Behind the smiles

Published : Apr 08, 2005 00:00 IST

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's reiteration of Washington's displeasure at the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and its intention to go ahead with the sale of F-16s to Pakistan point to the U.S.' political and strategic interests in the subcontinent.


NEW DELHI was the first official stop for Condoleezza Rice, the newly appointed Secretary of State of the United States, on her tour of South Asia. Even before her arrival in New Delhi, there was talk that the U.S. side would raise the issue of the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. In the second week of March, the U.S. Ambassador to India, David Mulford, without caring too much for diplomatic niceties, had gone public with his apprehensions about India's proposed multi-billion-dollar deal with Iran in the energy sector. He is reported to have personally conveyed to Union Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar that the George W. Bush administration, in the light of the recent developments in U.S.-Iran relations, was thinking of further tightening the sanctions regime against Teheran. The U.S. had earlier warned Islamabad about being a partner in the gas pipeline project. The pipeline from Iran will have to be routed through Pakistani territory. The gas pipeline, if it materialises as envisaged by the end of the decade, is expected to be a major confidence building measure (CBM) between India and Pakistan.

While in New Delhi, Condoleezza Rice duly reiterated Washington's "concerns" about the project. "Our Ambassador has made statements in that regard. So those concerns are well known to India," she said. She did acknowledge India's growing need for energy sources but had nothing concrete to offer; she could just promise "a broad energy dialogue".

External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh, while fielding questions from the media along with the U.S. Secretary of State, refused diplomatically to characterise the American position as "interference" in the internal affairs of the country. He, however, reiterated that New Delhi had very good relations with Teheran. "We have no problems of any kind with Iran," said Natwar Singh.

India and Iran, have in fact, been officially describing their relationship as a "strategic" one. The air forces and navies of the two countries have had strong ties since the late 1980s.

Natwar Singh, however, expressed the hope that Iran would stick to its commitment with regard to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). When Rice was in the Indian subcontinent, there were reports in the American media that the Bush administration was seriously thinking about dumping the NPT so that it could take unilateral action against Teheran. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that it has not found any serious evidence so far that could show that Iran was violating the NPT. The NPT is up for review later in the year.

The Left parties were scathing in their criticism of the U.S. stance on the proposed gas pipeline. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) said in a statement that the U.S. had no business "to interfere in a decision between three sovereign countries". The party expressed the hope that India and Pakistan would "rebuff such arrogant interference and proceed with the project speedily, which will be of benefit for all the three countries concerned". The Left parties welcomed the External Affairs Minister's statement that India would go ahead with the discussions on the project notwithstanding the reservations expressed by top officials of the Bush administration.

The Americans are trying to dangle the carrot of civilian nuclear reactors, provided New Delhi gets out of its commitment to purchase gas from Iran. France and Russia are also eager to supply nuclear power reactors to India, but under the "obligations" of the NPT and as members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) they, like the U.S., are prevented from selling nuclear reactors to "proliferators" like India and Pakistan. Both New Delhi and Islamabad are trying to skirt this problem by pleading with the U.S. for admission into the NSG. The Bush administration is also offering a "substantive macro-level bilateral" dialogue with India. According to U.S. officials, this dialogue will go beyond the Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership (NSSP) to include wider defence cooperation.

American officials in New Delhi say that the relations between the two countries will be more substantive by the time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Washington in the middle of the year. The invitation to the Prime Minister to visit the U.S. was extended during the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State. The Indian government has invited President George W. Bush to visit India at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

From the U.S. Secretary of State's statements in New Delhi, it is evident that the Bush administration agrees with the Indian government's perceptions on the evolving situation in Nepal. New Delhi's diplomatic and political moves on Nepal have until now been supported by Washington and the European Union (E.U.). The report that Pakistan would lend a helping hand to the Nepalese King to subdue the Maoists militarily had initially caused some concern in New Delhi. It is unlikely that Islamabad will go against the consensus in the international community on Nepal.

Both Rice and Natwar Singh called for the immediate restoration of democracy in the kingdom. Rice said that both the U.S. and India had shown "outstanding" cooperation on Nepal. According to her, this was an illustration of the global and regional responsibilities shared by both countries. The other powers in the region, like China, have not reacted adversely so far to the apparently coordinated stance being taken by the U.S., E.U. and India on Nepal. The Chinese, since the late 1980s, have signalled that they consider Nepal to be in India's zone of influence.

The sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan figured in the talks between the two sides. The Indian side expressed concern about the diplomatic and military ramifications of such a move. It is clear that it is only a matter of time for the much-delayed sale to come through. Rice had stated during her stopover in Islamabad that the two countries would continue to enjoy a very special relationship. She said that the sale of F-16s figured in the context of Pakistan's defence needs.

Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee speaking a day after Rice left New Delhi, said that the sale of F-16s to Pakistan would affect the composite India-Pakistan peace dialogue. "At this juncture when a composite dialogue is on, the historic bus journey between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar about to begin and a voluntary reduction of troops is carried out by India in Jammu and Kashmir, the supply of lethal arms to Pakistan could have an impact," he said.

In the last couple of months, it has also been clear that Washington wants to market its arms aggressively in the lucrative South Asian market. At the recent air show in Bangalore, the American presence was the biggest. Top representatives of Lockheed Martin, the manufacturers of F-16s, have been lobbying with the Indian government and the Indian Air Force (IAF). According to many Defence experts, the Americans hope to claim a 40 per cent share in the arms purchases by the Indian government within 10 years. American armament companies are not happy to see Israeli companies bag Indian defence contracts selling American-licensed weaponry at huge profits. On immediate offer to India are F-16s, C-130 (Hercules) transport planes and P-3C Orions for the Navy.

A recent report, however, stated that the IAF top brass prefers the Su-30s and the Mirage-2000s to the F-16s. The experience of the Iranian and Venezuelan air force regarding the supply of American spare parts for their F-16s and C-130s has been an eye opener. The Iran Air Force has been forced to scrounge around for spare parts in the international black market since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. When President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela started steering an independent foreign policy course, the U.S. responded by slowing down the supply of essential spare parts. Many senior Indian officials are in favour of diversifying the sources of arms supply. Besides, they feel that buying weaponry from the U.S. would help them gain additional leverage in the corridors of power in Washington.

The visiting U.S. Secretary of State did not endorse India's bid to be a permanent member of a restructured United Nations Security Council. The United Kingdom and Russia are the only two Security Council members who have openly come out in support of India's claim to sit on the high table at the U.N. Rice said in New Delhi that the U.S. government did not want the proposed reforms of the U.N. to be confined to the Security Council. The statements of Rice in New Delhi coupled with the recent actions of the Bush administration, have shown that more importance is given to America's multilateral initiatives than to U.N. initiatives. The Secretary of State again requested Indian help for the reconstruction of Iraq.

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