A vote, a strike and a sleight of
hand By Conn Hallinan
For the past six months, the United States
and the European Union (EU) have led a full court
press to haul Iran before the UN Security Council
for violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) by supposedly concealing a nuclear weapons
program. Last month, the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) voted to declare Iran in
"non-compliance" with the treaty, but deferred a
decision on referral to the Security Council until
The strike On
September 30, more than a million Indian airport
and banking workers took to the streets to oppose
a plan to downsize financial
privatize airports, but also to denounce the
ruling Congress Party as "shameful" for going
along with the September 24 "non-compliance" vote
in the IAEA. The strikers were lead by four left
parties that are crucial allies of the
Congress-dominated United Progressive Alliance
The alliance controls 270
votes in parliament. The left holds 64 seats to
the Congress Party's 145. The alliance's other 61
seats come from a diverse group of small parties.
Why was India lining up with the US and
the EU against Iran, especially since it risked
alienating essential domestic allies? Why would
India jeopardize its relations with Iran while it
is engaged in high-stakes negotiations with Tehran
over a $22 billion natural gas deal, and a $5
billion oil pipeline from Iran to India via
To sort this out one has to go
back to early this year when Central Intelligence
Agency director Porter Goss and US Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified before Congress
that China posed a strategic threat to US
interests. Both men lobbied for a "containment"
policy aimed at surrounding and isolating China.
One key piece on this new Cold War
chessboard is India, which under the previous
right-wing government saw itself as a political
and economic rival to Beijing. But there was an
obstacle to bringing India into the ring of US
allies stretching from Japan in the East, to
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia .
In 1974, using enriched uranium secretly
gleaned from a Canadian - and US - supplied
civilian reactor, India set off an atomic bomb.
New Delhi was subsequently cut off from
international uranium supplies and had to fall
back on its own rather thin domestic sources. Yet
another set of barriers was erected following
India's 1998 nuclear blasts.
But the Bush
administration realized that if it wanted India to
play spear bearer for the US, the Indians would
need to expand and modernize their nuclear weapons
program, an almost impossible task if they
couldn't purchase uranium supplies abroad. India
produces about 300 tons of uranium a year, but the
bulk of that goes to civilian power plants.
According to the 2005 edition of Deadly
Arsenals, India presently has between 70 and
110 nuclear weapons, plus 400 to 500 kilograms of
weapons grade uranium on hand. Given India's
present level of technology, a stockpile of that
size can produce about 100 atomic weapons.
Those weapons, however, are fairly
unsophisticated, and too big and clunky for
long-range missiles. Nor are Indian missiles yet
capable of reaching targets all over China ,
although the Agni III, with a range of 2,000,
miles is getting close.
The sleight of
hand So here comes the sleight of hand.
On June 28, Indian Defense Minister Pranab
Mukherjee met with Rumsfeld to sign the US-India
Defense Relationship Agreement, which gives India
access to sophisticated missile technology under
the guise of aiding its space program.
defense pact was denounced by the Communist Party
of India/Marxist - one of the parties in the
alliance's governing coalition - as "fraught with
serious consequences", that would end up making
India like "Japan, South Korea and the
Philippines, all traditional military allies of
the United States".
The June agreement was
followed by a July 18 meeting of Indian Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W
Bush that ended US restrictions on India's
civilian nuclear power program, and allowed India
to begin purchasing uranium on the international
While the Bush administration is
telling the US Congress that the pact will
encourage civilian over military uses of nuclear
technology, Manmohan told the Indian parliament,
"There is nothing in this joint statement that
amounts to limiting or inhibiting our strategic
nuclear weapons program."
allowing India to buy uranium on the open market,
the pact will let India divert all of its domestic
uranium supplies to weapons production. That would
allow it to produce up to 1,000 warheads, making
it the third largest arsenal in the world behind
the US and Russia.
Of course there was a
price for these agreements: India had to vote to
drag Iran before the Security Council. The
Americans were quite clear that failure to join in
on the White House's jihad against Tehran meant
the agreements would go on ice. "India," warned US
representative Tom Lantos, will "pay a very hefty
price for their total disregard of US concerns
So that explains the
vote. But is the Congress Party really willing to
hazard its majority in parliament and endanger
energy supplies for the dubious reward of joining
the Bush administration's campaign to isolate Iran
and corner the dragon?
Well, a sleight of
hand can work both ways.
Right after the
September 24 vote in the IAEA, according to the
Indian newspaper, Frontline, the Iranian
ambassador to the IAEA told the Indian delegation
the natural gas deal was off. Then President
Mahmud Ahmadinejad gave an incendiary interview to
the United Arab Emirates-based newspaper, the
Khaleej Times , threatening retribution against
any country that voted against Iran.
days later, the Iranians reversed themselves,
claiming that their president had never actually
talked with the Khaleej Times, and the Indians
quickly announced that the gas and pipeline deal
was still on. New Delhi also began hinting that it
might change its vote come November 25 (one
suspects from "yes" to "abstain"). So either the
Indians gave Tehran a wink and a nod following
their "yes" vote, or Iran's shot across their bow
had an effect.
The September 24 vote was
22 "yes", one "no" and 12 abstentions. China and
Russia abstained, but have publicly said that they
are opposed to sending Iran to the Security
Council. Two of the "yes" votes are rotating off
the 35-member IAEA board to be replaced by Cuba
and Belarus. And much to the annoyance of the US,
Britain, France and Germany (EU-3) met earlier
this month to discuss restarting direct talks with
Tehran. In short, it is unlikely that Iran will
end up being referred to the Security Council.
Will an "abstain" vote by India be enough
to open the gates for US technology to ramp up New
Delhi's nuclear weapons programs? Probably, but
that depends on whether the administration can get
it by Congress and people like Lantos.
Does this mean India joins the US alliance
against China? The answer to that question is a
good deal more complex.
In April of this
year, India and China signed a "Strategic and
Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity",
and trade between the two up-and-coming Asian
giants is projected to reach $20 billion by 2008.
Following the July agreement with the US,
Manmohan reported to parliament that "we see new
horizons in our relationship with China", and that
the pact "is not at the cost of China".
fact, in the end, the US may just end up getting
snookered. The Indians feel they need to modernize
their military in order to become more than a
regional power. If the Americans will help them do
it, fine. But that doesn't mean signing on for the
As analyst Lora Saalman
writes in Japan Focus , "The technical and
military hardware provided by the United States
promises to expand India's political, strategic
and military footprint even beyond China," but
that rather than pitting the two huge Asian powers
against one another, "the United States may be
setting up India to instead serve as a future
strategic counterweight to US interests in Asia
Conn Hallinan is a
foreign policy analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus
and a lecturer in journalism at the University of
California, Santa Cruz.