WASHINGTON – India’s Ambassador to the U.S. hasn’t had a weekend to herself since she came to Washington, in September 2011.
“It’s a 24/7 assignment,” says Nirupama Rao.
Terrorism originating from Pakistan, close ties with Iran, a special bond with Russia and maintaining and growing a crucial relationship with the United States dominate her time.
Seated in the large sunny, sitting room on the park-side of the official residence in Washington’s trendy Cleveland Park neighborhood, Rao, clad in an exquisitely tailored sari, made it clear she’s not just a pretty face in Washington.
She pulled no punches when discussing difficult and delicate problems facing her country – beginning with Pakistan.
“India is concerned about terrorism and extremism which has flown in the direction of India from Pakistan over the years,” said Rao.
She suggested Pakistan has not been forgiven, and no one has forgotten, what happened on Nov. 26, 2008, in the Indian capital of Mumbai.
During shocking and expertly planned attacks that lasted several days, “more than 170 people were killed in the attack by terrorists who had planned this in Pakistan,” said Rao.
These were operatives she said, “who came across from Pakistan, launched the attack on the Taj Mahal hotel and other installations.”
While India’s government says it’s committed to exploring ways to create a normalized relationship with Pakistan, Rao makes it clear: It is not talking about amnesty.
The Indian government is convinced it was a terrorist attack from beginning to end.
“And the fact that there was a Pakistani role, there were Pakistani agents, Pakistani citizens who were involved in this cannot be denied,” said Rao.
Almost four years after the attack, “we have yet to really see a satisfactory closure to the investigations into that attack. We have conveyed and constantly stressed to Pakistan that it is necessary for our two countries to cooperate meaningfully in bringing those people who were responsible for this attack to book to see that justice is done.”
Rao said there’s serious concern within India that it could happen again.
“Because there are safe havens in Pakistan. There are groups like the Lashkar-e- Taiba, as you know, a group that is described globally, who are able to move around pretty freely to broadcast, to address their constituencies within the country,” she said.
The Pakistani government did not respond to requests for comment.
India embraces key role in U.S. pivot toward Asia Pacific
The U.S. “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region confirms that the rising economic and military power of the East could outmatch Western powers if it loses focus.
“The new defense strategy of the United States makes clear that as the military emerges from a decade of war, we will rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region, because of its importance for global security, and global prosperity in the 21st century,” said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at a joint Pentagon news conference with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin.
The U.S. decision to turn its attention to that part of the world is largely centered on counter-balancing Chinese power in the region, the increased importance of sea lanes as a conduit of global commerce and the free flow of information in cyberspace.
In doing so, the polite U.S.-India relationship since the end of the Cold War, has developed into “a very important, very crucial, very fundamental relationship,” said Rao.
“When I use the word fundamental, I think it’s fundamental to the interests of both countries. Because here we are, two large vibrant democracies, and we have I think set a certain standard for what democratic functioning is,” she said.
While Rao was Indian Foreign Secretary she said, “Southeast Asia begins in Northeast India,” and she pressed the idea of a strong Indo-U.S. relationship for the future.
Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, during a speech at the University of Pune in Pune, India last year, embraced her thinking.
“We agree with Ambassador Rao’s suggestion that our partnership should revolve around the twin principles of shared security and shared prosperity,” he said.
Pragmatism is alive and well
For all they share, there are key areas where the U.S. and India diverge. Iran and Russia are among them.
Iran is a significant problem for the U.S., which leads the international coalition seeking to sanction Iran into submission and shut down its nuclear program. The financial sanctions have resulted in a steep drop in the value of Iran’s currency. The U.S. and Israel have allegedly created computer viruses and that have unleashed destructive attacks on Iran’s centrifuge program.
But India has a very intimate relationship with Iran.
“This is not a relationship that we can wish away. Iran is a very important country in our neighborhood,” she said.
India and Iran have close historical bonds.
“Our languages have common roots. Culturally and historically, you know people have moved between the two countries. We have a very large Shia Muslim population in India, as you know India has a very big Muslim population. The Muslim minority in India is the largest minority in the country,” she said.
Iran also is India’s gateway to enter into Afghanistan, said Rao.
“Because the Pakistanis have not been exactly willing to (allow India to access Afghanistan through Pakistan).”
India’s partnership with the U.S. and Iran has left it in a difficult position, especially considering the impact of sanctions on Indian oil imports from Iran.
“The proportion of that supply has gone down in the last year particularly because of the sanctions that have been put in place against Iran and its petroleum sector,” Rao said. “So we’ve had to look to diversify those resources and to work out, you know, new modes of payment because you can’t pay in dollars anymore.”
But Rao leaves no doubt about which side of Iran’s nuclear program the country is on.
“As far as Iran’s nuclear issue is concerned, we have been very, very clear and unambiguous in our position in India that we do not want to see another nuclear weapon state in our neighborhood. And Iran, in our view, should cooperate with the international community and the international atomic energy agency to answer the questions that have been raised about its nuclear ambitions,” Rao said.
Despite many similar interests and approaches to global diplomacy, the high-stakes headache Iran poses for the U.S. is not the only point where the two countries differ politically.
The tension between the U.S. and Russia and crept up over the last decade, beginning with Russian concerns about a U.S. missile shield, support of Iran and most recently allegations of support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
India, however, has a different and likely-to-endure view of Russia.
“We have a special and privileged partnership with Russia, as you know, and that is something that has been in place for decades now. Once the Soviet Union disintegrated, we picked up the threads once again and built a strong relationship with Russia. Russia is a close partner of India. And again it’s a very important country that straddles Europe and Asia,” Rao said.
The unspoken suggestion is the world needs to get used to dealing with Russia as India has, because “Russia is and will continue to be an important partner for India,” she said.
The growing power of women
Rao, a powerful and experienced woman on the world stage, recognizes the growing influence of women in top positions like hers.
“The women of the world bring to conference tables and negotiating tables their own experience, and their holistic view of looking at things. The perspective that women bring to many complex issues is important and inclusive. I think women are conditioned to have inclusive perspectives, to listen, and to solve problems, to build consensus. I think women are wired to be democratic,” Rao said.
She counts her Pakistani counterpart, Sheri Rehman, among that unique group of women.
“I have met her. And she’s an extremely accomplished woman. She has had a very prominent role in public life in Pakistan. She’s been in politics. In India, at least, we have interacted with her even before she became ambassador here. So it’s very nice to have a woman ambassador from Pakistan here in Washington,” she said.