The Bigger Picture: India has enough reasons to not want a nuclear armed Iran
India is in a peculiar bind in dealing with Iran. Having itself defied the world and made nuclear weapons, it wants Iran not to do so. But there are two important differences. First, despite huge pressure, India never did sign the Non Proliferation Treaty; Iran did and gave a solemn pledge not to make nuclear weapons. Second, India has two nuclear armed neighbours, with whom it has fought wars in the past and with whom it continues to have serious disputes.
Ironically for Iran, the US has been instrumental in removing two of its major threats: First, it has taken apart Saddam’s Iraq and second, it has suffered such grievous wounds in the process, that it is unlikely, or rather is incapable of doing the same to Iran. And again, ironically, the same France and Germany who refused to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and broke with their American ally on the matter of making war on Iraq, are the key members with Britain, the so-called EU-3, who believe that Iran is pursuing a dangerous course on nuclear issues and want it to abandon all plans to enrich uranium and make plutonium. The NPT does not promise all civilian nuclear technologies to non-weapons state parties, but offers the ‘benefits’ of such technologies. To this end, the EU-3 has offered reactors and fuel and provisions for a buffer stock in Iran.
Iran insists that it has no plans to make nuclear weapons; all it wants is to make nuclear energy, which as its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared in New York, is clean and plentiful. It also maintains that in carrying out these activities, it is merely insisting on its rights as a non-nuclear weapons party to the NPT. To the question as to why a country awash with hydrocarbons needs nuclear energy, Iran’s response is that it is merely preparing for the day it runs out of fossil fuel.
That does not explain its current behaviour in reneging from an agreement with the EU-3 to freeze its activities and resume work on the uranium conversion plant at Isfahan, which will turn uranium ore into gas that can be later enriched through centrifuges. Neither does it explain the past pattern of Iran’s of deceiving the International Atomic Energy Agency, that monitors compliance of NPT’s non-nuclear parties.
For 18 years, Iran successfully hid a number of facilities and activities from IAEA monitors. It was only because of Iranian dissident groups that the world came to know of Iran’s advanced capabilities and capacity. In eight reports, the most recent issued earlier this month, the IAEA has confirmed that Iran has had a covert nuclear weapons programme. The reports say that Iran has not properly accounted for importing enrichment equipment from the nuclear blackmarket. It has secretly enriched uranium and separated plutonium, experimented with polonium and imported beryllium, all activities that are also connected to making nuclear weapons.
The period in which Iran is supposed to have launched its covert nuclear programme, 1987-88, is quite significant. That is the year when Iraq began to use chemical weapons and later, rain missiles capable of carrying such weapons on Teheran in the so-called ‘War of the Cities’. The chemical weapons, the missiles and the information to fix targets were provided by western countries. Through the war, Iran lost anywhere up to a quarter million and twice that number were wounded and entire cities like Khorramshahar and Abadan were destroyed.
There was, therefore, a powerful security compulsion for Iran to make nuclear weapons. But as pointed out, the Iraqi threat has now been effectively eliminated. But a chicken-and-egg scenario has emerged, with the US and Israel feeling threatened by Iran, just as Iran feels threatened by them. Bush famously termed Teheran as a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’, though such language has not been heard in the wake of the Iraq fiasco. As of now, the US is backing the EU-3, but it insistently maintains that the IAEA must act soon on the knowledge that Iran has consistently deceived the organisation and refused to comply with its reports.
The IAEA, in the American view, must report the matter to the UN Security Council and press for sanctions. As of now, it appears that the US does not have sufficient support in the IAEA board of governors to follow such a course of action. The Americans are, at least for now, following an unexceptional course: There is a breach in a serious breach in an international agreement, one that threatens peace, and therefore the UNSC must take a call on it.
What is India’s perspective on these developments? The Left does not want India to lean on Iran in the interests of the need to maintain ‘an independent foreign policy’. But the Left’s idea of ‘independent’ is any course of action that is anti-American. But India has its own reasons not to want a nuclear-armed Iran. Since the Eighties, even while maintaining good ties with Teheran, India has been extremely careful in not adding to Iran’s military capabilities in any way. At the time, it wanted to maintain neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war, but subsequently, it was to maintain a balance with Saddam’s Iraq with whom too India had good ties. In the Nineties, India refused an Iranian request for a small research reactor, even though it would have been under IAEA safeguards. It was also cool to Teheran’s request for closer military cooperation in servicing and maintaining Iran’s new Russian-origin arsenal. New Delhi’s view was also conditioned by the concerns of the Persian Gulf states who were leery of Teheran’s growing military might.
The primary goal of Indian policy, then, as now, is to safeguard oil supplies and the interests of its huge expatriate population in the Saudi peninsula.
All this could be up-ended if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, a development that would certainly destabilise the region. Iran is a theocratic state ruled by mullahs. Although the leaders after Imam Khomeini have focussed inwards, there is always the possibility that some future leader may once again take the country down a messianic path. This in turn could prompt the outing of another covert nuclear programme that the Americans do not yet speak about — that of the Saudis. The world has learnt to live with the idea of nuclear weapons in the hands of dictators like Stalin and Mao, and a little bit more uneasily, a military oligarchy like Pakistan, but the idea of such apocalyptic weapons in the hands of a theocracy is somewhat worrisome.
There will undoubtedly be pressure, from the Left, on Manmohan Singh’s government to maintain
India’s ‘independent’ foreign policy. But the policy that New Delhi needs to pursue is not the American one, but one that is based on its own assessment of what the best course ought to be. It would appear to be aligned to that of the EU-3, who can hardly be considered surrogates of Washington. The clear policy is that Teheran must abide by its NPT commitments not to make nuclear weapons, even though there still remains some room for diplomacy.
But New Delhi must be prepared that if Teheran persists on its course and the EU-3 recommend a reference to the UN Security Council, India should bite the bullet and not hesitate to back the move. That way, we will subserve both the national interest and international law.
This appeared in The Hindustan Times September 19, 2005