(CNSNews.com) - As Indian leaders head into this week's U.N. summit and associated meetings, their country's significantly improved ties with Washington are somewhat overshadowed by India's ambivalent stance towards Iran.
In New York, U.S. officials will seek a reluctant India's support for a Western push to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for its nuclear activities.
Some senior lawmakers argue that if India wants to benefit from nuclear cooperation with the U.S. -- as recently promised by the Bush administration - then Delhi should back Washington in the standoff with Iran.
Ahead of a crucial International Atomic Energy Agency meeting on Sept. 19, lobbying is underway as the U.S. and it allies on the IAEA's 35-member board of governors try to secure support for action against Iran, while "non-aligned" developing countries represented on the board line up behind Iran.
India and Pakistan, leaders among the developing nations on the IAEA board, are being pressed by both sides, and so far they appear to be leaning towards Iran.
Indian external affairs minister Natwar Singh was quoted as saying during a visit to Tehran last weekend that his government wanted the issue resolved within the IAEA framework, implying it did not think referral to the Security Council was appropriate.
Also sensitive is the fact that the Iranian nuclear crisis is deepening at a time India and Iran have agreed to develop a pipeline to carry gas from Iran to India, via Pakistan. Washington says it opposes the pipeline project.
The U.S. does, however, acknowledge India's need to develop energy sources to fuel its rapidly growing economy, and in a major announcement on July 18, the administration said the U.S. would help India to develop its civilian nuclear program.
American aid could include provision of nuclear fuel for safeguarded reactors. U.S. sales of nuclear fuel or sensitive "dual-use" technologies to India have been prohibited under sanctions imposed after India began to pursue a nuclear weapons capability.
Under the new agreement, India pledged to adhere to international non-proliferation treaties, accepting tighter export controls, agree to additional IAEA inspections, and clearly separate its military and civilian nuclear facilities.
The promised deal, which will require changes to U.S. laws and to international agreements, is seen as an important element in a stated U.S. strategy to help India become "a major world power" in the 21st century.
What the U.S. will get in return remains to be seen, however, and some members of Congress say Washington should get India's clear support against Iran.
"New Delhi must understand how important their cooperation and support is to U.S. initiatives to counter the nuclear threat from Iran," Rep. Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, said at a committee hearing Thursday.
He warned that India "will pay a very hefty price for their total disregard of U.S. concerns vis-a-vis Iran, the single most important international threat we face."
Other members voiced dismay that the administration had announced the landmark deal without consulting Congress, despite the fact congressional approval will be needed.
Rep. Jim Leach, the Republican chairman of the committee's Asia and Pacific subcommittee, signaled that approval may be hard to obtain.
He said the administration "has raised Indian expectations by making sensitive security commitments it cannot fulfill without legislative action by Congress. It is far from clear, however, whether congressional support will be forthcoming and, if so, under what
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the hearing that Washington had expressed to India its concerns over Delhi's stance on Iran's nuclear program, and would be pushing the issue again during meetings in New York this week on the sidelines of the U.N. summit.
Another administration official, undersecretary of state for arms control Robert Joseph, told the lawmakers that it was an "uphill battle" to get support from India and other countries against Iran.
Burns outlined the broader context of the agreement with India, noting that bilateral relations over the past half-century had frequently seen periods of "unproductive estrangement."
"We anticipate that India will play an increasingly important leadership role in 21st century Asia, working with us to promote democracy, economic growth, stability and peace in that vital region," he said.
"By cooperating with India now, we accelerate the arrival of the benefits that India's rise brings to the region and the world."
Speaking to reporters while flying on the first leg of a trip that will take him to New York, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dismissed the comments by "individual congressmen
"Our relations are with the U.S. administration," Indian media quoted him as saying. "Individual congressmen can say what they want - it is a free country."
Despite those comments, leading Indian political analyst C. Raja Mohan said the government had now been made "acutely aware of its shrinking space for diplomatic maneuver on Tehran's nuclear proliferation."
"Sitting on the fence, it is being recognized, is no longer an option."
Meanwhile, Iran's new foreign minister has told his first press conference that there was no legal basis to refer his country to the Security Council. Any attempt to do so would be politically driven, Manouchehr Mottaki said Sunday.
Washington has long favored taking Iran before the council over a program which it hid from the international community for almost two decades. But it agreed to support an initiative by Britain, Germany and France to negotiate an end to Tehran's sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities.
Last month, Iran rejected an offer from the European Union trio and - infringing an earlier agreement - restarted uranium conversion.
The U.S. and Europeans suspect Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover for developing a capability to manufacture atomic bombs. Iran insists the program is designed for purely peaceful purposes.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will also be in New York this week, and is expected to use the opportunity to build further support among developing nations.
He plans to use his speech to the General Assembly, scheduled for Wednesday, to present new proposals on ending the standoff.
Earlier Tehran suggested that negotiations be widened beyond the three E.U. countries, and include developing states on the IAEA board.
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