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Cablegate: Indian Government Aggressively Defending Its Vote On Iran

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.



E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/27/2015

Classified By: Charge Robert Blake, Jr. for Reasons 1.4 (B, D)

1. (C) Summary: India's decision to support the US/EU resolution on Iran at the IAEA was the most important signal so far of the UPA's commitment to building a transformed US-India relationship. To counter the domestic backlash, the GOI launched an aggressive campaign to explain to its domestic constituency, critics, fellow NAM states, and Tehran how its vote in favor of the EU-3 resolution effectively promotes a diplomatic resolution of the ongoing dispute about Iran's nuclear program. Of particular sensitivity to Indian opinion is the question of whether the GOI has become a ""lackey in the US camp."" Opinions about the vote seem to be split along predictable political lines, but the leadership of India's sizeable Shia population has voiced tentative support for the GOI decision. We need to appreciate that this is the UPA's first significant step away from the relatively risk-free comfort zone of the NAM (and Russia and China, both of whom abstained), but exposes the government to severe domestic criticism, runs the risk of losing vital support from NAM partners on issues such as a UNSC seat, and, not least of all, endangers traditionally friendly relations with Iran. End Summary.

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Explaining the Vote

2. (SBU) India's decision to support the US/EU resolution on Iran at the IAEA was the most important signal so far of the UPA's commitment to building a transformed US-India relationship. In a briefing memo released soon after the Sept 24 IAEA decision and a September 26 press briefing with Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, New Delhi argued that its vote was in harmony with its position to keep the issue within the realm of the IAEA and to facilitate resolution through diplomacy. The GOI argued, ""We were not for the Iran nuclear issue being referred to the UN Security Council. The resolution has kept consideration of the issue within the purview of the IAEA itself...The draft resolution has conceded that by deferring any decision till a further consideration of the matter at the next Board meeting in November 2005. We have thus gained time for further consultations."" Trying to lessen the sting of this decision to both Tehran and NAM, New Delhi also spelled out its opposition to designating Iran as non-compliant with its safeguards agreement and stated its preference for a future decision based on consensus and voiced conditional support for Iran's civilian nuclear energy program ""within global non-proliferation norms.""

3. (SBU) New Delhi also tried to preempt predictable criticism that India has abandoned its cherished neutrality. Citing India's extensive consultations with the EU-3 and the NAM in Vienna and New York, the GOI briefing noted that several NAM and developing countries also supported the EU-3 resolution. Addressing criticism that India's decision was made to secure support for the July 18 civil nuclear agreement with the US, the briefing memo emphatically states, ""Nothing could be further from the truth. The agreement stands on its own, based on a mutual recognition of Indian energy requirements, its global impact and on an our acknowledgment of India impeccable record on non-proliferation.""

Hail of Criticism...

4. (SBU) The usual cast of detractors, including the Left, were quick to rail against the vote, citing arguments anticipated by the GOI. Most vocal was a personal statement issued by former BJP Minister of External Affairs Yashwant Sinha accusing the government of abandoning Iran to save its own ""questionable deal"" with the US. ""The veil is off. India is now firmly in the US camp... The UPA government has made India a client state of the US."" Sinha went on to warn, ""Relations with Iran are now in jeopardy"" and lamented that India had lost its unique position to ""play the role of umpire"" regarding Iran. Carrying that theme further, hawkish commentator Bharat Karnad wrote in the Asian Age that by rebuffing Tehran, New Delhi has not only endangered its access to a reliable source of oil, but has undermined Iran's ability to check the spread of Wahabi Islam and complicate Pakistan's strategic calculus. Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research, expressed resentment that India was forced to make a choice between the US and Iran, ""(The US) still wants Germanys and Japans for friends, countries that didn't have a choice after WWII. They cannot expect India to be Germany or Japan in the 21st century.""

...And Support

5. (SBU) Other commentators, however, were more positive about the effect the vote would have on the international objective to gain Iran's full compliance in the short term, as well as giving India a higher profile on the international stage, and aligning its position with its long-term interests. Rebuffing the contention that India's vote was a quid pro quo for its nuclear agreement with the US, influential strategic commentator K. Subrahmanyam (who is also in charge of advising the PMO on the implementation of the July 18 agreement) focused on India's vote as a means to compel Iran's full compliance with its IAEA obligations, and bring about full disclosure of the source of source of Iran's nuclear know-how, i.e., AQ Khan: ""An abstention vote by India would mean that this country connived with Pakistan and section of the past US Administration and its supporter to hush up the Pakistan-China proliferation activity."" He explained that besides the US, India needs to have the support of France, the UK, Germany, and other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to access the nuclear fuel it needs. Writing in the Sept 24 Indian Express, Strategic Affairs editor Raja Mohan reasoned that if it had abstained, India would have found itself in a worse position by ""reinforcing the signal of ambiguity from New Delhi,"" thereby undercutting nuclear cooperation with the US without changing the discourse on Iran.

6. (SBU) On the more immediate issue of how the vote will affect the proposed pipeline with Iran, the Sept 23 International Herald Tribune reported that some Indian officials privately view the IAEA decision as an opportunity to allow the technically and politically beleaguered pipeline project to dry up without being overtly hostile to it, thus removing a further irritant in the US-India relationship.

7. (C) Congress spokesman and Gandhi family confidant Ananad Sharma signaled strong support for the IAEA decision in a September 26 conversation, noting that he was preparing to deal with attacks on the GOI's policy from both the Left and right (BJP). Sharma recalled that India has been saying for months that Iran must comply with its NPT obligations, and echoed MEA backgrounding that described how GOI concerns had been taken into account in drafting the final IAEA resolution. Nonetheless, Sharma concluded, there was some political work to be done in defending the GOI's Vienna decision.

Lukewarm Support from India's Shia Leadership

8. (SBU) Shia Muslim leaders in Lucknow have dismissed concerns of an Indian Shia backlash against the GOI vote, noting that Indian Shias tend to support Indian government in foreign policy decisions, and recognize the danger of WMD proliferation. ""How can a true Indian oppose his own government's decision?"" Maulana MM Athar, chairman of the Shia Personal Law Board, asked Embassy personnel on Sept 26. Zaheer Mustafa, editor of the In Dinon Urdu daily, told us that how the UPA government sells the decision to the public will determine whether the Shia oppose it or not. Other Shia clerics pointed out that so far the loudest protest from Muslims have come from Sunni leaders, but observed that some traditionally pro-Iranian Shia leaders would likely try to stoke discontent, and expected Shia groups funded by the Iranian Embassy to organize anti-US protests on Friday, Sept 23.

Public Diplomacy Implications

9. (SBU) In the midst of the intense public debate on a highly complex domestic political issue in which the GOI finds itself being criticized from the left, right, and sometimes the center, there is no benefit for the USG to insert itself. While the USG clearly welcomes the Indian decision, as do many Indian analysts, the USG's public posture should be to respond to questions on the Indian decision by referring questions to the GOI. The debate on Iran's nuclear program and the GOI vote is deeply entangled with discussion on India's role in the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline. It is almost inevitable for the US position on Iran and the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act to appear in discussions of the US-India dynamic on Iran's nuclear program, with the comment that the USG opposes the IPI pipeline. We should be prepared to answer questions regarding the pipeline as well as questions about Iran's nuclear programs.

10. (SBU) We suggest the following press guidance on the issue of the GOI vote on the Iran resolution at the IAEA:
-- The United States welcomes the broad diplomatic support the EU-3 resolution received at the IAEA on Saturday. We look forward to working with the EU-3 and the international community, including India (if asked), in the IAEA as this issue moves forward.
-- (If asked) We refer you to the GOI for comments on its vote at the IAEA. The following is suggested guidance on US policy on the Iran-India pipeline:
-- The USG's concerns on Iran are clear and well-known. We are deeply concerned about Iran's problematic behavior, and we are sharing our concerns in a constructive way with India and Pakistan, which is appropriate in discussions with countries with which we have close ties. At the same time, we are seeking ways to cooperate with India to ensure that the energy needs of India's rapidly-growing economy are appropriately met.

A Difficult Step

11. (C) Comment: The decision to vote with the EU and US when several other NAM stalwarts abstained is the first significant public step that the UPA has taken to break from its traditional developing country solidarity, and is not cost-free for the GOI. Stepping out on this issue makes the UPA an easy target for sincere or opportunistic sniping from both the BJP opposition and its Left Front partners, as well as running a risk of losing goodwill and vital support from NAM partners on other issues India cares deeply about (like its continuing pursuit of a permanent UNSC seat). While we need to be careful to not publicly exacerbate the downside of New Delhi's choice by giving fodder to critics who complain that India is kowtowing to the US or marching to our orders, we should appreciate the political and diplomatic difficulty of this step for the GOI.
End Comment.

12. (U) Visit New Delhi's Classified Website: (http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/sa/newdelhi/)


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