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    WikiLeaks cables not entirely true: Shyam Saran

    Hello and welcome to The Devil's Advocate. Do The Hindu's WikiLeaks expose suggest that America was arm twisting India and that sometimes Indian officials were speaking far more than they should? Those are the key issues I shall explore today with the man who was foreign secretary at the time Shyam Saran. Karan Thapar: Mr. Saran, let's start with the cables that feature you. There are whole series of reports from 2005 when you were foreign secretary and David Mulford was the American ambassador and he was talking to you about Iran's nuclear programme and the clear impression is that he was arm twisting you. Can you accept that? Shyam Saran: No, I can't see how you can come to that kind of conclusion. In any case I would not think that, you know, what was the nature of the interaction between Mulford and myself is accurately reflected in these cables which have been leaked.Karan Thapar: You mean in other words David Mulford is not giving an accurate account of the conversations he had?.Shyam Saran: No I'm not saying that. I'm only saying that I think public needs to understand what is the nature of these kind of diplomatic cables because usually what happens is that when you have a long conversation these are distilled into very short messages which inevitably reflect the subjective, you know, prejudices or predilections of the person who is sending these. Karan Thapar: In other words these could be distorted accounts of the conversations?Shyam Saran: We have to be always mindful of the fact that these kind of cables need not necessarily be a very accurate reflection of what may have taken place during a meeting.Karan Thapar: Alright, bearing that caution in mind I want to quote to you what Mulford's cable of the 6th of the September 2005 says, and I'm quoting “The ambassador took Saran to task for what he had perceived in media reports as an unacceptably weak set of statements on Iran's nuclear programme by Natwar Singh while visiting Iran.” To most people that's sounds as if he is wrapping you across the knuckles Shyam Saran: No! That maybe Mr. Mulford's own interpretation of what went on in that conversation. In fact there were several conversations on Iran between India and the United States and I'm not surprised that the United States of America did try to persuade India to accept its view point concerning Iran. India has its own viewpoint concerning Iran and I think most of these conversations that is precisely what happened. The United States of America tried to convince India that its particular stance towards Iran was the correct one. We said we do not agree with that Karan Thapar: But what about the language “the ambassador took Saran to task”? Shyam Saran: How can I be responsible for his language. I am, can only say what my recollections of those meetings are. Whenever these meetings took place and certainly I think it is only that the representative of the United States in India would try to persuade as forcefully as possible, India of the justified sort of concern it has about Iran.Karan Thapar: So at the time when these conversations were happening you found nothing objectionable or offensive or high-handed about Mulford's manner tone or language? Shyam Saran: No, I don't think these conversations were of that kind of you know it was certainly nothing impolite that I could perceive in those conversations. As I said I consider it perfectly legitimate that any representative of any government should come and try to persuade the representatives of India of whatever issue that they want to want India's support on.Karan Thapar:Alright let's come to the bigger picture. The bigger story these cables tell and that story is this that India's decision to vote along side the United States against Iran at the IAEA in September 2005 happened under American pressure. The cables tell that story very directly and distinctly. Would you deny that? Shyam Saran: No! I think it is again a very incomplete picture of what led to the vote in IAEA. Firstly, as far as our decision to vote for that resolution was concerned, we were also mindful of the fact we wanted there to be a full accounting by Iran to the IAEA with respect to its nuclear programme. Why? Because of the fact that Iran's nuclear programme was linked to Pakistan, was linked to the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea and I think it was in India's interest that they should come out in the open.Karan Thapar: The problem with that explanation is that the cable showed that just 14 days before India voted against Iran at the IAEA, you as foreign secretary was strenuously arguing against that course of action.Shyam Saran: I did not.Karan Thapar: How come your views didn't pay in the end? Shyam Saran: I did not. I don't think there was a discussion about how India will vote on that resolution. The discussion was about what is the kind of opposition that India would adopt with respect to Iran's nuclear programme and on that issue we clearly said that any kind of a confrontation with Iran or any kind of a process which might lead to a military conflict with Iran was not in the interest of India and by the way we also said it would not be in the interest of the united states.Karan Thapar: Let me read to you the conclusions that The Hindu comes to and they published this in fact in their paper on the editorial page ‘Senior Indian officials argued strenuously against a change in the country's stand. They told the US that more time of needed for dialogue and diplomacy and a referral to the UN Security Council would lead to a slide into confrontation'. Clearly just 14 days before India's vote, India had a very different opinion and change in India's mindShyam Saran: Again I do not know which senior officials The Hindu is referring to. I can only tell you about my recollection of the events. And my recollection of the events is: Yes! We certainly tried very hard in New York. We were involved in many of those discussions where we tried to bring the Iranians as well as the Europeans and at a distance the United States on to the same platform.Karan Thapar:Let me put this. Shyam Saran: So that there would be no vote on the resolution. In fact earlier most of the resolutions were not even voted on. There were consensuses on the resolutions.Karan Thapar:Let me give you another reason why so many people are convinced that India had to change its position on Iran under American pressure. Look for a moment on the chronology, just hours before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met George Bush in New York on the 13th of September 2005 David Mulford sent an urgent and desperate cable to Condoleezza Rice where he said Indian officials are being intransient and he implored her to use her influence to get India to vote against Iran. Days after that meeting with Bush India did precisely that. Doesn't the chronology suggest that this happened under American pressure? Shyam Saran: I think you are taking circumstantial evidence and coming to conclusions.Karan Thapar: Why shouldn't that be the right thing to do? Shyam Saran: No, no! Why should there be a connection that this matter was raised with the Prime Minister by Condoleezza Rice obviously Karan Thapar:You mean this is just a coincidence? Shyam Saran: This was important.Karan Thapar: Just a coincidence? Shyam Saran: No! What I'm trying to say is that the American intervention with us was not the only reason which made us vote in favour of the resolution at the end.Karan Thapar: Was it an important reason? Shyam Saran: Well obviously a reason. Why?Karan Thapar: So there was some pressure that you responded to but it wasn't the pressure alone? Shyam Saran: No, there are. Whenever you are taking a decision on a sensitive issue like this you have to consider a number of factors and the US factor, the fact that a friendly country which was very deeply concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme was making that intervention with us was one of the inputs but there were other things as well.Karan Thapar: On this very channel on our programme The Last Word on Friday David Mulford openly said that he had made it clear to you in particular that if India did not vote against Iran it would have an impact on the thinking of congressmen in America who were not persuaded by the Indo-US nuclear deal and therefore that could endanger the Indo-US nuclear deal. He was clearly saying that if you want the deal vote against Iran Shyam Saran: That is ambassador Mulford's interpretation. When we actually had the agreement with the United States of America to conclude an Indo-US civil nuclear deal, Iran was not one of the conditionalities. There were other things we talked about. How this agreement would go through but certainly what India's position on Iran would be was not an issue.Karan Thapar:So your saying to me as the man who was foreign secretary at the time, as a man who had these conversations with David Mulford that India's decision to vote against Iran at IAEA was its own voluntary decision taken of its own volition and not under American pressure? Shyam Saran: It was after a very careful assessment of what the pros and the cons would be including the US factor. But also a factor, as I mentioned to you, that there was a link between Iranian nuclear programme (and) what was happening with Pakistan. Karan Thapar: So this was a factor but it was not the sole factor or the dominant factor? Shyam Saran: It was not. Most such decisions are not based on a singular factor. I think.Karan Thapar: But it was a factor? Shyam Saran: It was certainly a factor. How, how, how can I say it was not a factor.Karan Thapar: Mr. Saran let us come to a second issue exposed by WikiLeaks that Mani Shankar Aiyer was replaced in the Cabinet reshuffle of 2006 as Petroleum Minister by Murli Deora because as David Mulford says it was done to ensure US-India relations continued to move ahead. Now at the time you were foreign secretary, do you think there could be any truth to Mulford's claim? Shyam Saran: Certainly not.Karan Thapar: You are sure of that? Shyam Saran: I cannot. I think Mr Mulford had a rather exaggerated notion of the kind of influence that the United States of America exercises in India. That maybe his sense but I think that is arrogance that a country like India would be making Cabinet changes or will be dismissing or appointing ministers at the behest of the United States of America, this is outrageous. Karan Thapar: Let me tell you why some people might be inclined to accept at least part of what Mulford claims. The reason is this, one of the reasons why the Americans had problems with Mani Shankar Aiyer as Petroleum Minister was his support for the Iran's gas pipeline. As soon as he was replaced that project was effectively and quietly sidelined. How do you explain that? Shyam Saran: That is, that is completely incorrect. As far as the pipeline is concerned, the Prime Minister of India, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Petroleum all were united on one single factor that whether we go for this pipeline or not will be dependent upon the economic viability of such a pipeline and its should not be politicised. Karan Thapar: So the fact that it got sidelined after Mani Shankar got replaced as Petroleum Minister is just a coincidence, it wasn't the intended reason for Mani being replaced? Shyam Saran: Again, the United States of America made a number of interventions with us saying that this pipeline is not something that we would support because it would in some way strengthen the Iranians with increased energy income. Our response to them always was whether or not India will go ahead and conclude such a deal would be dependent upon its economic viability and also the fact that the routing that such a pipeline would take would be through some very, very disturbed territory.Karan Thapar: So it was economic concerns and geographic concerns that led India not concluding any arrangement of the pipeline, not American objections? Shyam Saran: By the way the discussions on the pipeline off and on have continued. There are a number of issues. I think the public opinion here somehow or the other is being oriented to look only at the political aspect. There are number of very, very important technical issues, economical issues, security issues, that we have to consider. Karan Thapar: Once again though was the American objection a factor in Indian thinking? Shyam Saran: No, I do not concede that there was any kind of, you know, consideration to an American, you know, view on this particular project. I think for India itself there was every reason for us to move very cautiously on this proposal. Karan Thapar: Alright lets come to a third set of WikiLeaks, this time concerning Ambassador Romas's cable of August 2009 after his first meeting with the then NSA MK Narayanan, when Mr Narayanan himself voluntarily said that he had differences with the Prime Minister over Pakistan policy and Mr Romas then says, “Narayanan's willingness to distance himself from the Prime Minister in an initial courtesy call would suggest that PM Singh is more isolated than we thought within in his own inner circle.” I put at you, was this not an indiscrete and rather silly thing for Mr. Narayanan to say to someone he barely knew at the time? Shyam Saran: Well, number one, you have to first of all, direct this question, you know, to Mr. Narayanan whether or not he made such a remark to the American Ambassador.Karan Thapar: But would the American ambassador lie? Shyam Saran: Well as I mentioned to you that what appears in many of these cables need not necessarily be a complete transcript of the conversation which may have taken place.Karan Thapar: Mr Narayanan hasn't denied it as yet Shyam Saran: Well that's not my problem, that's Mr. Narayanan who has to, has to say whether or not such a conversation took place and what me meant by it.Karan Thapar: Let me put it like this, as someone whose been foreign secretary and risen to the top of his profession, if Mr. Narayanan as NSA did say these things would you accept that it was indiscrete and unwarranted? Shyam Saran: I'm afraid that's a very hypothetical question and I don't think it is fair to ask me to respond to this. What I can say is this that the Prime Minister of India is certainly very sincere about a peace process with Pakistan for reconciliation between India and Pakistan because he genuinely believes and I think he correctly believes that this is something which will really open up more prospects for India.Karan Thapar: That I accept Shyam Saran: So as far as Prime Minister's, you know, commitment to pursuing a peace process with Pakistan is concerned I don't think either Mr. Narayanan or anybody else is revealing something very important Karan Thapar: No! In fact to the contrary what Mr. Narayanan is revealing is that the Prime Minister is alone in the commitment that others around the Prime Minister including his NSA have different views Shyam Saran: I can only say that as Foreign Secretary I certainly had no problem with Prime Ministers approach with regard to our policy towards Pakistan.Karan Thapar: In fact the sad part is according to Mr. Roma, Mr. Narayanan went further. Mr. Narayanan said that the PMO controlled foreign policy in 2009 and that SM Krishna was in fact marginalised, now once again that is not just deliberating the foreign minister.Shyam Saran: You are, you are, you know, quoting these kind of remarks attributed to somebody by the American ambassador. I don't think, first of all this is fair. You know, I think it is important that the person who is being quoted should be asked whether this is correct Karan Thapar: Except the person doesn't want to speak. He's gone on record to say he doesn't want to speak. Shyam Saran: That's his choice.Karan Thapar: Okay. Let me put this to you then, how do you view all these leaks or Wiki cables that have now emerged? How significant are they? What do they amount to? Shyam Saran: Firstly, you should understand that cables, diplomatic cables, are always, always distillations of whatever conversations have taken place.Karan Thapar: So they could be distorted? Shyam Saran: Even when there are remarks which are put in quotes, they are a reconstruction of what may have happened in the meeting. They are not transcripts, in the sense that they were recorded and then they were reported.Karan Thapar: So they are subjective and they may even be distorted? Shyam Saran: They maybe distorted, they maybe very subjective in character and they are certainly very incomplete.Karan Thapar: Then my second question, should these leaks have been made public? Is there an argument for saying that a greater public good is been served which justifies the infringement of confidential official reports? Or do you refute that? Shyam Saran: I can, I can only give my view and that is a view of a diplomat. You know, diplomacy is the ability to be able to share information, share assessments, share confidentially with your diplomatic counterparts Karan Thapar: Is that impaired? Shyam Saran: Beg your pardonKaran Thapar: Is that being impaired? Shyam Saran: Yes, of course it is impaired because I don't know for how long but what it may do is make people very reluctant to engage in this kind of frank and open conversation with their counterparts because you never know what will happen tomorrow, whether you will see your remarks in the newspaper tomorrow.Karan Thapar: So will this, therefore, affect the manner in which Indians talk to US diplomats here on after? Shyam Saran: I think its not only a question of whether it would affect how India talks to the Americans it would affect diplomacy all around the world. It is not merely a question of what impact it would have on India-US relations. It is really a, in my opinion, it is something which has dealt a big blow to diplomacy and at a time when actually diplomacy is required for maintaining peace and security in the world.Karan Thapar: So you deeply regret what's happened? Shyam Saran: Yes! I do regret what has happened. I don't think, maybe one could not have stopped it but I think it is certainly my view that this has not done any service to the craft of diplomacy which is very essential.Karan Thapar: Shyam Saran a pleasure talking to you Shyam Saran: Thank you.