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Singh gets cracking with Iran

Washington, Nov. 12: It took no more than 24 hours for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh since he assumed Natwar Singh’s portfolio to demonstrate that he means business and that he would not be India’s external affairs minister just in name.

Manmohan Singh’s first act as the minister in direct charge of South Block was to throw India’s weight behind a proposal by Russia, France, Germany and Britain ' collectively known as the EU-3 ' which will eliminate the need for another divisive vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on November 24 to confront Iran over its nuclear programme.

In the process, Manmohan Singh also showed that he is quickly learning the ropes of coalition politics. If the new proposal is accepted by Tehran and Washington, a sword in the hands of the Left, which has been hanging over the UPA government on supporting Iran, will be quickly sheathed, much to the comfort of the Prime Minister.

The world got its first inkling of a new multilateral effort to defuse the confrontation between Iran and the international community within the IAEA, when the Prime Minister spoke enigmatically to reporters in Patna on November 8 that there may be no need for another vote in Vienna on November 24, the date for the next meeting of IAEA’s Board of Governors.

When he was pressed on the issue, Manmohan Singh added: “Talks are on with a lot of countries to evolve a consensus.”

Unlike Natwar Singh, who often said too much and said it out of turn, the Prime Minister would say no more.

It took some 48 hours for American reporters covering the US state department to discover that the Russian proposal had been discussed between IAEA’s director-general, Mohamed El Baradei, and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and that it had the backing of the EU-3 and India, which voted with the Americans at the last meeting of the IAEA triggering a domestic crisis for the ruling coalition.

Since his Patna press conference, when the Prime Minister spoke in riddles, the new plan to bail out Iran has gone much further.

A “troika” of non-aligned foreign ministers, made up of Malaysian foreign minister Seyyed Hamid Albar, Cuban foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque and South African deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad, was in Tehran today in an effort to persuade the Iranians and the EU-3 back to negotiations.

Igor Ivanov, the head of the Russia’s Security Council, is also in Tehran for talks with Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki over the Russian plan.

Before Manmohan Singh left for Dhaka, several European ambassadors met foreign secretary Shyam Saran in New Delhi and discussed in detail the new efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Iran.

In New York, the NAM “troika” has simultaneously been engaged in similar talks with India’s permanent representative to the UN, Nirupam Sen. India’s ambassador to Iran, K.C. Singh, has been in New Delhi for consultations at the same time.

According to the Russian compromise, Iranians would continue to produce uranium hexafluoride gas at their nuclear plant in Isfahan, but that gas would be transported to Russia for enrichment.

The Iranians would invest in an existing enrichment plant in Russia, making it a joint venture. As a face-saver for Iran, the enrichment would be done at that joint venture to satisfy Tehran’s insistence that it has the sovereign right to enrich uranium.

It is this process that is at the heart of the Iranian nuclear dispute because enrichment purifies uranium for use as fuel in power plants and, in an advanced stage, for use in nuclear weapons.

The Iranians are expected to initially reject the Russian proposals as a concession to hardliners in its power structure, but eventually find their way towards negotiations.

The Americans will also similarly take a dim view of the new initiative, but will later go along with the EU-3 in its efforts to avoid an immediate fight with Tehran at the IAEA.

The NAM “troika” is understood to have told Mottaki and other Iranian officials that if Iran turned down the new proposal, it would be difficult to convince many countries before the November 24 vote that what Tehran seeks is a peaceful energy programme and not a nuclear weapons plan.

Sources in New York and New Delhi said neither the Russians nor the Iranians discussed the new initiative with former external affairs minister Natwar Singh when he was in Moscow just before the Volcker revelations, but preferred to talk to Saran and Sen instead.

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