By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 20, 2007
NEW DELHI, Sept. 19 -- India's long-standing ties with Iran appear to be threatening the beleaguered nuclear energy deal between Washington and New Delhi and, more broadly, their growing strategic alliance.
The Bush administration has long expressed concern regarding India's relations with Iran and its reluctance to help curtail Iran's nuclear program. On Wednesday, Richard A. Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South Asia, made clear that the administration is still looking for answers from New Delhi.
"The Indian government is very well aware of the concerns of India's military relationship with Iran. What we are trying to do is for everybody to understand the facts of the matter," he said in Washington.
Boucher's remark came as the Indian government is battling domestic opposition to the U.S.-India nuclear deal. While the agreement will assure India uninterrupted nuclear supplies from the United States, critics have accused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of giving in to various U.S. demands, compromising India's sovereignty.
For opponents of the deal, Boucher's statement served as further evidence of U.S. meddling.
"America is intimidating us. It is none of their business to dictate what we should or should not do with Iran," said D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India, which lends crucial support to Singh's coalition government but which has launched nationwide street protests against the agreement. "Our suspicions about the nuclear deal have come true. The attempt is to drag India into the American global strategy. We have to resist that. We cannot antagonize our traditional friends for the sake of Americans."
On Wednesday, reacting to Boucher's statement, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony told reporters that India's relations with the United States and Iran were independent of each other.
"India has very friendly relations with Iran. It will continue to do so. India's friendship will not come in the way of good relations with any other country," he said.
Two weeks ago, Antony informed Parliament that the Indian navy was training five Iranian sailors in its facilities. Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee recently said that Iran had "every right to pursue its nuclear program for peaceful purposes" and that India favors a "noninterventionist policy in Iran."
Such a policy would run contrary to the hopes of the Bush administration. The legislation that made the U.S.-India nuclear deal possible contains a nonbinding provision saying that India should work with the United States to dissuade Iran from developing its nuclear program and, if necessary, help contain it.
Analysts say India's relationship with Iran goes back to ancient times. The influence of Persian language, art and architecture is evident in much of northern India, and the Taj Mahal is a magnificent testimony to this cross-cultural heritage. In the recent past, the two nations have shared strategic goals in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.
"There has always been a convergence of geopolitical and strategic interests between India and Iran. To understand that, you just need to look at the map. Iran helps India achieve strategic depth in Afghanistan and bypass Pakistan," said Mohammad Sohrab, associate professor of Third World studies at New Delhi's Jamia Millia University. "We should not let the nuclear deal cast a shadow on our independent foreign policy."
Iran's deputy foreign minister, Mehdi Safari, came to New Delhi last week to brief the Indian government about developments related to nuclear issues in Tehran. From 2004 to 2006, there were at least 20 official visits between India and Iran, and there have been six visits by business delegations since 2000.
"Our interest is quite substantial in that region and we want to promote investment in Iran," said Arun Patankar of the Confederation of Indian Industries. Patankar has led a few business delegations to Iran and plans another one in 2008.
One of the major irritants in India's relations with the United States is the ongoing negotiations among India, Iran and Pakistan over a $7 billion gas pipeline. The pipeline is expected to start in Asalouyeh, Iran, pass through Baluchistan and Sind in Pakistan, then reach India, which would receive 5 million tons of liquefied natural gas annually.
Relations with Iran, however, have not always been smooth. Last year, at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, India voted to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council over concerns that it was trying to develop nuclear weapons. The decision created an uproar in the Indian Parliament, and Prime Minister Singh was accused of bowing to U.S. pressure for the sake of nuclear energy.
Singh assured the nation that the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency vote "does not, in any way, detract from the traditionally close and friendly relations" with Iran. He said India will "further strengthen and expand our multifaceted ties with Iran."