India Under New Pressure on Iran

By J. Sri Raman


As the Iran issue threatens to turn critical, New Delhi is faced with a serious challenge from its policy of promoting a "strategic partnership" with Washington. Efforts are on to push Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to play a significant support role in case the Pentagon unleashes another "pre-emptive" war in the Middle East.


India had been under pressure to play such a role in the first "pre-emptive" war as well. Massive popular protests, however, had stopped former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government from sending troops to Iraq and, indeed, led to a Parliamentary resolution opposing the aggression on that country. The Singh government, on the other hand, has already paved the way for a pro-Washington role on Iran - not only as a strategic partner, but also as a semi-recognized member of the "nuclear club."


The latest pressure has come in the form of a demand for New Delhi signing a US-India Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), and amid discussion for quite a while, without any further delay. On February 27, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, one of the many American emissaries to descend on New Delhi over the recent period, reportedly pressed for early conclusion of the LSA, under which the two countries would provide logistic support to each other's military. New Delhi, according to official accounts, is said to have asked for "more time to consider all aspects of the matter."


Observers see this as a result of opposition to the agreement from the Left parties, on whose outside support the coalition government of Singh depends for survival and stability. The Left, for its part, has left no doubt about the aspect of the agreement to which it objects.

It sees the LSA as an attempt to force India into a role vis--vis Iran which public opinion forbade in the case of Iran.


The LSA reminded not only the Left, but also large sections of Indians across the political spectrum, of an instance of India's involvement in yet another US intervention in the Middle East 17 years ago.


India had originally stayed away from the Gulf War of 1990-91, unleashed by then President George Herbert Walker Bush far ahead of his son's famous exploits in the region, but New Delhi's policy changed in November 1990 with the swearing in of a minority government under Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. The government did not stop with voting for a United Nations resolution, authorizing the use of force to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait and rejecting Iraq's linkage of Kuwaiti and Palestinian problems. It set off a huge domestic uproar in January 1991, when it officially permitted US military aircraft to refuel in Bombay. The protests were powerful enough to force the withdrawal of the refueling facility the very next month.


The facility offered then was nothing compared to what the LSA envisages for US forces engaged in military operations in the region (extending from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iran and Iraq). Under the LSA, according to experts, India will be obliged to provide services including refueling and port facilities to US warships, bombers, aircraft etc., and billeting of troops and storage of food for them.

The LSA has been compared to a similar agreement the US signed in 2002 with the Philippines, converting the country into an almost American base, according to protesters there.


Writing in Liberation, a Left-wing journal of India, Kavita Krishnan says the LSA is actually a version of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, formerly known as the NATO Mutual Support Act, renamed "on special request by the Indian government which is eager to mask its true purpose."


Under US law, according to Krishnan, such an agreement is possible with a non-NATO country, only if it has "a defense alliance with the US." This turns the "strategic partnership" into a NATO-type alliance.

The other conditions for such an agreement include permission for the stationing of "members of the US armed forces or the home porting of US naval vessels" in such a country. By the agreement, the country will also accept "pre-positioning" of US material on its territory. It would also thereby agree to play the role of "a host country for US armed forces during exercises" and for "other US military operations."


The LSA, if signed, will only legitimize the steps already taken by India's security and foreign policy establishment to signify New Delhi's all-but-official support for Washington on the Iran issue. On January 29 in these columns, we reported the latest in this series of signals (A Spy Satellite and a Strategic Partnership). Eight days earlier, India's polar satellite launch vehicle PSLV C10 put the Israeli satellite Tecsar into orbit. Israeli daily Haaretz called it a "sophisticated new spy satellite" which could "boost intelligence-gathering capabilities regarding Iran." The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has made known plans to put two more Israeli satellites into the orbit over the next few months.


New Delhi had earlier given more official expression to its support for Washington's Iran policy in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In two crucial meetings of the IAEA's Board of Governors in 2005 and 2006, India had shocked the entire developing world by voting without reservations with the US on the issue, when even Pakistan under a then secure Pervez Musharraf abstained.


The votes led to widespread protests in India. New Delhi, however, remained unrepentant. The prime minister, defending the apparent departure from the country's path of nonalignment in the Parliament, played the nuclear card. Ever since President George W. Bush and Singh divulged their idea of a US-India nuclear "deal" in July 2005, official India has been conducting itself like an additional member of the "nuclear club," counseling and cautioning all non-nuclear states, including signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), against acquiring nuclear weapons like itself. Singh resorted now to the same rhetoric, reinforced with a reference to the nuclear-armed rival, Pakistan. On February 17, 2006, he told India's Parliament, "Successive reports of the director general of the IAEA have noted that while Iran's cooperation has resulted in clarifying a number of questions, there remain many unresolved questions on key issues. These include the use of centrifuges imported from third countries, and designs relating to fabrication of metallic hemispheres. Honorable members are aware that the source of such clandestine proliferation of sensitive technologies lies in our own neighborhood, details of which have emerged from successive IAEA reports. This august House will agree that India cannot afford to turn a blind eye to security implications of such proliferation activities."


Singh added, "The objectives of upholding Iran's rights and obligations and our security concerns arising from proliferation activities in our extended neighborhood have shaped our position." He made no mention of the US-India nuclear deal, but did not need to. He had already given proof of the greater importance he attached to the deal than to an independent foreign policy.


Singh had done so on the issue of an Iran-India gas pipeline, envisaged as running through Pakistan and thus reinforcing the peace process between South Asia's nuclear-armed neighbors. On June 13, 2005, New Delhi and Teheran inked an 18 billion-dollar accord for the supply by Iran of five million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) per annum over 25 years from 2009, buttressing the bilateral commitment to build the proposed pipeline.


A series of warnings from Washington followed this preliminary accord, as they had preceded it. The warnings marked a pre-emptive strike against the project, envisioning a 2,000-km-long, four billion-dollar pipeline from Iran's south Pars field transporting the precious energy resource to India from Pakistan's port city of Karachi. US Ambassador to India David C. Mulford lost no time and minced no words in letting New Delhi know of the deep US "concerns"

over the proposal. Even tougher talk followed from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her visits to India and Pakistan.


The gist of the warning was the US might invoke the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 if the project went ahead. The Act threatens economic sanctions as a penalty for any investment of over $20 million in any Iranian energy project. Predictably, the blatant attempts at interference in India's affairs and its bilateral relations with Iran elicited strong domestic protests. The pressure campaign, however, received not-so-indirect support from an unexpected quarter - India's prime minister.


Returning from his Washington visit, which produced the idea of the nuclear deal, Singh took everyone by surprise by casually telling the media, "... considering all the uncertainties of the situation there in Iran, I don't know if any international consortium of bankers would probably underwrite this (gas pipeline project)." No statement from Washington could have dealt a more stunning blow to the project.


The progress on the proposal has been agonizingly slow ever since, while Washington's attempts to adopt India as an ally against Iran have become increasingly assertive. One of the major reasons the nuclear deal has provoked a heated, nationwide debate in India is the Iran-related provision in the Henry J. Hyde US-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act, 2006, a legislation to enable a bilateral agreement to give full and formal shape to the deal.


The Act requires the US president, after the deal is done, to provide annually to the Congress "an assessment of whether India is fully and actively participating in United States and international efforts to dissuade, isolate, and, if necessary, sanction and contain Iran for its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear weapons capability (including the capability to enrich uranium or reprocess nuclear fuel), and the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction, including a description of the specific measures that India has taken in this regard."


The Act adds, "if India is not assessed to be fully and actively participating in such efforts," the Congress should be provided "a description" of the measures the US Government has taken to secure "India's full and active participation in such efforts" and "plans to take in the coming year" to secure such cooperation.


Annual reports favorable to India on the subject from any future US president are a foregone conclusion, once the LSA is signed.





A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.