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India's vote on Iran key to Indo-US N-deal

Both issues will be discussed when US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns visits New Delhi for talks on January 19.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2006 10:10 IST
Carol Giacomo (Reuters)
Carol Giacomo (Reuters)

A landmark US-Indian nuclear cooperation deal could be hampered by India's reluctance to refer Iran's nuclear programme to the UN Security Council and to open enough of its own atomic facilities to inspection, according to US officials and experts.

Both issues will be discussed when Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns, visits New Delhi for talks on January 19.

US President George Bush, in a controversial policy shift on July 18, 2005, promised nuclear-armed India full cooperation in developing its civilian atomic power industry in return for New Delhi's commitment to international non-proliferation standards.

The deal, which would lift a 30-year ban on nuclear commerce between the two countries, must be approved by the US Congress. The 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Groups is also being asked to change its rules.

India sided with the United States and major European powers when the UN watchdog agency last September declared Iran had failed to comply with its international obligations.

The West accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran says it wants nuclear technology to produce electricity.

The vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency came after US congressmen warned the US-India agreement could be at risk if New Delhi did not work with Washington to punish Tehran for nuclear-weapons related activities.

When Iran this week raised the stakes by resuming nuclear fuel research, western powers said they would take Iran to the UN Security Council, where sanctions could be imposed.

They claim a majority of IAEA members will support referral but are keen for yes votes from India and veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China.

The Indian Embassy in Washington and the State Department refused to say if New Delhi would support this move.

But a US official told a news agency that India's position is "all up in the air" and a European diplomat confirmed sending Iran to the Security Council "remains very difficult for the Indians." Both sources are involved in the Iran diplomacy.

Despite vastly improving ties with Washington, India, a rising power with voracious energy needs, is pursuing a US-opposed gas pipeline project with Iran and as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement has prized its independent foreign policy.

After India voted with the Western powers in September, Indian officials seemed to back off the decision in the face of domestic criticism.

"This is a key strategic decision for them. If they were to vote against UN Referral, I can't see there being any life left in the nuclear deal," the European diplomat said.

A senior congressional aide added: "If India does anything but vote yes, it could slow up the agreement significantly."

The other big issue involves the deal's centerpiece, India's promise to separate military and civilian nuclear facilities and open civilian facilities to IAEA inspection.

The plan is aimed at ensuring future US-supplied nuclear fuel and reactors do not advance India's weapons programme.

President George W Bush is to visit New Delhi by March and both sides hope a separation plan could be settled by then.

India gave the United States a draft proposal last month but US and European officials said it fell short of the administration's requirements.

First Published: Jan 14, 2006 10:41 IST