What India needs to do about Iran’s nuclear programme

The Security Council should bear this burden

India is holding on to a hot potato. And it’s beginning to hurt. The Iranians have refused to relent on their nuclear ambitions. The Europeans who tried to mediate have thrown in the towel. The board of the International Atomic Energy Agency is to decide whether or not to refer the matter to the UN Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions or worse. India, like China and Russia, has both a vote on the IAEA as well as a strategic interest in maintaining good relations with Iran. Consequently it has thus far been reluctant to put the Iranians in a spot. Unfortunately, the time for sitting on the fence is coming to an end.

The Yanks have a point
At stake is the blossoming relationship with the United States, which has every intention to confront Iran on the nuclear issue. The Bush administration has taken on its own domestic non-proliferation constituency as well other nuclear-weapon states in agreeing to sell nuclear technology to India. Beyond mere symbolism, this is a concrete first step towards acknowledging India’s nuclear ‘legitimacy’ (if there can be such a thing) and addressing its energy security through the transfer of civilian nuclear technology and fuel components. India should not fail to reciprocate this extraordinary change in longstanding American policy. It should not refuse to sensitise itself to America’s proliferation concerns vis-a-vis Iran.

Credit balance
Contrary to what it is made out to be, it is not true that India will burn its bridges with Iran by voting in favour of referring the case over to the UN Security Council. While it is certain that India will have to make a significant withdrawal from its bilateral relationship account, it is hardly the case that this will send the balance into the red. And if it does, and the Iranians send a with-us-or-against-us message, then the choice should be pretty clear. Nobody in India, not even the Communists, can argue that India is worse off on the side of the United States than on the side of Iran. But it is unlikely that this will ever come to pass for the ruling theocracy in Iran too intelligent to present such stark options to India.

Too Mush
If India intended to use the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline as a bogey to win better terms in its negotiations with the United States, then it has outlived its utility. Its geopolitical and economic rationale was never strong to begin with, and it now sticks out as symbol of Indian foreign policy dogmatism. And now, even Gen Musharraf has asked for American nuclear know-how as the price of dropping the pipeline idea. India would do well to bury the idea of the pipeline and in the process and deny Musharraf a new nuclear negotiating card.

Kick it upstairs
India is a member of the IAEA board. Unlike China, Russia and the United States, it is not a member of the UN Security Council. By that token, the burden of actually imposing sanctions on Iran will lie on China, Russia and France. India should let them have the privilege of defending a nuclear bad boy at the United Nations. The permanent five, including the United States, are not keen to admit India as one among them. So why should India allow them to escape the responsibility that comes with their position?

The Acorn likes an independent foreign policy. It just doesn’t like a dogmatic one.

21 thoughts on “What India needs to do about Iran’s nuclear programme”

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  3. While we do need to be pragmatic and not do something as stupid as
    taking on the US when it comes to Iran, regardless of our UNSC
    aspirations, the agreement with the US on energy co-operation is quite
    one-sided. We *must* separate our civilian and military facilities, be
    wary about siding with Iran etc. But the US government hasn’t given any
    confirmation that the deal will get through Congress or that they will
    convince the other members of the fusion reactor programme in France.

    I think we should actually be pragmatic enough to tell the US that in
    the absence of any confirmation from the government on the energy issue,
    we will understand that they have failed in convincing Congress or their
    fusion programme partners.

    It cannot be a one-way street.

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  5. 1. Yanks (and Brits with Gov. Blair) have absolutely no cards in the Iran case. Iran has not done any thing illegal as yet, and have signed a few extremely intrusive agreements outside of NPT. What Iran is attempting to do is permitted in NPT, it is just that US+EU3 claims that they don’t trust Iran with anything nuclear. India as a matter of principle should not support this kind of selective enforcement. What happens in 10 years time India becomes a target for say IP laws? One can see shades of this argument in Albright news.

    2. At this time, US (+ Israel’s) hands are completely tied. They can’t attack in the immediate future, and they would prefer to go with a time honored strategy – soften Iran up with sanctions and air embargo. The current US activity in Iran seem to follow a typical pattern, US policy in a decade has created the problems for the next decade and US reconciles with their enemy in about 30 years. The sanctions will hurt India and China more than anything else. Sanctions will have the obvious oil implications and human implications. To a large extent Iraq problems are a little distant to India, but Iran will not be that distant. You will have a really large number of immigrants from Iran flowing into India, probably as a transit point to the west, but they still will be coming in and upsetting local balances.

    3. The oil pipeline is a risk for India, one should hope that the paperpushers might negotiate a good deal. On the other hand, the pakistani army is supposedly transforming itself into a conglomerate(sp?) so the army itself may not sabotage the pipeline if it affects the fees.

    4. Friend of US badge is not necessarily a great honor. Should India aim to be in the same brown nose category of the brits, pinochet, Saddam Hussein, Shah Pehlavi etc? I hope not. India need to worry about its long term strategy, not about getting brownie points.

    5. India and the security council – Now that India is being blackballed (or is it whiteballed) out the security council, India should oppose any movement to the security council and even the legitimacy of the security council. No one can say the council is democratic, what right does a bunch of has beens and one (probable) will be have to dictate what others will do? UN is a dead institution and a waste of time. High time India got out of it and concentrate on supplying the bureaucrats , and probably hosting the damn thing. That way India can generate some money rather that waste time dealing with the UN.

  6. I don’t understand why a oil-rich country like Iran needs nuclear energy. Obviously, their ultimate aim is to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a nuclear energy program.

    I agree with Nitin that India should stop siding with Iran.

  7. But what’s the hurry? Before the vote at IAEA, Mr. Natwar Singh should visit US congress leaders on both sides of the aisle and get a firm commitment that they would vote for Bush’s nuclear deal with India before India will turn on its long term ally in Middle East. And India should continue working on IPI pipeline to keep the Iranians happy and to show the world that it is working towards closer relations with Pakistan. If Pakistan drops the pipeline idea, so be it. Pakistan already has Chinese nuclear weapons. A few nuclear power plants, if US decide to transfer the technology to Pakistan too, will not hurt India. On the other hand, if Pakistan continues to pursue IPI pipeline, India will get the gas it needs so desperately. India cannot lose making a pipeline deal with Iran and Pakistan.

    Turning on Iran has costs for India. Iran will surely be pushed closer to Chinese hands even more, especially if Chinese veto the UNSC resolution on Iran. With Pakistan and Iran in China’s sphere of influence, India will not only lose a solid supporter during OIC bash sessions, it will also not have too many Islamic friends left in Middle East. India needs tread carefully and make up with Iran in other ways for any pro-US stance on the current nuclear issue.

  8. I broadly agree with SanB – we don’t have to turn on Iran to show that we share Washington’s concerns – this is a typical diplomatic balancing act that India has to deal with once in a while, so there is absolutely no need for pressing panic buttons and bending over backwards to support security council arbitration. In any case, all we have from the US right now is just words, US congress has not yet ratified their President’s proposals yet. Even when they do, once India signs the NPT, India will be opening itself up to intrusive IAEA inspections, so we need to be extremely skeptical of the motives of the nuclear-have states.

    As for Iran developing nuclear weapons, well, I really doubt if the world can stop it, without another war involving an oil-producing state – and no one can afford that. The nuclear genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and the nuclear-haves are desperately trying to maintain status quo (to protect strategic interests) and while arm twisting worked with Libya, Iran is a different matter altogether.

    Let’s also not forget that our own weapons development programme cannot be put in the freezer yet, at least not as long as we have China and Pakistan to worry about. Once we are part of the inspections regime, what’s stopping IAEA and its patrons from imposing inspections on us for perceieved violations?

  9. Generally, I agree with S. Jagdish on your theory.

    Nobody in India, not even the Communists, can argue that India is worse off on the side of the United States than on the side of Iran.

    True – the only problem is that the United States has a bad habit of using and abusing others, rather than being equally reciprocal with favours. You only have to look at Tony Blair’s relationship with Bush. While the former has stuck with the latter like a poodle (as frequently referred to in the British press here), he has gotten nothing back in return for his loyalty.

    On Kyoto, the G8 summit, recent global warming initiatives (which have bypassed the UK entirely), debt relief, dealing with AIDS etc.

    So the Indian govt should have active favours in mind when throwing in the towel, and get them confirmed in advance. Otherwise the USA will disregard India in the future if the wind blows the other way.

  10. Let me address some of the issues raised so far:

    a) India should ensure the United States delivers on its words

    I agree. And I would say India has to ensure this regardless of a deal over Iran. But one cannot demand that the United States be sensitive to India’s interests without India reciprocating.

    b) What they do to Iran they can do to India.

    Disagree. There is a difference between India and Iran. Moreover, a policy based on paranoia that India will be one day treated the same way as Iran is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Equating India with such autocrats as Saddam Hussein, Pinochet or the Shah of Iran is fallacious. Unlike these one-time US allies, the Indian government does not depend on the United States for support and legitimacy. It is one thing for Pakistan to fear the consequences of being ‘abandoned’ by the United States; it is quite another for India.

    c) The pipeline is necessary to show the world India is engaging Pakistan in peace talks.

    Disagree. Firstly, it is Pakistan that needs to show the world that it is interested in pursuing peace talks with India. Secondly, even if India needed to demonstrate something, there are plenty of CBMs in place. I’m surprised how those who seem to advocate a policy based on realpolitik can believe that the Pakistani army will not hurt the pipeline just because it earns transit fees from it!

    d) By sending the matter to the Security Council, Iran will draw closer to China.

    Not necessarily. If China exercises its veto in the Security Council, then yes. But this will also mean that China will be in head-on confrontation with the United States, Britain and India. It is very unlikely that the Chinese will risk this. Also for the matter to reach the UNSC, China (like India) has to vote in favour of this at the IAEA board. At the UNSC China can abstain. This will not push Iran any closer to China. Of course, if China votes against Iran at the UNSC…

    e) India needs Iranian support at OIC.

    Until the OIC is ready to accept India as its member, there is no need for India to care one way or the other. ‘Support at the OIC’ has been used as justification for any number of dogmatic policies.

    This is the time for a fundamental shift in India’s thinking. It has to act with the confidence of a legitimate nuclear power, regardless of whether the NPT cabal accepts this or not. It cannot be anyone’s case that the rise of another nuclear weapons state, that too in India’s neighbourhood, that too in the hands of a often hardline theocracy somehow is in India’s interests. It is not. And given that India is a member of the IAEA and not the UNSC, India has an opportunity to carry out a smart diplomatic manoeuvre. Pass the onus of punishing Iran onto the UNSC. Continuing to hold the hot potato will only lead to burnt hands.

  11. I am not sure I buy the argument yet. I don’t think Iran is just another country in Latin America or Africa to just support US policy without considering what Iran’s intentions are. To claim that India does not want another nuclear weapon state in its neighborhood when just a few years ago India indirectly accepted the right of Pakistan to have these weapons – granted it was self serving at the time – may sound like hypocrisy. In any case, Iran signed NPT and should be obligated by it although North Korea showed how easy it is to get around the treaty. Also, how is Indian foreign policy independent if it bends to US direction without anything to gain from it? Will US bend India’s way when India needs to tackle its foreign policy issues? (I don’t think I even have to name them.) Does the issue become a hot potato just because a congressman has something to say, granted he is the ranking member of international relations committee? If that becomes a hot potato, India will be burning its fingers everyday if it becomes a member of UNSC.

    With regards to the gas pipeline through Pakistan, the fact that generals will turn off the tap when things get hot is a given. If there is no mechanism to get compensated for this fundamental concern, I agree that the pipeline should not fly.

  12. It seems India voted with the United States and Europe in the what ever it was meeting. As a Brit POI (person of Indian origin) in Europe it was interesting to observe the US-India “discussion”. A clash of cultures was clearly evident after lantos called Natwar “dense”. I don’t know much about Natwar but he strikes me as being 100% Nehruvian. Nehru had a strange policy called non-alignment this involved giving Tibet to China on a platter. The policy should have been called “putting your head in the sand”. A nuclear Iran is very bad news for India in the long term, I wonder if “non aligned” Natwar is able to appreciate this. The PM Manmohan Singh on the other hand is a kind of “Mr Spock” like figure I am sure he has an IQ beyond 128. He does not want to offend Iran but he clearly sees how dangerous a nuclear Iran is.

    The most obvious way to resolve this (maybe I am being stupid)is if Israel agrees to withdraw from the West Bank then Iran can agree not to go nuclear. Seems like a reasonable deal to me. Mussaraf seems close to reconising Israel, whatever his motive are, I think its a positive move. Perhaps he is genuine, I recall people were initially sceptical of Gorbachev, perhaps Mushasraf will suprise us? he is after all Indian and not an Arab so is more likely to think in a progressive way.

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