updated 1/25/2006 9:43:35 PM ET 2006-01-26T02:43:35

The U.S. ambassador to India said Wednesday that a nuclear deal between India and the United States could “die” if New Delhi supports Iran during a U.N. atomic watchdog agency meeting. The State Department said the envoy was speaking for himself.

A week before the International Atomic Energy Agency meets to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. Ambassador David Mulford said that if India does not vote to refer Tehran to the U.N. Security Council, it would be “devastating” to the deal currently before the U.S. Congress.

“I think the Congress will simply stop considering the matter,” Mulford told the Press Trust of India news agency.

The deal, seen as a cornerstone of the emerging alliance between India and the United States, “will die in the Congress,” he said.

The U.S. Embassy confirmed that Mulford was accurately quoted. The State Department in Washington said later that Mulford wasn’t speaking for the U.S. government.

“The ambassador was expressing his personal opinions about what the potential political outcome might be. He was giving his personal assessment of how the Congress might react to such an action by India,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

First direct link
Mulford’s frank comments were the first time a senior U.S. official has made a direct link between India’s stance on the Iran issue and the nuclear deal.

After Mulford’s comments, India reiterated that the two issues should remain separate.

“We categorically reject any attempt to link (Iran) to the proposed Indo-U.S. agreement on civil nuclear energy cooperation, which stands on its own merits,” Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna said in a statement.

“The position that India will take on this issue at the IAEA will be based on India’s own independent judgment.”

Under the deal, Washington is to share civilian nuclear technology and supply nuclear fuel to India in return for New Delhi separating its civilian and military nuclear programs and allowing international inspections of its atomic facilities.

The deal was signed in July when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington, and marked a major policy shift for the United States, which imposed sanctions on India in 1998 after it conducted nuclear tests. The restrictions have since been lifted.

IAEA referral of Iran to the Security Council could lead to economic and political sanctions against Tehran, which the United States and European powers fear could use its nuclear program to develop weapons. Tehran insists its program is for generating electricity.

European countries believe they have enough votes at the IAEA, which will hold an emergency board session on Feb. 2, to haul Iran before the Security Council. But they are seeking support from Russia, China and key developing nations, such as India.

Domestic pressure
New Delhi voted in September with the U.S. and European powers on an earlier IAEA resolution that could have led to Iran’s referral to the council.

But the Indian government faced fierce domestic criticism over the move from its left-wing political allies, who accused it of selling out a longtime ally to curry favor with Washington. New Delhi has, in recent weeks, appeared hesitant to repeat the vote.

India, which has few domestic sources of fuel, also plans to build a 1,750-mile gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan, a project that has raised concerns in Washington.

“We have made it known to (India) that we would very much like India’s support because India has arrived on the world stage and is a very important player in the world,” Mulford said.

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