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Ambiguity and caution were the twin pillars upon which India rebuilt its ties with Iran in the early 1990s. But given their divergent world views, it was clear that the friendship between Teheran and New Delhi would face challenges sooner rather than later.
India's vote against Iran at the September 24 meeting of the governing body of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna followed acrimonious internal debate in New Delhi over what course best served India's interests.
India's anti-Iran vote was denounced by the Left as well as by the Hindu nationalist Right as a hasty surrender to US "hegemony."
In contrast to the political class, India's diplomatic and security establishments have been plainly unhappy with Iran's pursuit of the nuclear option. On November 21, K. Subrahmanyam, India's original hawk, wrote in The Times of India: "Iran should understand that its 18 years of clandestine proliferation efforts have created a credibility problem for it in Europe and the West. It needs to create confidence in other countries that it will completely fulfill its NPT obligations and satisfy the IAEA that there are no longer any clandestine sites or materials on its soil."
India's stance at the IAEA is also shaped by alarm over the relationship between the nuclear proliferation network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan and the Iranians.
India's ties with Iran were a boon for its energy-hungry industrial sector while our political class found relations with the Islamic Republic a symbolic manifestation of New Delhi's "secular" credentials. Consequently, both the Congress Party and the ultra-nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) have supported this relationship.
But beginning with the 1998 nuclear tests in the desert of western India, New Delhi decided to reorient its view of the world. Growing rapprochement with the US was one of the latent factors that enabled India to win policing rights over the strategic Straits of Malacca, which link the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Meanwhile, the changing nature of SAARC (the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) shows that India is willing to venture further east into the South China Sea as a balance to Chinese power projection. And this gives some context to the West's warming stance toward a nuclear India.
Tacit acceptance of India's nuclear weapons and concern over A.Q. Khan's network in Pakistan have helped New Delhi establish its credentials as a "responsible" nuclear power. It does not want to jeopardize this by embracing Iran in its confrontation with the West.
WITH INDIA'S strength gaining international recognition and respect, New Delhi may be seeking to legitimize its own nuclear status in exchange for its opposition to Iran gaining access to the nuclear palace. It has already received the most important benefit in that direction with the conclusion of a civilian nuclear reactor deal with the US. Unfortunately, President George W. Bush's falling approval ratings might prove to be a major hurdle in gaining Congressional approval of the pact.
The nuclear pact signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's July visit to Washington was the combo deal that New Delhi wanted most because its successful implementation would help address both India's energy and security concerns without stirring too much domestic debate.
An immediate benefit of this still-unratified agreement was the invitation extended to India to participate in the international fusion reactor project in France.
At the same time, American insistence that India separate its civilian and military reactors as a precondition for the congressional approval of the agreement, as well as India's rising suspicion over the second-class energy technology from the leader of the developed world, has already placed the treaty in jeopardy.
MANMOHAN SINGH made it clear on September 24 that the era of India-Iran strategic convergence is almost over. But his coalition partners, especially the Left, are not with him on this issue. For the Left, Iran's nuclear aspirations are linked to its own global agenda of opposition to US imperialism.
They have also lobbied the minority Muslim community to keep the government in line. D. Raja, leader of the Communist Party of India told Outlook: "The government will have to reverse its stand, otherwise the issue will become a point of major conflict between the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) and the Leftâ€¦ the consequences will be serious."
The Russian formula to give Iran the energy capability minus the enrichment of uranium, if successful, is New Delhi's preferred policy approach. Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India, which controls more than 100 seats in parliament, holds the key to the survival of the current government.
Theoretically Manmohan Singh can only go as far as Karat allows him in a spirit of coalition politics.
Thursday's inconclusive IAEA meeting in Vienna simply postponed the day of reckoning in the hope that talks between Teheran and the EU could resume in next month. And it also saved India from having to vote over whether to send the dispute to the UN Security Council.
Whatever ultimately happens, India will pursue its national interest. But what that national interest is remains in dispute.
The writer is a New Delhi-based researcher.
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