The Indian Analyst

Iran's Nuclear Program


The United States (US) and the European Union (EU) have called for a special meeting at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. The objective is to get enough support to take Iran to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for punitive economic and possibly military sanctions. The root of this disenfranchisement is a Western suspicion of a nuclear program that the IAEA would not vouch as entirely civilian. 

Western nations accuse Iran of trying to develop a nuclear bomb, violating international obligations, and hankering a bellicose attitude to its neighbors. Firstly, investigators of Libyan nuclear program found that disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan had sold nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran, North Korea, and another West Asian country believed to be either Saudi Arabia or Syria. Secondly, as a signatory to the Paris Agreement with the EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany), Iran promised to place its nuclear facility at Nantz in cold storage till a consensus is reached. However, with a more hard-line party coming to power, Iran has unilaterally abrogated this agreement and opened up the facility for “research.” Thirdly, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran has right of access to civilian nuclear technology. However, it is supposed to disclose any nuclear technology related activity to the IAEA.  While it has been diligent to disclose all its prior activities, Iran did not disclose the purchase of centrifuges from the A.Q. Khan nuclear weapons network. Fourthly, Iran abruptly broke off conversations with the EU-3 without a clear reason as to why it is terminating the conversation. Fifthly, the Iranian President’s call for the destruction of Israel and uncharitable comments against the Jewish people have fueled and sustained suspicion over Iran’s long-term objective for its nuclear program. 

Iran denies these charges. Firstly, it says that its nuclear program is geared to developing self-sufficiency in uranium enrichment to meet increased domestic demands for electricity. Secondly, it denies that it is using the centrifuges to produce high-grade fuel. Thirdly, it says that since its intention is only civilian, as an NPT signatory, it is entitled to produce its own nuclear fuel. Fourthly, it argues that if India, as a new emergent nuclear weapons state (NWS) and a non-signatory to the NPT, there should be no restrictions on its operations. Fifthly, Iran says its dialogue with EU-3 is unequal accusing those nations of arm-twisting tactics and insensitivity. 

This debate has curious and tangential implications for India. Firstly, as one of the Governors of the IAEA, India has the responsibility to vote on Iran’s nuclear program. In September 2005, India voted against Iran’s nuclear program but argued that the Iran-EU3 conversation continue to produce a diplomatic solution. This caused much political fallout in India where the minority Federal Government alienated communist allies who are anti-American.  Secondly, India and the US signed a civilian nuclear deal in summer 2005. This deal will essentially recognize India as a NWS, grant it full access to nuclear civilian technology, and excuse it for not signing the NPT. The nuclear deal will also provide India much needed technology that will enable it to generate electricity to propel its growth and reduce its dependence on expensive oil. Political extremists in commanding positions in the US Congress have said that India needs to vote against Iran if the nuclear deal is to get their support. Hence, if India does not vote against Iran, it will lose all these benefits. Thirdly, if India votes against Iran the consequence will be several projects and Indo-Iranian commercial deals including a USD 20 billion Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) contract; a conceptual Iran-Pakistan-India LNG pipeline; a strategic 219 kilometer road through the mountains from Vearan to Zarani in Iran with a link to the Garland Highway in Afghanistan-- this road will not only give India access to Afghanistan from Iran but also to the Central Asian republics; The Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC ) could be taking an equity state in Iran’s South Pars oil field; and Iranian support to Indian on Jammu & Kashmir in the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), meetings often led by Pakistan. 

The issue becomes more complicated because India needs and values the relationship of both countries but does not have the economic, political, or military leverage that will allow it to play on both sides. For example, China has a huge economic relationship with both countries, is an acknowledged NWS, and has military ties with Iran. India has an emerging economic relationship with both countries but large enough to sustain relationships; is not yet an acknowledged NWS or a veto-wielding member of the UNSC; has military ties with the US but no military ties with Iran. Therefore, the ideal situation is it could find a way out of its predicament that will enable it to secure the nuclear deal with the US and not jeopardize its relationship with Iran.  

However, none of the deals are really concluded. The US has been raising many last minute issues with India regarding what nuclear facilities it wants to classify as civilian. It is trying to leverage even an unconcluded deal to stop India from getting into economic partnerships with Syria. It is also alienating large sections of Indian polity and decision makers whose support are required for a strategic partnership with the US just like the US Administration needs the support of political extremists in the Congress. Moreover, there is fear in India that the US would try curtailing Indian engagements with other countries perceived inimical to their policy such as Sudan, Venezuela, Bolivia, or Chile. 

The relationship with Iran is also based on shaky grounds. While Iran has supported India in the OIC, its support has been weak and only as a leverage for political posturing against Pakistan. Iran has consistently voted against Indian in dealings on Kashmir and nuclear issues. Iran has never committed to Indian economic overtures even reneging on ones it has agreed to. For example, National Iranian Gas Export Corporation (NIGEC) had entered a USD 20 billion deal with major India oil companies to supply 2.5 million tons of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) that would power northern states saying that it needs ratification from the new Government. India says this legal waffling makes Iran an unreliable supplier, a country with no legal compulsions or values, and makes the intentions of that country suspicious.

In order to navigate these harsh choices and hurdles, India has to base its policy to suit its own interests. Firstly, it needs to encourage the West to not follow the policy of punitive sanctions against Iran. The record of sanction regimes is littered by examples of Cuba, Iraq, and North Korea. Nowhere have sanctions worked to evolve a permanent solution. Secondly, it needs to encourage Iran to adopt the Russian proposals of joint-venture enrichment facility in Russia. Thirdly, it needs to assiduously advocate against Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations. Fourthly, it needs to counsel the US to apply proliferation policy equally. The US cannot accept proliferation from Pakistan and China but beat up Iran. Fifthly, it needs to encourage global nuclear disarmament efforts including Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and No First Use Treaty. Sixthly, it needs to insist on expanded economic ties with Iran irrespective of the nuclear issue and in areas beyond oil. Seventhly, it needs to invest heavily in research and development of alternative energy technologies that will free itself of oil and gas from Iran or nuclear energy technology from the US.

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