- will diminish their economic relations with Iran.”

Several recent developments suggest that India is not inclined to adopt an anti-Iran posture at present. Mahdi Safari, Iran’s deputy foreign minister of Asia-Pacific and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) visited India last week. Safari’s visit was primarily devoted to briefing India on agreements between Tehran and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s nuclear program, sources said. He also touched on developments related to Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project. Safari’s visit was marked by his meeting India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee. He also held talks National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon.

What stands out is that in talks with Safari, India emphasized Iran’s “right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy” and asked Tehran to remove doubts about the nature of its nuclear program through “transparent” dialogue with UN nuclear watchdog. Briefing media persons on talks between Mukherjee and Safari, Indian external affairs ministry spokesperson Navtej Sarna said: “India’s consistent stand was reiterated that Iran has a right to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy while fulfilling all its international commitments and obligations.” India conveyed to Iran “the need for active and transparent cooperation with the IAEA” and urged Tehran to are move all “doubts and uncertainties” about the nature of its nuclear program, Sarna said.

Safari’s India-visit followed that of Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed’s trip to Iran, projecting the high-level Indo-Iranian contact. While in Tehran, during his meeting with President Mohd Ahmedinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Ahamed asserted that India was against use of coercive means to resolve the issue of Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Expressing that Iran has every right to possess nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, Ahamed said that if any country has any disagreement, it must be “negotiated and discussed.”

India has, till now, not displayed any inclination to backtrack from the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project. Confirming India’s commitment to the pipeline project, Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma informed the Rajya Sabha recently: “To secure a long-term, cost-effective and secure mode of gas transfer from Iran, India has committed itself to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.”

At the same time, to date, India has not allowed its ties with United States to be affected by its diplomatic approach towards Iran. Despite protest movements staged by the left bloc against the multi-nation naval exercises held last week, the government did not stop these. The naval exercises, named as Malabar 2007, included participation of US, India, Japan, Australia and Singapore. While the naval exercises lasted, the left bloc leaders held meetings along the route, from Kolkata to Vishakapatnam against such exercises and the nuclear deal.

Notwithstanding the criticism voiced by the left bloc and opposition parties, the Congress leaders including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party president Sonia Gandhi have repeatedly asserted that the nuclear deal is in the country’s national interest. Last week, composition of a 15-member committee was also announced to look into reservations voiced by the left against the deal. Chaired by external affairs minister, the committee includes six members from the Congress, six from the left and one each from UPA members, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Yet, at present, formation of this committee is being viewed as a stopgap agreement to let the government continue for some more time.

If at one level, the Congress seems totally against changing its approach towards the nuclear deal, the left also does not appear keen on any compromise. At another level, opposition parties stalled parliamentary proceedings for greater part last week, calling for formation of a joint parliamentary committee to study the deal, a demand that has been rejected repeatedly by the government.

Against this backdrop, nuclear imbroglio facing India was perhaps never so acute. While India has asserted that Iran has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, United States has not refrained from questioning the same. At home, differences between the Congress and the left over Indo-US nuclear deal seem to be leading towards mid-term polls. As expressed by CPI-M leader Prakash Karat, while addressing a rally: “The time has now come for the Congress to choose between its commitment to US President George Bush and the CMP (common minimum program) finalized on the basis of the mandate people gave in the Lok Sabha elections in 2004.”


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