New Delhi tempers Tehran

Posted in India | 29-Sep-05 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava

Siddharth Srivastava is WSN Editor India.

NEW DELHI: There is more to India’s anti-Iran vote on a possible UN referral, than has been clearly stated. As it turns out New Delhi, led by a team of mostly officials, carefully selected by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, have thought deeply about the issue before overturning what has been India’s traditional stand in world forums of aligning against western powers.

Among the critical matters was the question of India’s energy security, with the debate between hydrocarbons and non-conventional and nuclear sources of energy tilted towards the latter, in the face of dwindling natural fuel reserves and rising international price of crude oil. This makes it apparent that India’s access to nuclear technology that is available with western powers, counts for a lot.

Manmohan, in the process, is said to have overruled his own foreign minister Natwar Singh, who has been a strong proponent of the by now old world thought of sticking with non-alignment. Natwar had visited Iran earlier this month during which he committed India’s close relations with Tehran, including support for a peaceful nuclear programme and the $ 7 billion gas pipeline.

The behind-the-scene parleys leading upto the anti-Iran vote have become apparent after the presumptive rap by Tehran that threatened to cancel the $ 22 billion gas deal signed between India and Iran in June this year. India’s representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conveyed in writing Tehran’s threat to the prime minister’s office, immediately after the vote last Saturday.

Officials in the government say that India had braced itself for a stiff reaction from Iran. Back channels led by Manmohan’s key points person US ambassador Ronen Sen and foreign secretary Shyam Saran immediately got into the picture and informed officials in Tehran, including top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, that it was India that has bought time for Iran till November when the UN referral will be put to a final vote.

Sources say that Iran was also told in no uncertain terms that globally it is still a buyers market as far as gas is concerned and India was prepared to look at alternatives. It was emphasized that New Delhi is keen to tap all sources of energy, including nuclear fuel, which it considers to be critical in plugging future energy gaps. New Delhi also informed Tehran that India had serious doubts about the economic and political feasibility of the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, given US misgivings, security situation in Pakistan and the enormous costs.

This is further collaborated by a statement by Sen, a former member of the atomic energy commission and a pro-west, pro-nuclear proponent who said: ``Just for a moment take geo-politics out of the equation. Oil and gas are finite resources. Nuclear energy is not. Cutting edge research in nuclear sciences and non-conventional energy like fuel cell and bio-fuels is not taking place in Iran or Saudi Arabia (they are happening in countries such as France, Canada, Britain USA, all of which have offered to help build India’s civilian nuclear power programe.’’

Indeed, to buttress India’s views, within 48 hours after the pro-nuclear vote, Canada, which does not have to face the kind of opposition that the Bush administration has to tide over in the US Congress, agreed to resume full nuclear cooperation with India, an arrangement that was twice curtailed by India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. Earlier this month France opened its nuclear doors to India, following the footsteps of Britain and US, in what is beginning to turn into a competitive bidding for the cheapest and safest transfer of nuclear technology.

Sen added: ``Every major hydrocarbon resource is some distance from India and poses great challenges and difficulties in bringing it home,’’ thus highlighting the need for developing India’s nuclear energy resources, which are abysmal at the moment and contribute just 3 % of overall power generation.

Significantly, Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar, who has the ears of Manmohan, sought an early lifting of all nuclear technology restrictions against India this week saying that India was prepared to take ‘‘reciprocal’’ steps in a phased manner that would include ‘‘safeguards on facilities of a civilian nature.’’ Kakodkar said India wants to see a rapid increase in nuclear power generation capacity in the country, well above the planned programme of achieving 20,000 MWE by the year 2020.

US officials, clearly pleased with India’s vote against Iran, also dispelled fears of a backlash by Iran. One state department official has been quoted as saying: ``do you know who Venezuela’s (a country with which US has problems with in South America) biggest oil buyer is -- the United States. All this talk of retribution is posturing. Even producers have to sell their goods somewhere.’’

Washington also made an official display that it was very happy with India’s stand and publicly patted its new friend and possible future ally against China, which voted against the IAEA resolution. US under secretary of State Nicholas Burns said: ``it’s very significant to the US that India voted with the majority. It is a blow to Iran’s attempt to turn this debate into a developed world versus developing world. We’re very grateful for India’s support and it’s significant that India is now working very closely with the US and Europe to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. (Our) long-term to isolate Iran...ratchet up international pressure (as we did on North Korea).’’

The end result has been that Iran has had to pipe down the belligerence reflected in the statement of Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi who said that Iran would revise its policy with the 22 countries, India included, which voted for the EU-3 resolution in Vienna that accuses Iran of clandestinely making nuclear weapons. He said Iran's economic and political relations were coordinated and warned that countries that sided with the US would face ``economic consequences.’’

Iran thus made conciliatory gestures towards India, with Larijani saying: ‘‘I believe friends should not be judged by a single action. Iran enjoys friendly relations with India. Of course, we have complaints about their behavior.’’ This was echoed by the Iranian Embassy, which quoted Larijani’s comments while denying a news report that Iran had decided to call off the LNG deal. ‘‘The agreements between the two countries are still in force and passing through the normal processes,’’ said an Iran embassy spokesperson.

Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, head of Iran's National Petrochemical Company, separately underlined that petrochemical pacts with India would ``definitely be implemented.’’

However, observers say that the thinking in Tehran currently is that the real battle is yet to be won when the IAEA votes in November. It remains to be seen whether India and others will be able to take a stand against the fumes that will certainly emanate if Tehran is pulled to the UN, which is quite a possibility given the US keenness. At the same time experts say that Tehran does not want to lose out on its vast economic relations with India in the cross fire with Washington. It will not be easy to balance all interests.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist)