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    South Asia
     Jan 27, 2006
US shows India its iron fist
By Ehsan Ahrari

The United States and India may be allies but they have different views on the pressure Washington is exerting on New Delhi to stand on its side by voting for Iran's referral to the United Nations Security Council at next week's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The Americans have warned India that its nuclear deal signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's last trip to Washington

will die in Congress if it doesn't back the US on Iran. From India's perspective that's bare-knuckle diplomacy at its worst. From the US vantage point this is merely a test of friendship between the two democracies.

If India were to follow its past patterns of conducting an independent foreign policy, it would be unlikely to take too kindly to such threats. But India's practitioners of realpolitik have claimed for about the past five years that, being two democracies, India and the United States are "natural allies". That aside, the next few weeks are crucial in terms of testing this bare-knuckle diplomacy and India's natural predilection to follow its vital national interests free of external pressures.

The history of US-India relations during the Cold War may be described as a hard-nosed practice of independent foreign policy on the part of India, or so claimed the mandarins of Indian foreign policy. From America's perspectives, that alleged independence was blatantly pro-Soviet (and biased against the US). But India's response was that in heady matters of foreign policy, Moscow, more often than not, stood by New Delhi, while Washington either hedged its bets or sided with Pakistan. Both sides are partially right in their respective claims.

That might be ancient history. Then again, it might not be ancient after all.

US Ambassador to India David Mulford has stated that the United States is eagerly seeking India's support when the IAEA meets to discuss Iran's nuclear-research program. If India takes the position that Iran should not have nuclear weapons, he said, "We think they should record it in the vote."

By itself that statement would not have been half as bad if Mulford did not add that that US-India nuclear deal would "die in Congress" if leaders in New Delhi were to vote against referring Iran to the UN at the meeting next Thursday.

The US-India nuclear deal was reached when Manmohan visited Washington in July. The United States agreed to share advanced civilian nuclear technology with India, thereby lifting sanctions that were imposed on the country in the aftermath of its nuclear test in May 1998. An important aspect of the deal was that it had to be approved by the US Congress, which has always been suspicious of India's intentions regarding the nuclear issue.

More to the point, as a matter of general practice on issues of international trade, and especially regarding nuclear non-proliferation, US legislators are known to set standards of "good" or "credible" behavior involving sovereign nations, a practice regarded by these countries as obnoxious, or even offensive. China felt that way when its oil company CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Corp) offered to buy Unocal for US$18.5 billion late last year. The US Congress ultimately passed legislation declaring the retention of Unocal as a matter of "national security". In response, CNOOC decided to back out of that deal.

One wonders whether Washington paid much attention to the controversy the US-India nuclear deal created in New Delhi. The Manmohan government came under intense criticism from the communist parties for its alleged subservience to Washington and for parting company with the long-standing tradition of conducting independent foreign policy that was established by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and cherished by his successors.

When Manmohan signed the nuclear deal in Washington there were expectations and understandings that Iran would not be referred to the UN any time soon, since such a measure would have forced the current Indian government to take a position. If it were to side with the US, there were fears the coalition government might be brought down. But if New Delhi were to oppose the US, then such a measure would have created its own deleterious consequences along the lines specified by Mulford.

What the US does not understand - or maybe understands but fails to appreciate - is that India's foreign policy toward Iran is quite complex. Iran has consistently balanced, especially lately, its ties between India and its South Asian arch-rival, Pakistan. At times, Iran has gone some distance in terms of manifesting its preference for India and Indo-Iranian economic ties.

That is saying a lot, considering both Pakistan and Iran claim to be "Islamic republics". Besides, after acquiring nuclear weapons of its own by developing a complex rationale for them, New Delhi is not interested in antagonizing Iran in its own attempt to acquire advanced nuclear knowledge. Indian leaders are too busy with other important foreign and domestic policy matters to be bogged down in a quarrel involving Iran, the United States and the EU-3 (Germany, France and the United Kingdom).

What is likely to be the outcome of this newly intensified controversy between two major democracies? It should be noted that India has already rejected any claims of linkages between the Indo-US nuclear deal and its vote related to Iran. Still, its choices may not be that simple.

One option for India is to take no position on the issue when the matter is referred to the IAEA next week. It might hope for IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei's reported intention to give Iran more time before referring it to the UN.

If that doesn't happen, then India is likely to go with the US position only if it determines that such a move would not bring down the coalition government. However, if there is a storm of powerful protest and controversy in India in the coming days and week on the issue, Manmohan is likely to vote against referring Iran to the UN, calculating that the US-India nuclear deal might prove to be too humiliating when the US legislators start taking a close look at it and start adding more conditions to it.

Whatever India decides to do on this issue, the consequences are likely to be unsettling. But that is just par for the course for a rising power. India is now very much part of the "big-power league". It will be forced to make heady decisions and live with the consequences.

Ehsan Ahrari is a CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at eahrari@cox.net or stratparadigms@yahoo.com. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.

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