NEW DELHI, Jan 27: India on Friday distanced itself from US-led calls to isolate Iran at next week’s meeting of the IAEA after controversial remarks on the issue by Washington’s envoy to Delhi enraged the nation as seldom seen before.

The Indian foreign ministry, facing a barrage of criticism for apparent obsequiousness towards Washington that ranged from allies in the Left Front to former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, appeared to have rowed back from its recent bonhomie with the United States.

“During the past two weeks, India has been undertaking active consultations with all key members of the IAEA Board of Governors and with Iran, in order to avoid confrontation and to promote the widest possible consensus on handling the Iran nuclear issue,” a spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry said.

He explained that in all the consultations, India has urged “that Iran’s right to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy for its development consistent with its international obligations and commitments should be respected”.

The spokesman said: “Iran’s willingness to work together with the IAEA to remove any outstanding issues, about its nuclear programme should be welcomed.” In this regard, the agency should be allowed to proceed according to its work programme and submit a detailed report, he said.

India, he said, also welcomes all initiatives, “including from Russia, which could enable a consensus to be reached on this issue and urges further intensive efforts in that direction”.

In the bargain India appealed to “all concerned countries (to) avoid confrontation and work in the spirit of seeking a mutually acceptable solution”.

The Indian clarification, which came in response to a question, coincided with comments by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that India should be ready to make hard choices ahead.

Earlier this week, US Ambassador David Mulford, in apparent eagerness to clinch a civil nuclear energy deal with India before President George W. Bush arrives here on March 1, said the move could die in the US Congress if India did not vote against Iran at the February 2 IAEA meeting.

The Indian Express, which supports the deal, cautioned: “India and the US are raucous democracies. Public statements from either side quickly feed into the domestic politics of the other and complicate the negotiations between the two governments. India and the US have made much progress in the last few years because they have learnt one hard lesson from the wasted decades of the past: avoid hectoring each other in public. Mulford’s remarks are an awful deviation from that sensible rule.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government is already under considerable pressure from the Left as well as sections of the Congress to reverse its IAEA vote, the Express wrote. “By linking the implementation of the nuclear pact and the Iran vote, Mulford has undercut the prospects of India moving forward on both.”

The Hindu said: “In publicly warning India, on Republic Day eve, to vote against Iran or else, (Mulford) has outrageously crossed the line of diplomatic propriety, inviting condemnation from political players ranging from the Left to Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

“But he has also done India a service by letting the cat out of the bag, if it was ever fully in. In his interview to the Press Trust of India, he has spotlighted the pitiful terms of the bargain struck by the Manmohan Singh government with Washington under the signboard of civilian nuclear cooperation,” The Hindu said.

“Who can, after Mr Mulford’s egregious forthcomingness, doubt that the bargain requires India to behave like a marionette — forced at every turn of major international events to go against its own national instincts and interests for fear of offending Washington? Today it is a fatwa on Iran, tomorrow it will be a diktat on India’s plan to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities, which Mr. Mulford has found to fall short of ‘minimum standards’.”

The Asian Age, commenting on Mr Mulford’s faux pas, observed: “Sometimes when you say something often enough, you start saying it in your sleep. This is what appears to have happened to US Ambassador to India David C. Mulford who stunned his own, and definitely Manmohan Singh’s, governments with his recent interview to a news agency.”

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