Ela Dutt (IANS)
New York, September 22, 2005
Influential US Congressman Gary Ackerman, a long-time pro-India legislator, believes India will not get the support needed in the House of Representatives to clear any Bush administration proposal for civilian nuclear cooperation.
Ackerman (Democrat-New York), chastised New Delhi for not unequivocally supporting the US position demanding that the UN Security Council handle the issue of Iran's nuclear programme that Washington alleges is aimed at weapons production.
"India has been a good friend, and I have been certainly one on the forefront of promoting the US-India relationship throughout my entire career. And I think that we have been very successful, very effective," Ackerman said an in interview.
"However, we'd like India to rapidly review its relationship with Iran: For the prime minister to consider supporting the US in referring the matter to the Security Council and continuing the good relationship that we have," he emphasised.
Earlier this month, at a House International Relations Committee hearing, Representative Tom Lantos (Democrat-California) used strong language to criticise New Delhi for seemingly equivocating on supporting the US bid and taking the stand that efforts by the European Union to negotiate with Iran must be exhausted before the Security Council was approached.
Regarding the last Congressional hearing on India, Ackerman said that while he did not agree with the "tone" of Representative Lantos' comments, "... I thought Congressman Lantos raised a very, very exceptionally important point. And I agreed with them and a 100 per cent of the people who were members of the Committee, Republicans and Democrats, agreed with me and what I said as well," he said.
In view of the July 18 George Bush-Manmohan Singh joint statement in Washington on civil nuclear cooperation, the administration is supposed to be sending legislation to Congress that seeks to change laws relating to making India an exception to existing law that prohibits civilian nuclear cooperation with a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Since the Congressional India Caucus is the largest in Congress with more than 150 members and it has generally supported India's bid for the UN Security Council membership, and many members have expressed support for civilian nuclear cooperation initiative, the Iran question has seemingly overnight changed the mood in the Caucus, and made difficult the passage of legislation that was previously only opposed by some diehard NPT supporters.
Asked how India Caucus members felt, Ackerman noted: "Almost all the members that spoke were members of the Caucus and they all cautioned very strongly along the same lines as Mr. Lantos."
On Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's position that India wanted all negotiating avenues to be exhausted and that New Delhi absolutely required Iran to comply with its treaty obligations, Ackerman countered: "Yes, but that's not the question. The question is - will India vote to refer the matter to the Security Council?
"If the prime minister wants to answer a different question, that's fine, and that's a good answer to a different question. But that's not the question. When it comes to this vote, will he be voting with or against the US and what we think are our interests?" Ackerman said emphatically.
"The prime minister has previously indicated, I believe, that he would not favour referring this to the Security Council. That's not a good decision in the minds of most Americans, and in the minds of most members of the India Caucus. I don't speak for everybody I'm sure, but the overwhelming majority certainly."
Asked if this would influence legislation regarding civilian nuclear cooperation, Ackerman gave an unqualified "Yes".
"It absolutely will. I don't know but I think it puts a major strain and a major burden on that legislation having the ability to pass the House."
The administration, he said, "... was shocked by the reaction of the members of the Committee, including those of us who are strongly pro-India, and who have carried India's water in legislative matters because it has always made sense."
"This does not make sense to us. Coming at a time when the administration is proposing proceeding in a way that views India as a major non-NATO ally and to proceed with a very sophisticated sale proposal, which we do with those people, those entities, that are closest to us.
"If India doesn't think that this is a matter worth pursuing and referring to the Security Council, there are a lot of members of Congress who will have second thoughts and I don't know if the vote's there, that would be supportive of any administration proposal," he asserted.
While India was a sovereign nation, he maintained, "...this is not an issue to be non-aligned. This is an issue between the US and a country that is a terrorist regime and is pursuing a nuclear programme, that the president has named as part of the Axis of Evil, that the president has said - if you are not pursuing terrorists, you are either with us or against us.
India is a country that knows better than all others, the problems of having to deal with terrorism, having been a victim of terrorist attacks for a very long time; that India should know of how serious our concerns are with this matter."
Historically, he recalled, India did not have a strong record of voting the way the US voted in the UN, which was already a hurdle to contend with when pro-India legislators moved in Congress.
"... And at a time when some of us are pushing a proposal to reform the UN and expand the Security Council with the hope that India would be part of that - it makes that sell a whole lot more difficult. To see India partnered off with Iran, and in the minds of a lot of people it would be like protecting Iran vis a vis the UN."
At such a critical juncture in the US-India strategic relations, when Washington was looking to change regulations to make India an exception, "...then I think there has to be some reciprocity."
During the UN 60th General Assembly meetings in New York, the Indian prime minister spent considerable capital explaining India's position. However, it failed to smooth the waters in Congress.
On Wednesday the EU supported the move to refer Iran's case to the Security Council, putting New Delhi in a position to make its choice.
During the UN meetings, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf emphasised in response to questions, that Pakistan would be going ahead with its gas pipeline project with Iran regardless of anything.
Asked why the American demands from Pakistan should be any different from those made on New Delhi, Ackerman argued: "Well, we don't have the same relationship with Musharraf as we do with the prime minister. We don't have a same kind of relationship with the people of the two countries or the countries themselves. This is a thing between friends. And dealing with Iran is playing with fire. And friends don't let friends play with fire."