A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has asked India to cease its growing military cooperation with Iran. New Delhi and Tehran recently stepped up military-to-military cooperation. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, such efforts could spell trouble for the pending nuclear deal between the United States and India.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, eight senators called on India to suspend its strategic partnership with Iran until Tehran halts its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support for terrorism.
The letter, signed by four Democratic and four Republican senators, makes no specific mention of the U.S.-India nuclear deal pending in Congress. But the senators say such a public declaration from India would, as the letter puts it, "remove a potentially serious barrier to future cooperation" between the United States and India.
Analysts say the "future cooperation" is a clear reference to the civilian nuclear deal, agreed in principle in 2005 and now under detailed negotiation between New Delhi and Washington. The final deal must be approved by Congress.
The senators' letter comes just before a visit to Washington by Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shanker Menon to discuss the U.S.-Indian nuclear negotiations. Sources say other similar letters are circulating among members of the House of Representatives.
Robert Einhorn, a non-proliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says one rationale the Bush Administration has given for the deal is that it would lead the U.S. and India to agree on key strategic issues. But the Indo-Iranian military cooperation, he says, has undercut that argument.
"It's become clear over the last year or two that the U.S. and India have very different attitudes towards dealing with the current regime in Iran," he said. "And I think it's been a source of some disappointment in Washington, and especially on Capitol Hill, that India has maintained such an independent position toward Iran."
India and Iran negotiated a military cooperation agreement in 2003 in what was dubbed the New Delhi Agreement. Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, says the establishment last month of a joint Indo-Iranian military working group set off alarm bells in Washington.
"We had seen some implementation of the New Delhi declaration, and downplayed it," he recalled. "But then it turns out they put together a military working group last month. This news did not go down well with members of the U.S. Congress."
Congressional displeasure over the Indo-Iranian nuclear tie just adds to the hurdles to sealing the U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear deal. Negotiations on the nuclear pact have already stumbled on some key points that analysts say could jeopardize the deal. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday that there is frustration in Washington over the slow progress of the negotiations.
"The Indian government has raised a series of issues in these negotiations concerning our laws and suggesting things that would require us to change our laws," he said. "And we just - we're not going to do that, we can't do that."
Robert Einhorn says Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is getting both political and bureaucratic pressure to try to wring more concessions from the American side.
"Leading the criticism, ironically, has been the nuclear establishment in India," he noted. "They have been quite greedy in this negotiation. They have made some demands that the Bush Administration simply considers to be simply unreasonable. But they [the Indians] seem to have dug themselves in. And so far, they have received the support of the Indian government."
State Department spokesman McCormack said the issue of Iranian-Indian cooperation has not arisen in the U.S.-Indian negotiations. He said Washington would not dictate New Delhi's relationship with Tehran, but added that the U.S. has, as he put it, counseled India on the nature and behavior of the Iranian government.