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Last Updated: 10/20/2005
India and the IAEA’s Iran Resolution
KM Rakesh

Faced with further breakdowns in negotiations with the Iranian government, the International Atomic Energy Agency recently passed a controversial resolution that could lead to the referal of Iran's budding nuclear program to the UN Security Council. What's more, in a surprising move, long-time friend India voted with the United States against Iran, even as an energy deal between the two is about to make their relationship even closer. What gives?

The decision could be purely political – made by diplomats and the circle closest to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. It may also be one with tremendous national interests for India.

But the move – some call it `bold’, others a `sell out’ to the US – to vote with the United States and against Iran in supporting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution on Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme, has kicked up a lot of dust in New Delhi, Tehran and everywhere in between.

The Vienna resolution by the IAEA Board of Governors on September 24 put Iran – a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory – on notice for its suspected nuclear weapons capabilities. It could lead later to a referral to the United Nations Security Council for further action since an NPT signatory – in this case oil-rich Iran – can pursue nuclear programme only to meet its energy needs.

Among the leading nations of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – a body that helped the so called Third World remain `equidistant’ from the chief architects of the Cold War – India’s move against Iran has shaken quite a few, especially the Islamic world that is part of the grouping.

While India’s stance in supporting the US-backed move against Tehran, that is allegedly nursing nuclear ambitions to dovetail with its ballistic missile programme, has given a fresh lease on life to India-bashers in the Islamic world, it has also created a window of opportunity for India’s own communists and rightists, what with Russia and China abstaining from voting on the IAEA issue.

Though India had the option to stay with the 12 countries who abstained - including China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa – it chose to vote for the resolution with 21 others including the US, France, Germany and the UK.

The domestic Indian political scene has been hearing outcries from the left- and right-wingers who accuse the Prime Minister of not taking them into confidence before taking such a critical foreign policy decision. But nothing much has been heard so far from India’s rival nations, and that includes neighbour Pakistan with which a thaw in the deeply frozen relations has been in effect for the past few years.

However, it is more than clear that the Arab/Muslim world is watching the situation. Though Iran is a Shia domain that often gets into uncomfortable situations with the Sunni-majority neighbours and allies, it is nonetheless an Islamic country.

While there is unlikely to be a precipitous collapse in Indo-Iran ties, some amount of back-biting is already on – or so it would seem from the comments emanating from Tehran. During his high profile visit to Tehran recently, Prime Minister Singh had firmed up on the commitment with Iran on the $21 billion deal to ensure Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) supplies for 25 years beginning from 2009 to augment the needs of fast-developing but energy-starved India.

The anti-Iran vote that came as a surprise – not just for Tehran, but even for the ruling Congress party and the coalition it heads in New Delhi – did cast the die in playing the game well in what would seem to be consolidating India’s own interests. Coming at a time when India – the third biggest Asian economy that is growing at a massively impressive rate of 7% -- is riding an economic boom, energy security has become a critical issue for New Delhi.

With oil prices sky-rocketing beyond previously imagined levels, and no immediate solutions in sight with OPEC holding its ground by not ratcheting production to scale down prices, India, which imports 70 per cent of its crude oil, needs to look for alternatives.

That is where the Prime Minister’s meeting with US President George Bush comes into picture. The rather long handshake between the two leaders in Washington did raise eyebrows in the largely Soviet-influenced media fraternity in India.

But what followed, among other things, was a promise by Washington to recognize India’s energy requirements. And that basically means the US – that was among the first to impose economic sanctions when India went nuclear following the Pokhran nuclear tests in May 1998 - could provide equipment to assist India’s mission to harness nuclear energy for entirely civilian use.

Already recognized as a responsible nuclear power – unlike its neighbour Pakistan about which the US and its allies are ever so apprehensive mainly because of the clout of Islamic militants, their financiers and ideological supporters in that country – India was treated differently. In a recent interview with The Hindu (a respected Indian English daily), US Ambassador to India David C. Mulford had said “India is a unique case” - and that despite Pakistan being an active ally in US’s war against terror.

That perhaps explains why the US is trying to overcome its own discomfiture in supporting India’s nuclear programme for power generation.

Tehran reacts

But following the vote, Tehran was quick to retaliate. In a fire and brimstone reaction, noises were heard from the Iranian capital that warned all those who backed the US of retaliation. However, the government was quickly followed that up to assuage hurt feelings by being very diplomatic in its subsequent reactions. Iran’s Deputy Minister for

Petroleum Mehdi Mirmoezi told reporters in Johannesburg, South Africa, that the Indo-Iran gas deal and the agreement to award its Zufeyr oil field were still on.

Defending itself, New Delhi wants to ensure it has not shot itself in the foot. Nothing less than a shocker, especially going by India’s traditional posture on such issues, New Delhi’s decision to go with US is also being interpreted as a move to save Tehran itself from total isolation and being labeled a ‘nuclear pariah’.

In briefing the Iranian Ambassador in New Delhi SZ Yaghoubi, India’s Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran explained the vote for the resolution was to avert what would otherwise have led to a major confrontation between Iran and the international community. The Iranian envoy, however, could not find logic in the Indian reasoning of what his country sees as an act not in line with the traditionally friendly ties between the two nations. And he certainly has a point since none could have expected such an Indian stance.

The question, however, remains as to why India, lacking an open plan, chose to side with the US and vote for the resolution, while an abstention – like China and Russia – could have saved the hiccups with one of its oldest allies in the NAM, especially at a time when its proclaimed energy need leave nothing to uncertainty.

In taking what is apparently a well thought-out decision India – or rather Prime Minister Singh and/or his team of advisers – has done a lot of homework. Although the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and the ruling party’s own friends, the Communists, have decried the strategic shift in Singh’s foreign policy, the economist-turned-politician who now heads the government is clear about what he wants from the US.

Energy security

The past decade having seen unprecedented economic growth, India is obviously against losing the momentum for want of energy. And here he is perhaps envisaging energy security of the nuclear kind.

With the US promise – and the Bush regime’s commitment to convince the Congress about India’s position and commitment to non-proliferation – in his bag of achievements, Singh seeks to sharp-focus his “look West” policy.

An economist who has backed the free market, Singh was pitch-forked much against his own wish into politics by then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. Quite satisfied with his career Singh was practically air-dropped into the Indian cabinet as the finance minister (in June 1991), and was given absolute freedom to do what he deemed fit to turn the Soviet-style slow-poke Indian economy into a vibrant system, even if it meant borrowing from established Western models. And he did just that with the complete support of Rao, who bet even his last buck on the man whom the Indian Left and leftovers of the Nehruvian Socialist era accused of being too Western and capitalist in his outlook – an attribute abhorred in an India that has yet to fully wake up from its socialist slumber.

Though it is another matter whether signing GATT, entering the World Trade Organisation and ushering in Western-style economic and fiscal reforms have had their fallouts, Singh became the darling in the eyes of the Western (read: pro-US and pro-market economy) media that pitched for anything and anyone that toes the line.

The Indo-Iran “deal”

Back to the Tehran imbroglio. It is absolutely certain that India weighed the pros and cons of backing the IAEA resolution against Iran. Though India has signed the deal to import LNG with the National Iranian Gas Export Company, it is not yet a legally enforceable contract. And that essentially means Tehran can back out from the “deal” anytime, though a minister has denied scrapping of the agreement.

Another factor that seems to have helped Singh to decide which way to go was that India’s crude oil imports from Iran stand between 100,000 – 150,000 bpd (barrels per day). That accounts for only a tiny fraction of India’s imports of 1.9 – 2.0 million bpd.

Besides, Iran is not the only ‘gas station’ in the world. There is still Turkmenistan, and Myanmar, with whom India is already discussing plans to lay a pipeline through Bangladesh.

In any case, Iran cannot ignore the humongous market that India is – not just for oil and gas. With its own economic interests tied closely with countries like India – especially since it has never been very comfortable with the West — it would be preposterous to even speculate that Tehran would let its ties with New Delhi evaporate. The nearly 400 million middle class Indians, with quite a decent disposable income, are as much a lure for Iranian traders as they are for US multinationals.

First blood?

Having taken a deviation from its usual stand, India needs to be careful from now on. It should neither give the impression of becoming a client-state of the US (like a Peru or a Pakistan) nor project itself as anti-Iran. Although India risks the possibility of US asking for more – now that Uncle Sam has tasted first blood by getting India to back it in one of the most significant alliances between two of the world’s largest democracies – New Delhi too stands to gain from the foreign policy shift since it has once again proven India is no push-over and carries a lot of weight in the international community as a developing nation that is fast catching up on lost time and ignored opportunities.

To those who cry foul, why wouldn’t New Delhi back such a move and make sure Iran does not go nuclear? With Pakistan – an immediate neighbour against whom it has fought three wars and come close to fighting two more – having acquired nuclear weapons and delivery systems, any other country in India’s shoes could not have found comfort in yet another neighbour going nuclear. As a diplomat in New Delhi asked a section of the media, “How can India afford to have two Islamic countries with nuclear bombs in the neigbourhood?” Well, that speaks a lot, Islamic Bomb et al.

It is clear that India does not hate Iran. Nor can it afford to, owing to the stature Tehran enjoys as a nation that believes in itself. Neither does New Delhi blame the present dispensation in Tehran of any undesirable indulgence. But India – one must remember – has its own national interests to protect.

Besides, slowly coming out of the decades old Pakistan-sponsored separatist militancy in its northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, what India needs is to consolidate its own security – internal and external. While the brand of militancy that has unleashed terror globally keeps security experts tearing their hair in frustration, India does not want yet another country with questionable intent to go nuclear.

What transpired between Pakistan and Iran – with the help of the former’s now-exposed nuclear scientist AQ Khan – now known, India for sure cannot take chances. And that, perhaps, is the lead argument of most of the 21 who voted in favour of the resolution.

Moreover, as a signatory to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty NPT), Tehran has its rights — and, of course, duties. While the US is guided by the “duty” part, Tehran is certainly sticking to the “rights” segment of the NPT.

But for India – only one of the 21 backers of the resolution – there are certainly issues concerning its own security, energy and economic needs. And act it did – whether one likes it or not.

KM Rakesh is a journalist based in the United Arab Emirates and an analyst on South Asian and Middle East affairs. He has worked for several years in New Delhi and has written extensively on related issues. E-mail