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US questions India-Iran ties

Relations could imperil nuclear energy agreement

NEW DELHI - India's longstanding ties with Iran appear to be threatening the beleaguered nuclear energy deal between Washington and New Delhi and, more broadly, their growing strategic alliance.

The Bush administration has long expressed concern regarding India's relations with Tehran and its reluctance to help curtail Iran's nuclear program. On Wednesday, Richard A. Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South Asia, made clear that the administration is still looking for answers from New Delhi.

"The Indian government is very well aware of the concerns of India's military relationship with Iran," Boucher said in Washington. "What we are trying to do is for everybody to understand the facts of the matter."

Boucher's remarks were delivered as the Indian government battles domestic opposition to the US-India nuclear deal. The agreement assures India uninterrupted nuclear supplies from the United States, but critics have accused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of giving in to various US demands, compromising India's sovereignty. For opponents of the deal, Boucher's statement served as evidence of US meddling.

"America is intimidating us. It is none of their business to dictate what we should or should not do with Iran," said D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India, which lends crucial support to Singh's coalition government but which has launched nationwide street protests against the agreement. "Our suspicions about the nuclear deal have come true. The attempt is to drag India into the American global strategy. We have to resist that. We cannot antagonize our traditional friends for the sake of Americans."

On Wednesday, reacting to Boucher's statement, India's defense minister, A.K. Antony, said India's relations with the United States and Iran were independent of each other. "India has very friendly relations with Iran. It will continue to do so," he said.

Two weeks ago, Antony informed Parliament that the Indian Navy was training five Iranian sailors in its facilities. India's foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, recently said that Iran had "every right to pursue its nuclear program for peaceful purposes" and that India favors a "noninterventionist policy in Iran."

Such a policy would run contrary to the hopes of the Bush administration. The legislation that made the US-India nuclear deal possible contains a nonbinding provision stating that India should work with the United States to dissuade Iran from developing its nuclear program and help contain it.

Iran's deputy foreign minister, Mehdi Safari, traveled to New Delhi last week to brief the Indian government about developments related to nuclear issues in Tehran.

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