Dear Mr Advani

Great powers don’t worry about their rights

You say that you will support a nuclear deal that gives India the right to conduct a nuclear test. Perhaps it may even be able to negotiate such a deal one day.

But getting hung up about the “right to test” is a vestige of the strategic weakness of India’s past. Whether or not India has the right to test is not as relevant as India being able to get away with testing. That’s the story of Pokhran-I and Pokhran-II, by the way, and that will be the story of Pokhran-III if and when it does occur. You know this all too well.

So you should ensure that India will be able to get away with it. A strategic partnership with the United States—which you support—is a good way to ensure this.

If the nuclear deal falls apart, the BJP can’t be forgiven for its role in its unmaking. Your supporters will cite electoral compulsions as the reason for your stand. Perhaps this will help you win the coming election. What is really baffling is that you should think that it is necessary to let the deal fail in order to do so. Not least when the UPA government has no real achievement to speak of.

Related Post: A good deal, but very bad politics

When will Iran have its Bomb?

Watch out for the Big Bad Row

The IAEA submitted its latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme to its board of governors on 26th May. (via V Anantha Nageswaran). The report points out that Iran has been operating its assembly of 3000 IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant with greater efficiency and is in the process of adding another similar assembly. It is experimenting with advanced centrifuge designs (modified Pakistani P2 designs, replacing maraging steel rotors with carbon fibre composite ones), although these remain employed in the pilot stage.

The IAEA report finds Iran guilty of both procedural violations (reporting installations post facto, rather than in advance) as well as for not providing satisfactory accounts of alleged weapons development activities (preparing an underground shafts for testing, testing detonators and warhead designs, and modifying the Shahab-3 ballistic missile to carry a nuclear warhead). [See Arms Control Wonk‘s post]

So what does this tell us about the all important question: when will Iran have a bomb ready?

Assuming that Iran does not have other secret nuclear plants well hidden from the public eye, the reasonable assumption is that Iran will use the Natanz facilities to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) that will go into its bomb. According to Jeffrey Lewis’ handy calculator, Iran will need between 156 to 293 days to produce enough HEU for a bomb. If it gets the second assembly of 3000 centrifuges operating, that period will be halved, to about 78-147 days. As Dr Lewis’s calculations show, the time to produce sufficient HEU gets shorter if more centrifuges become operational, or their efficiency improves.

In addition to having sufficient quantities of HEU, Iran must also have a functioning weapons design—again thanks to Pakistan and A Q Khan, that should not be too difficult.

But Iran’s centrifuges are not yet producing HEU. The IAEA is keeping watch over the nuclear material and the centrifuge cascades in the Natanz facility. It is likely to know if and when the Iranian authorities decide to go into the bomb mode. A possible indicator of this happening is when Iran and the IAEA have the Big Bad Row. Depending on how many centrifuges Iran has working then, we can estimate the time it will take to produce and assemble a bomb. That could be anywhere between 78 days (if the second assembly is operational) to 293 days (if only the existing one is operational). If you are looking for a ready reckoner: you can assume that Iran has the bomb three months from the Big Bad Row.

(Some Europeans are going to look silly when that happens. So will the some Americans. But other events—both ugly ones and not-at-all-ugly ones—might well spare them from the embarrassment. )

My op-ed in Mint : Ten years after Pokhran-II

The payoffs are clear, unambiguous and long-term

In an op-ed to mark the tenth anniversary of India’s second round of nuclear tests, I argue that they made India a far more credible international actor. And that while India is reconciled to the ownership of nuclear weapons but remains unclear what they are for. I also point out that the conventional military balance remains as important despite nuclear deterrence being in place; and that our political leadership needs an altogether different level of skill to translate the nuclear advantage into foreign policy outcomes.

Excerpts:

“Real strength lies in restraint,” Sonia Gandhi said ten days after India conducted its second series of nuclear tests on May 11th and May 13th 1998, “not in the display of shakti.” She could not have been more wrong.

At the time of Mrs Gandhi’s speech, India had spent a decade fighting a proxy war against a Pakistan that China had brazenly armed – with American connivance – with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. India’s protestations that it is a victim of both cross-border terrorism and illegal nuclear and missile proliferation got nowhere. The nuclear powers had perverted the entire edifice of nuclear disarmament by legitimising their own nuclear arsenals in perpetuity. They were coercing India to constrain and give up its nuclear weapons programme. It was abundantly clear that India’s display of restraint was being exploited as a sign of weakness.

Pokhran-II changed that. Because it demonstrated to the world that India was ready to incur costs in the defence of its national interests. [Mint]

Thanks to Kedar Wagle, Anand Sampath & V Anantha Nageswaran for providing inputs and comments

Sunday Levity: Escalation control lessons from a kindergartener

Teachers preclude anarchy in the kindergarten

“Remember the new girl in my class?” the kindergartener said. “She hit me.”

The father, being a student of conflict, was naturally interested in conflict among students. The kindergartener had caught his attention.

“And what did you do then?” he asked.

“I told the teacher. And the teacher scolded her,” the kindergartener replied, expecting appreciation. The father worried that this kid was falling into the maternal sphere of influence. It was time for a lesson on deterrence and balance of power.

“You should have hit her right back”, he said. “And then complained to the teacher.”

“What?” She half-suspected that the father was pulling her leg. Noticing that he was serious she went on. “But I told the teacher and the teacher scolded her and told her never to hit me again.”

The father moved to press home the most important point. “If she knows that you’ll hit her back, she’ll think twice before hitting you. Even when the teacher is not around.”

“What if she hits me harder?” The father vaguely remembered something about the new girl being bigger in size and older than the rest.

“Well, then, you hit her back just as hard.”

“Pappa, but then we’ll be fighting…like boys!”

And she ran out of her father’s study.

Related Link: Lessons in strategy from a kindergartener

Nuclear disarmament? Great idea…

But talk is cheap, but let’s see some credibility first

Some of America’s foremost strategic experts have proposed that nuclear weapons are a threat for the entire world, and it is time for everyone to get rid of them. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn have gone beyond the vision thing and actually outlined policy directions to achieve nuclear disarmament. [More on this from Lawrence Wittner over at HNN]

As K Subrahmanyam reminds us, disarmament, non-use of nuclear weapons for warfighting and no-first use have been the longstanding hallmarks of India’s nuclear policy. Moreover last time universal disarmament was proposed seriously at the highest international level was by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. Mr Subrahmanyam argues that it is in India’s interests to participate in discussions that might arise from this new American initiative.

And why not? Maintaining a dynamic minimum credible deterrent is not inconsistent with India being an active participant in international discussions aimed at universal disarmament.

Realists like Dr Kissinger would recognise, though, that the idea of getting states to proceed towards universal nuclear disarmament is contingent upon three things. First, not only the destination but the process of getting there should reflect geopolitical realities. It would be futile to expect nuclear disarmament when say, the UN Security Council and other international organisations remain reflective of geopolitics of the last century [Related post: The tragedy of climate change geopolitics]. Second, international fuel supply and energy markets must be made more competitive. Cartelisation of uranium or crude oil supplies and locking up of supplies at source has implications for the nuclear industry. Reforming the international civilian nuclear trade is therefore crucial.

Finally—and crucially—the call for the extraordinary goal of universal disarmament requires an extraordinary amount of credibility. India, for instance, won’t be misplaced in calling for the US, Russia, China and others to reduce their warhead and feedstock inventories to the same levels as India’s before taking any such steps of its own. For instance, India can commit that it will sign treaties banning nuclear tests or cutting off fissile materials after all states have reduced their arsenal to an equivalent level.

And let’s not forget that even the new Kissinger-Shultz-Perry-Nunn plan for universal disarmament applies only to states. Without overstating the risk of nuclear weapons and materials falling into the hands of non-state/quasi-state actors, it would be incorrect to assume that this is sufficient to protect the world from the risk of nuclear attack.

From the archives: Why the NPT is bunk, why it cannot prevent proliferation and what might.

Call the team back!

India must pull out of this series…for the sake of good cricket

The Catapult makes an important point about geopolitics in a post on how India was subject to all-round cheating in Australia:

In a way this is symptomatic of the way India approaches its foreign relations, trying to belong to institutions and abide by the rules of a world order shaped by other powers to suit their own agendas and hoping that its “good behaviour” will be recognised and rewarded rather than like China which threatens to undermine it unless it is satisfactorily accommodated in the global power structure. And no prizes for guessing who is getting the better bargain. [The Catapult]

The Indian cricket authorities have been content to try and exploit the economic opportunities that result from India’s market power. That they failed to ensure that umpires and referees didn’t cheat the India team says something about BCCI’s attitude towards the ‘politics’ of the game.

Queuing up outside the the ICC’s office with an appeal in hand is not the thing you do after something like this. It would serve the interests of Indian cricket (and that of cricket itself) better if India were to just call the team back and call off the rest of the series. Why?

Because it’s not merely about revoking the three-match ban on Harbhajan Singh. But because the BCCI must ensure that atrocious umpiring and match refereeing don’t recur in future.

Bad umpires and ungentlemanly behaviour are much better deterred by calling the series off. This is a far more credible signal precisely because it is a costly signal. So far, the BCCI has not distinguished itself in this episode—torn as it is between its role as the dominant controller of the Indian cricket market and the steward of the Indian cricket team. It issued half-a-threat and then half-retracted it. In doing so it revealed its intentions: that it is not really serious about backing its cricketers or ensuring that Indian teams don’t suffer in future. It just wants the dismal show to go on…

It is not for BCCI to worry about geopolitics. It is not the time to strike some “wishy-washy” compromises. If the BCCI cares for Indian cricket, it would do well to bring the players back home. [Update: As expected, BCCI tries and contents itself with a compromise]

Related Link: The Other Side on Monkeygate: Things BCCI can do

Missile vs Missile

Missile defences strengthen India’s strategic deterrence

Failure to understand how deterrence works is a common error. Wholesale application of the Cold War era nuclear arms race in today’s South-Asian geopolitical context is another. And analysts assuming every Indian strategic platform is exclusively targeted at Pakistan is yet another. Jawed Naqvi’s recent article in Dawn makes all three, when he criticises India’s progress towards development of a missile defence system.

Maverick explains—like only he can—why Naqvi’s arguments are wrong. Strategic deterrence is first and foremost a mind game: its objective to ensure that nuclear weapons are not used. Any system that increases the chances of non-use increases stability. In the case of the missile defence system, pointing out that 4 minutes is way too little for Indian anti-missile missiles to do their work misses the target. The system needs to be good enough make a potential adversary think “What if the first strike fails?”. In combination with India’s possession of a second-strike capability, a missile defence shield enhances nuclear stability.

More importantly, it’s ironic that Pakistanis, whose rulers (and their nuclear/missile benefactors) have done so much to put nuclear weapons within reach of any state that wants them, should think that India only thinks of them.

From the archives: Defence against the dark arts; and Kind Word Defence