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Testing times strain bonds of friendship

As the battle lines over nuclear weapons are drawn, India is having to rethink some relationships, says Venu Menon

India was quick to condemn North Korea’s nuclear test and back American efforts to build an international consensus for sanctions against Pyongyang.

But Washington will be looking to New Delhi to display the same commitment by joining the chorus of voices in the Security Council against Iran.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has limited his public pronouncements on Iran to low-pitched calls for Tehran to abide by its non-proliferation treaty obligations.

And while Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to pull out of the treaty, his response was directed at the US, not India.

That could change as India comes under mounting pressure to abandon its ambivalence on Iran and adopt a less nuanced approach to an isolated state intent on pursuing its nuclear programme in the face of international disapproval.

India says the North Korean test “highlights the dangers of clandestine proliferation,”
a thinly veiled reference to the sale of uranium enrichment technology to North Korea by discredited Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf confirms this in his recent memoir
In The Line of Fire: “Dr. Khan transferred nearly two dozen P-1 and P-11 centrifuges to North Korea. He also provided North Korea with a flow meter, some special oils for centrifuges, and coaching on centrifuges technology.”

The Pyonyang test is a cautionary tale of irresponsible proliferation that could plunge Asia into a full-fledged nuclear arms race. The collateral damage to India is that it will inevitably slow the passage of the US-India nuclear cooperation deal with policymakers in Washington.

India does not endorse Washington’s description of Iran as a sponsor of international terrorism, it sees no merit in downplaying the threat posed by proliferation and the scope of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of non-state groups such as the Jehadi in Kashmir.

With China and Russia joining the US in agreeing to impose sanctions on Iran, India is in no position to break ranks and oppose the move in the UN.

Iran has felt let down by India before. Last year, it voted with the US on an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution accusing Iran of not complying with its international obligations.

It was widely seen as the first test of India’s position on Iran’s nuclear programme. Barely six months later, Iran was jolted a second time when India again voted with the majority to refer it to the Security Council.

Though India insisted its vote against Iran was not cast under US pressure, many believed its traditionally close relations with Iran had suffered a setback.

Before the second vote, America’s US ambassador to India, David Mulford, caused a stir when he said the US-India nuclear cooperation deal hinged on how India voted.

New Delhi took note. In July, the US House of Representatives cleared the way for civil nuclear cooperation with India.

India’s IAEA votes indicated it was willing to put its partnership with Washington over its friendship with Tehran, and Prime Minister Singh has left himself open to criticism that he has forfeited India’s foreign policy independence for a subservient footing with the US.

Singh is finding it hard to walk the tightrope. His Blair-like compliance with Bush puts him at odds with influential leftwing groups which give his Government its majority in Parliament.

There are also the local Muslims, on whose vote the coalition government headed by Singh’s Indian National Congress depends.

The Indian premier’s policy toward Iran has won approval from the Hindu nationalist Bharitya Janata Party, India’s main opposition. But Singh has little use for this backing.

The delicate balance of interests nurtured by New Delhi has started to unravel. With the IAEA and Security Council votes, Washington has succeeded in forcing a re-evaluation of India-Iran ties.

New Delhi’s indulgence of Tehran was motivated by economic interests.

India-Iran relations hit a high note with the signing of the New Delhi Declaration in 2003, raising worries in Washington.

“The United States has made very clear to India that we have concerns about its relationship with Iran,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate foreign relations committee in April.

The concerns include a proposed gas pipeline to deliver Iranian natural gas to India through Pakistan. Washington is worried that India’s growing dependence on Iran for energy is not compatible with US policy to isolate Iran and curb its nuclear programme.

To meet spiralling demand, India has entered into a slew of agreements with Iran, which is OPEC’s second-largest oil producer, holding 10 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. It also has the world’s second- biggest natural gas reserves.

But a nuclear Iran is bad news for India as much as it is for the US. New Delhi will continue to work for a rollback of Tehran’s nuclear weapons programme and will continue to do business with Tehran with an eye on Iran’s oil and natural gas reserves. But for now, India’s friendship with Iran is dictated by the United States.

The New Zealand Herald * Thursday, October 19, 2006



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