Iran Debate Strains U.S.-India Relations

The International Atomic Energy Agency continues deliberations on Iran's nuclear program. Efforts by the United States to get an international consensus on tackling Iran are undermining one of its increasingly important alliance with India. Iran is an ally of energy-hungry India.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. The International Atomic Energy Agency is still deliberating on Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. says the majority of the 35-nation board of governors favors sending the case to the U.N. Security Council, but American diplomats are seeking even broader support.

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the drive for consensus is hurting relations between the U.S. and India.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

The world's arms salesmen are in town. They're displaying their wares at the defense exhibition in New Delhi. India's planning to spend billions of dollars on weaponry in the next few years. Russian, Israeli, and British companies have come here to seek a share. So have Americans. There are 20 major U.S. exhibitors.

During the Cold War, relations between Washington and New Delhi were prickly. In the last few years, they've rapidly improved. India's on the rise. The U.S. sees it as a kindred spirit, a democratic partner in the war on violent Islamist extremism, a vast new market. And, say some, a potential counter weight to China.

Last summer, the Bush administration agreed to transfer civil nuclear technology to India, though the deal depends on the approval of the U.S. Congress. It was a big leap forward in the new friendship. After years of U.S. sanctions over its nuclear weapons, India saw this as a first step towards a mission into the club of nuclear nations.

Yet now relations have hit a rough patch. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday held his second major press conference since taking office. He found himself on the defensive over relations with Washington.

Prime Minister MANMOHAN SINGH (India): The basic objective of our foreign policy, as well as our domestic policy, is to promote our enlightened national interests. We have not acted under any type of pressures.

REEVES: The pressure he is talking about is a reference to remarks by the U.S. Ambassador to India, David Mulford. Last week Mulford said he thought that if India didn't vote at the IAEA to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, Congress would throw out the nuclear deal. There was an outcry here. Iran's an ally of India. India desperately needs more energy sources, including Iranian gas and oil.

Indians from a wide cross-section of politics saw the ambassador's remarks as an attempt by the U.S. to coerce New Delhi into toeing the line. The remarks went down badly with many Indians nostalgic for the days when India was the champion of non-alignment. Some on the left began demanding the ambassador's recall. The Hindu, one of India's most respected newspapers called on the Indian government to reject, what it called the American fatwa. Siddharth Varadarajan(ph) is deputy editor.

Mr. SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN (Deputy Editor, The Hindu): I think it seriously compromised the government of India, which was quite amenable to going along with the U.S. on Iran. But by linking the two and in a sense holding out a threat of blackmail, allowed the left and the rights in this country to come together and point fingers at what they say is growing U.S. interference in India's foreign policy. And I think this is a charge which the government is sensitive about.

REEVES: The U.S. officials deny Washington was trying to strong arm India. After returning from a visit to New Delhi, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns emphasized that it's up to India to decide how it votes.

Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (Under Secretary of State): India is one of the great countries of the world. It's a sovereign country. It's obviously going to act in its own national interest. It'll make decisions as all of the countries do based on its national interest and I think we all have to respect that.

Mr. M.J. AKBAR (ph) (Editor, Asian Age Newspaper): What does India see itself as?

REEVES: That's M.J. Akbar, Editor-in-Chief of the Asian Age Newspaper. He believes the proposed nuclear deal with the U.S. is part of an attempt by Washington to restrict India's nuclear program. And he says this, coupled with the Ambassador's remarks, poses questions about India's true place in the world.

Mr. AKBAR: Does India have the ability to stand up, or is India going to be manipulated? A lot of Indians don't want India to be manipulated. I mean I certainly am one. I believe we have the right to claim a place in the world as a rational, responsible, and mature nuclear power and a nuclear military power.

REEVES: After China and Russia agreed to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, India's vote has become less important. That's a relief for President Bush. He's due to visit India next month. There'll be more enthusiastic talk from both sides about their improving ties.

(Soundbite of music in restaurant)

REEVES: At an American diner in New Delhi, Indians drink milkshakes and eat burgers. A growing number of pizza parlors and McDonald's are evidence of the middle class's willingness to embrace American culture. Yet recent events suggest that there are limits to how friendly these two nations can be.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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