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Iran vote: In the national interest?

By Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
September 28, 2005 17:26 IST
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On the balance.... On the balance… On the balance…'


Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran kept repeating these words on September 26 while explaining the reasons behind, and defending, India's controversial vote vis-à-vis the resolution approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors in Vienna on September 24.


The resolution put Iran, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, on notice for its alleged nuclear weapons development capabilities, and sets it up for future referral to the United Nations Security Council.


Saran, the astute diplomat, was out defending what was essentially a political decision taken by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.


The unstated force behind the resolution is the United States, whose antagonism toward Iran is age-old. And, the US factor has put Dr Singh in a bind in domestic politics.


Iran, US: India's Catch-22


Although India does not agree entirely with the resolution -- a ministry of external affairs statement said, 'In our Explanation of Vote, we have clearly expressed our opposition to Iran being declared as non-compliant with its safeguards agreements. Nor do we agree that the current situation could constitute a threat to international peace and security' -- Dr Singh nevertheless decided to go with it for strategic and political reasons.


No wonder the decision has created a diplomatic earthquake in New Delhi. Critics term  the decision as 'surrendering under US pressure'. The Hindu newspaper charged the government with comprising the national interest by helping (America) prepare the ground for another possible conflict in its own region.


The resolution asks Iran, among other things, to suspend all enrichment-related activity, and reconsider construction of heavy water-based reactor. Besides, it also wants Iran to reconstruct the history and nature of its nuclear activities.


We wanted to avert Iran-West confrontation: India


The Left, the support of whose 61 members of Parliament impact the federal government, is furious that India is openly partnering in America's designs, and has decided to take the issue to the streets.


'Can the Manmohan Singh government justify the demand in the resolution that Iran not proceed with enrichment of uranium or the demand to stop the construction of a heavy water research reactor? This goes against India's declared stand that Iran has the right to nuclear technology under international safeguards as an NPT signatory,' an angry Community Party of India-Marxist said in a statement.


Stung by the criticism from its ally, the prime minister met with Left leaders for 75 minutes on Wednesday morning to explain the rationale behind the vote. However, it was to no avail, with the Left leaders asking the government to ensure that the matter did not go to the United Nations Security Council, as the vote seeks to do.


The Prime Minister and his communication gap


That one vote by India has turned out to be a headache for the prime minister, and is dubbed as the final nail in the Non-Aligned Movement's coffin.


Apart from repercussions on the strategic relations with Iran, the decision also impacts the large Shia fraternity in India – "the second largest in the world," as Prime Minister Singh told newsmen in New York just 10 days ago. Above all, it can add to growing concern in certain sections that India is becoming a client-State of the US -- a view expressed by former foreign minister and Bharatiya Janata  Party leader Yashwant Sinha. While Jaswant Singh, who was instrumental in bringing about a thaw in relations with the US, refused to go that far, he did say, 'It is unbecoming of the government to hide behind officials when the decision is fundamentally political.' 


PM at the UN | History in the making: Dr Singh visits Washington


Since the last few months, the prime minister has been taking historic steps to redefine India's diplomacy and economy, but apart from a few ministers on the Cabinet Committee on Security and Congress President Sonia Gandhi, hardly anyone gets the correct idea of his path-breaking decisions till they are actually made.


Critics of the style say while facts are not forthcoming before decisions are taken, after the decisions are taken the political leadership does not face the questions upfront.


Although India had the option to remain abstain from voting like 12 countries did -- which also included Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa -- India voted with 21 others including the US, France, Germany and the UK. The voting pattern is a clear indication of the prime minister's mind and India's direction.


India's decision to vote against Iran was reportedly debated and approved by the CCS but the Opposition had no clue of it, while the Left leaders were "merely briefed" about the ongoing talks over Iran before Dr Singh left for the UN Summit in New York.


Dr Singh's teammates have a simple response to the charge of a lack of "democratic deliberations" over important issues: "Did former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee brief the nation before the nuclear tests or before embarking on the India-Pak peace process?"


The prime minister, who enjoys an honest image, has never let such talk affect him, but the charge that India has voted under pressure is sticking because those who oppose India's stand and who favour it, both accept the argument that India's stance at the IAEA meeting was part of the bargaining over the India-US nuclear deal.


But defenders of India's vote see no "loss of  face," since it was merely a part of "give and take" which is so normal in international relations, they claim.


The India-US nuclear deal is clearly the pivot around which the issue rotates. While critics of that deal are also opposed to the Iran vote, those who support that deal back the Iran vote, saying it was in India's national interest. They also reject the argument that India surrendered to US pressure tactics. In their view, the Iran vote was a convergence of India's own interests and America's expectations of India.


Critics however ask why doesn't Dr Singh, who obviously thinks he has taken India further by signing the nuclear deal with the US and has asserted the country's stand by voting against Iran, seek political mileage from it, like his predecessor Vajpayee did.


However, with Dr Singh usually avoiding the media glare, this perceived weakness is now being exploited by the BJP and Marxist leaders like Prakash Karat.


Thus, both the Left and the Right are addressing the 'middle class' directly and frequently, said a strategic analyst who is also Dr Singh's ardent supporter.


However, distinguished strategic affairs guru K Subrahmanyam defends the prime minister: "The Congress party should make up, it's their job." 


But when diplomatic and economic history is being made, Congress spokesmen alone are not enough to give a favourable political spin.


Damage control is on


"The attack against the PM's decision is quite strong and we didn't expect such harsh criticism," says a Congress Working Committee member.


Since the last two days, on seeing the political fall-out, the MEA has been repeatedly portraying the brighter side of India's stand by saying the resolution does not refer the matter to the Security Council but agrees that outstanding issues be dealt with under the aegis of the IAEA itself.


In simple words, India is not against Iran; it has only voted politically.


Hamid Ansari, a member of the National Security Advisory Board and a former diplomat, told, "India has not voted on merit. The American factor has decided the vote."


He adds that under the NPT there are a few obligations and a few rights. So while Iran is talking about its rights, the Western countries are reminding Iran about its "obligations".


"It was a political game and not a technical one at all," says Ansari. "It is clear the government has taken into account the pros and cons of the issue before taking a decision."


With its survival depending on support from the Left parties, the government fielded Shyam Saran who briefed the press on Monday at "an unearthly hour".


Saran explained India's twin objectives in dealing with Iran which were fulfilled by the resolution. "On balance, since our main objective was to prevent the referral of this matter to the Security Council, and two, to have sufficient time for further negotiations, for further consultations to take place, on balance we decided that we should vote in favour of the resolution." 


 "The question is, whether on balance it is something which hinders the search for a compromise, search for a negotiated solution or is it something which leads us towards confrontation."


Saran explained India's compromise thus: "On balance, in terms of the major preoccupations that we had, we felt that the resolution took care of those preoccupations."


Complete coverage: India-US defence ties


About the suggested linkage of the IAEA vote to the India-US nuclear deal, the MEA claims, 'Nothing could be further from the truth. The India-US nuclear cooperation agreement stands on its own, based as it is on a mutual recognition of Indian energy requirements, its global impact and on our acknowledgement of India's impeccable record on non-proliferation.'


India voted with the US, also because of the timing of the Iran controversy. The issue has hotted up before the US Congress could seal what President George W Bush and Dr Singh have embarked upon.


India could have asked for much more in the draft resolution but its priority is different: strengthen President Bush's hands to help him face down opposition to the concessions given to India in the nuclear deal.


The fate of the India-US nuclear deal will be known by November. With Dr Singh's personal prestige and the United Progressive Alliance government's credibility at stake, India cannot afford to displease the US at this juncture.


India's vote is unlikely to go in vain, asserts Subrahmanyam. "India's vote will be billed to America."


He is confident the US Congress will approve Bush's demand for a change in US laws to facilitate the nuclear deal with India. But there are many senior diplomats asking the Singh government what the guarantee is that the US will not come asking for more after tasting blood once.


"Dismiss such arguments and ask instead, does India want to become a big power? Do you want to go up? Then, you can't vote for a country (Iran) which intends to make bombs in your neighbourhood," says an official in the national security apparatus.


Another well-known Pakistan expert argues, "How can India afford to have two Islamic countries with nuclear bombs in its neighbourhood?"


Pakistan's nuclear bazaar


A senior member of the Prime Minister's Office is more restrained in his arguments: "This issue should be seen in perspective. India does not hate Iran. India is acting to enhance its national interest."


India had and continues to have grouses against Iran. The PMO official says, "It's absolutely in India's national interest to know all about what transpired between Pakistan and Iran to build Iran's nuclear capability with the help of scientist A Q Khan."


Iran, exactly like Pakistan in the 1970s, is clandestinely developing its nuclear capability.


India's vote, which is perceived as pro-US, can also embarrass the latter if the same resolution brings to light Iran and Pakistan's clandestine nuclear dealings.


India's long-standing complaint is over the US double standards in not treating Pakistan as it treats other proliferators.


Also, India's argument is that at no point did it even hint it will vote against the IAEA resolution. Dr Singh has repeated from all forums that 'Iran as a signatory to the NPT must honour all its commitments.'


Obviously it means that Iran was not honouring all its obligations, argues a retired diplomat.


As further evidence he points to what Dr Singh had told a press conference in New York: 'We believe that another nuclear weapons state in our neighbourhood is not desirable.'


In short, the PMO and MEA argue that India has both succeeded in giving some breathing space to Iran, and served its own interests by taking a bold and unconventional step with its vote.


If Iran doesn't comply with the IAEA resolution the matter will come up again in November. At which time the CPI-M wants Dr Singh to 'take a stand in consonance with an independent foreign policy and national interest that does not endorse the blackmail by the nuclear haves, and should oppose any discriminatory treatment to Iran.'   


Subrahmanyam's assessment is that India is unlikely to change its stance in November.


In which case, the Congress may well find that Dr Singh's political skills are a setback to his advancement in the world of diplomacy.


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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi