A week before a meeting on Iran's nuclear ambitions at the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.S. Ambassador David Mulford said that if India does not vote to refer Tehran to the U.N. Security Council, "the effect on members of the U.S. Congress ... will be devastating."
"I think the Congress will simply stop considering the matter," Mulford said in an interview with the Press Trust of India news agency. Congress must approve the deal.
The pact, seen as a cornerstone of the emerging alliance between India and the United States, "will die in the Congress, not because the administration would want it," he said.
Mulford's comments were unusually frank in directly linking the nuclear deal and India's stance on Iran, something that both American and Indian officials have avoided in the past.
The U.S. Embassy confirmed that Mulford was accurately quoted, and spokesman David Kennedy said: "The Ambassador just wanted to give his honest opinion on how he thought the U.S. Congress would react to such a scenario."
A referral to the Security Council could lead to sanctions against Iran, which the United States and European powers fear could use its nuclear program to develop atomic weapons. Tehran insists its program is only for peaceful civilian use.
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, including India.
Although New Delhi agrees with Washington that Iran should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, it has pushed a softer line, urging negotiations with Tehran.
After the interview, India stood by its stance 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 statement.
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, and New Delhi has in recent weeks appeared hesitant to repeat the vote.
Such a vote could also threaten a plan by India, which has few domestic sources of fuel, 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 Wednesday.
The U.S.-India nuclear deal marks 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.
Under the deal, Washington is to share civilian nuclear technology and supply nuclear fuel to India in return for New Delhi separating its tightly entwined civilian and military nuclear programs and allowing international inspections of its civilian atomic facilities.
The separation is necessary because the United States has only agreed to recognize India as having a civilian nuclear program — not as a legitimate nuclear weapons state.
But some members of the U.S. Congress have expressed reservations about ratifying the deal, arguing that it could undermine the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which India has not signed.