The US leans on India


A special meeting of the IAEA Board is to be held in Vienna on 2 February 2006, and the EU and the US are expected to press for Iran to be referred to the Security Council.  Assuming they do pursue the matter to a vote, a key question is: will India vote for it as pay back to the US for the US-India nuclear deal signed in Washington in July 2005?


This has become a matter of controversy in India, thanks to an undiplomatic outburst by David Mulford, the US Ambassador in New Delhi, who has stated bluntly that the nuclear deal is off, unless it votes to refer Iran to the Security Council.  On 25 January 2006, he told the Press Trust of India news agency that, if India didn’t vote for referral, then the US-India nuclear deal would “die in Congress” (see BBC report [1]).


If the deal is to be put into effect, the US Congress has to change US law to make it legal to export nuclear materials and equipment from the US to India.   And, according to Mulford, India’s failure to back Iran’s referral would have a “devastating” effect on US Congress members.  He went on:


I think the Congress will simply stop considering the matter. I think the initiative will die in the Congress – not because the US administration would want it to.  This should be part of the calculations India will have to keep in mind.”


Mulford added that India would also need to convince the 44-member Nuclear Suppliers Group of states, which, in addition to the US Congress, has to endorse the deal:


“It is not just the United States. [It’s] the NSG, which says, ‘Wait a minute, if we are going to make this very special one-time change, unique change for India in the nuclear field and they don’t stand up on this [Iran] issue, why should we make the change’”.


Humble pie

These remarks have created a furore in India.  The BJP opposition leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, described Mulford’s comments as “outrageous” and said they violated all diplomatic norms.  Mulford was “called in” by Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, on 26 January 2006 and forced to eat humble pie.  An official statement issued afterwards said [2]):


“Foreign Secretary called in the US Ambassador this afternoon to convey to him that the remarks made by him in an interview to the PTI [Press Trust of India] were inappropriate and not conducive to building a strong partnership between our two independent democracies. Foreign Secretary informed the Ambassador that India’s vote on any possible resolution on the Iran nuclear issue at the IAEA would be determined by India’s own judgement of the merits of the case. …


“The Ambassador expressed his sincere regrets, saying that his remarks had been taken out of context. It was not at all his intention to question India’s right to take decisions on various issues on the basis of its own national interests.”


What is more, the State Department in Washington effectively disowned him: at a press briefing on 25 January 2006, State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said “the Ambassador was expressing his personal opinions” [3].


Most likely, Mulford is correct in saying that, if India doesn’t support the US over Iran, then the US Congress will not change US law to implement the nuclear deal (and neither will the Nuclear Suppliers Group amend its rules to allow its members to export nuclear material and equipment to India).


However, it was very foolish of him to point out this reality in public.  By so doing, he has made it difficult for the Indian government to vote for Iran’s referral without seeming to be a US lackey.  The best India can hope for is that the matter never reaches a vote at the IAEA Board.


Incredible split

Apart from the matter of India’s vote on the IAEA Board, there is another difficulty with the implementation of the US-India nuclear deal.  According to the agreement signed in Washington in July 2005 [4], it was conditional upon India


“identifying and separating civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs in a phased manner and filing a declaration regarding its civilians facilities with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)”, and “taking a decision to place voluntarily its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards”.


Clearly, since its nuclear facilities have a military component, India wants to keep as much of them under wraps as possible, and to therefore minimise those deemed to be “civilian” and open to inspection.  However, to maintain the fiction that the deal is a gain for non-proliferation by putting under inspection nuclear facilities that previously weren’t under inspection (which is necessary to get it past the US Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group), there has to be a measure of realism about the split.


It has been clear for some time that the US was not happy with what India was proposing for the split.  Mulford bluntly confirmed this in his remarks to the Press Trust of India, saying that Washington felt that ideas put forth by India on nuclear programme separation had not met the “test of credibility” and warned that the negotiations process needed to be completed before President Bush’s visit to New Delhi in March, otherwise the “historic opportunity” would be “much less practical”.


Oil/gas deal with Syria

These are not the only examples of the US leaning on India of late.  The US has also been attempting to stop India going through with a deal with Iran for the supply of liquefied natural gas and to prevent the construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan.  And recently, it has taken strong exception to India’s decision to buy a Syrian oilfield in partnership with China and has asked the Indian government to reconsider the deal (see US tells India to back off Syria oil deal, The Hindu, 28 January 2006 [5]).


In December 2005, the Indian oil company, ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL), and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) jointly purchased a 37 per cent stake in the al-Furat oil and gas fields in Syria from Petro-Canada for $573 million.  This is part of new strategy by India and China to co-operate, rather than compete, in obtaining oil and gas assets from third countries – presumably in order not to bid up the price.


The Hindu article contains extracts from a US note to India, which says that the US “strongly opposes such investments in Syrian resources”.  The stated reasons for US opposition are concerned with isolating the Syrian regime (to pressurise it into bending the knee to the US, of course), but an unstated reason may very well be the fact that China and India are working in partnership in this purchase.  The purpose of the US-India nuclear deal, and other co-operation between the US and India in recent years, is to make India into a reliable partner for the US in South Asia as a balance to China.  India co-operating with China on such a vital matter as securing oil and gas runs counter to the Washington’s plans for India.


However, the stated reasons for opposing this purchase are about applying pressure to Syria to co-operate with the UN inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in accordance with Security Council resolutions 1636 and 1644.  The US note to India said:


Now is not the time to send mixed messages to the SARG [Syrian Arab Republic Government] either through investment deals or through any form of economic or political reward to the Damascus regime.”


and expressed US concern that


“the Syrian regime will seek to exploit news of any FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] at the moment as evidence that it is not isolated and therefore not comply with its UNSCR obligations”,


adding bluntly:


“We ask that you reconsider this decision to extend such a significant amount of investment in Syria”.


And by so doing:


send the Syrian Government a tough message that the international community – in which your nation plays a crucial and growing role – expects Syria to improve its behaviour before other states can resume normal dealings with it.”


Among the conditions the US would like fulfilled before India gets involved in Syria are:


“Syria must cease its interference into Lebanese affairs, cooperate fully with UNIIC Mehlis's investigation [into Hariri's assassination], prevent the use of its territory by those supporting terrorism and the insurgency in Iraq, expel Palestinian rejectionist groups [for example Hamas] and take tangible steps to improve its domestic human rights record.”


Despite these pleas, The Hindu reported “Indian officials” as saying that “the Syrian investment will proceed as planned”.


It would be interesting to know if a similar note was delivered to the Chinese government.  The Hindu article said this wasn’t known.












David Morrison

30 January 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review