The Indian volte-face

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST

India's vote against Iran undermines the solidarity of developing nations and the government's stated position that the Iranian issue should be discussed within the framework of the IAEA.


THE vote India cast at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors Meeting to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council came as a great surprise to the international community. For the first time India broke ranks with the non-aligned group and voted with the West on a major issue. Though there were indications that heightened U.S. pressure was finally prevailing over India's policy-makers, New Delhi managed to keep a faade of neutrality on the Iran issue until the eleventh hour.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a long conversation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the night before the crucial vote. Manmohan Singh did not choose to reveal to the Iranian President that New Delhi had already made up its mind to side with Washington and Brussels. All the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) members represented on the IAEA Board abstained barring Venezuela, which had the courage of its convictions and voted against the resolution. The resolution seeks to refer Iran to the Security Council at an unspecified date on mere suspicions of trying to acquire nuclear weapons.

The majority of the diplomats in New Delhi representing developing countries are upset about the Indian government's dramatic shift. The Iranian Ambassador to India, S.Z. Yaghoubi, who has reasons to feel personally let down by the officials of the External Affairs Ministry, was rather restrained in his reaction. He said his government was "surprised that a friend like India voted against us". Western commentators had taken it for granted that India, along with China and Russia, would stymie the U.S./E.U.-3 bid to isolate Iran on the nuclear issue.

However, by the third week of September, there were indications that a rethink was under way in New Delhi. The Bush administration was asking for "reciprocal" measures from New Delhi after the U.S. Congress started the legislative process for lifting sanctions against India, in August. The U.S. Ambassador to India, David C. Mulford, had made it clear that otherwise the July 18, 2005, India-U.S. nuclear agreement would be in jeopardy. Senior Indian officials had indicated in August itself that the gas pipeline project with Iran had been put on the back burner. Scrapping this project was one of the major demands of the Bush administration.

India's vote was crucial for the U.S. as it broke the NAM consensus on the issue and helped the U.S./E.U.-3 obtain a slim majority in the IAEA vote. In the next vote scheduled to be held in November, Washington will find its task much more difficult, as two of the states that voted for the resolution will be replaced by Cuba and Belarus. In all probability, these two countries may join Venezuela in voting against any new resolution sponsored by the U.S.-E.U.-3.

Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline that the decision to side with the U.S. and the E.U. countries at Vienna was "a serious departure from India's independent foreign policy and from the common interests of NAM countries". He stressed that the Indian government had gone back on its stated position, pointing out that India had consistently supported Iran's right to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran had told the media in New Delhi in the last week of September that India had actually helped Iran by making the E.U. dilute the tough language that was originally proposed to be used in the IAEA resolution. His argument had very few takers among diplomats representing developing countries. E.U. diplomats are also claiming credit for diluting the IAEA resolution, which they say, leaves ample scope for a diplomatic solution to the impasse. Senior European diplomats claim that there is absolutely no scope for Washington to use the IAEA resolution as a pretext for military action against Iran.

However, the CPI(M) is firmly of the view that New Delhi has "reversed" its principled stand on Iran. Karat pointed out that the IAEA Board's resolution talks about Iran's "history of concealment" of nuclear activities. The resolution also states that the Security Council has the competence to verify whether Iran's nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes. Iran, as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), continues to assert its "inalienable right" under Article lV of the NPT to "develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes". If Iran is singled out for sanctions on the basis of false evidence relating to weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), it could signal the end of the NPT.

Iran's position until recently had the support of the entire 116-member NAM. India's vote in Vienna has, however, dented the consensus. According to Karat, the "volte-face" on Iran totally undermines the Indian government's original stand that the Iranian issue should be discussed within the framework of the IAEA. New Delhi has also gone back on its position that all decisions at the IAEA should be taken "through discussions and consensus". The decision on Iran was instead taken through a divisive vote. Leading NAM countries represented on the Board, such as South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Algeria and Sri Lanka, abstained.

A diplomat representing one of the countries that abstained did not hide his bitterness at India's action. "India, a founder of NAM, has broken the solidarity of the group," he said. According to the diplomat, it has been the tradition of the NAM group in international forums to decide on a common position before voting. "The vote in the IAEA has shown that India is now with the superpower and not with the South," said the envoy. He pointed out that until recently India had claimed a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council as a representative of the developing world. "Today all the developing countries are expressing their concerns about India's position," he said. The diplomat stressed that India-U.S. agreements like the July nuclear agreement were internal matters of the countries concerned but what happened in Vienna was a violation of the tradition of Third World solidarity. Iran, he emphasised, was a member of NAM and the Group of 15 (G-15). Observers have noted that even Pakistan, which has the special status of a "non-NATO ally" of the U.S., abstained in the IAEA vote.

Karat said the CPI(M) planned to organise nationwide rallies to protest against the government's stand on Iran. He wants the government to change its stand before the next IAEA Board meeting. "India should state clearly that the Iranian nuclear issue is not a fit case for referring to the U.N. Security Council," said Karat.

The main Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has sent confusing signals on the issue. Former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha was quick to criticise the government's stand. He said the Manmohan Singh government had succumbed to U.S. pressure. However, his predecessor as External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, was muted in his criticism. His only grouse was that the BJP was not kept in the loop by the government while taking the momentous decision of siding with the U.S. against Iran. As External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh wanted India to sign up for the U.S. missile defence initiative and had no objection to the setting up of American military bases in Central Asia.

The initial wave of anger in Iran against the countries that voted against it has subsided. Teheran has since clarified that none of the big energy deals it has recently struck with New Delhi is up for review. Speaking after a parliamentary session in the last week of September, Ali Larijani, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and the country's chief nuclear negotiator, said Iran had no plans to downgrade relations with India and the E.U.-3. Teheran, for the time being, is seemingly giving New Delhi "the benefit of the doubt" by choosing to interpret India's vote as an example of "realpolitik" and national interests transcending long-standing traditions and principles.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment