Initiative on Iran?

Print edition : June 01, 2012

ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak in an April 2011 photograph.-AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

The easing of the Iran nuclear crisis presents a new chance for India to explore creative diplomacy.

DURING the recent visit of United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna adopted a two-pronged tactic to deal with pressure to reduce India's dependence on Iranian oil as part of the U.S.-led effort to isolate Iran and block and cap its uranium enrichment programme.

On the one hand, they emphasised that India is aligned with the international community in its concern to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. But India also has vital stakes in peace and stability in the Persian Gulf and wider West Asian region which go beyond Iran, given the six million Indians who live in the region and its importance to our economy. This implicitly signals opposition to a military option against Iran.

On the other hand, they said, Iran is a key country for our energy needs. They also said India was trying to reduce its dependence on Iran for oil. Iran now accounts for just 9 per cent of India's oil imports, compared with 12 per cent two years ago. Yet, India will continue to import oil from Iran, about one-half of the payment for which will be in Indian rupees. With these rupees Teheran will buy Indian products.

To enable these transactions, India invited a large Iranian delegation to discuss trade in, among other things, agro and allied products, pharmaceuticals, engineering, shipping, banking, petroleum products, polymers, textiles, and e-commerce. Its arrival happened to coincide with Hillary Clinton's visit.

India can be reasonably certain that the U.S. will not impose sanctions on it for trading with Iran even as the Western powers cease all financial transactions with Iran and further tighten sanctions on it in the coming weeks. So far, so good. But India needs to look beyond the issue of sanctions and its own interest in maintaining relations with Iran.

POSITIVE POSTURES

In particular, New Delhi must look at the larger picture and take note of a number of recent developments, which point to an easing of the crisis over Iran's nuclear activities ahead of the talks scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad between Iran and the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (P5 +1). These follow the mid-April talks between them in Istanbul.

The Istanbul talks did not produce substantive results other than an agreement to resume talks in May. However, the discussions took place in a friendly climate amidst public hints by Iran that it might consider freezing uranium enrichment at 20 per cent, needed for the small Tehran Research Reactor. This is above the 3.5 per cent enriched fuel used in power reactors, but well below the 90 per cent level necessary for weapons-grade bomb fuel.

Besides, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly issued an opinion declaring nuclear weapons un-Islamic. Iran has also adopted a more positive and flexible posture as regards transparency over and access to its nuclear facilities and a military base at Parchin, 30 kilometres south-east of Teheran, where it is suspected to have conducted high-explosives tests some years ago.

Significantly, Iran has nominated Saeed Jalili as its chief negotiator for the P5 + 1 talks. Jalili is credited with having tentatively accepted the nuclear fuel-swap plan proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama in the autumn of 2009. Under it, Iran would have sent the bulk of its enriched uranium to Russia in exchange for replacement fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor. It is another matter that the plan was vetoed thanks to opposition in Iran amidst hostile Western anti-Teheran rhetoric.

Yet, the war clouds that menacingly hovered over Iran only weeks ago seem to be receding. U.S. officials now discount the likelihood of an imminent conflict. The Iran nuclear crisis was perhaps at its worst in March, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington to demand U.S. support for a unilateral military strike against Iran's nuclear installations.

Reluctant to antagonise the domestic Zionist lobby in an election year, President Obama endorsed Israeli concerns and refused to rule out military action to prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons. However, he insisted that diplomacy must be given a chance. Since then, the Western powers have mounted pressure on Israel to restrain it from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities.

A turning point seems to have been reached at the end of March or early April, when the White House, responding to positive signals from Teheran, reportedly let Ayatollah Ali Khamenei know that the U.S. was willing to accept Teheran having a nuclear programme if it could prove it was not developing atomic weapons, and would never do so. Obama did this through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who travelled to Iran.

DOUBLE STANDARDS

Singling out Iran for such proof involves double standards, especially given Washington's indulgence towards Israel's large nuclear arsenal, (estimated at 100-300 warheads), which is much bigger than India's or Pakistan's. That notwithstanding, Obama's message marked a clear shift from Washington's long-standing insistence on denying Iran uranium enrichment capability in the belief that this would inevitably be used by this evil state to make nuclear bombs.

In the past, U.S. officials emphasised that what concerned them was not so much how successful Iran's nuclear programme was as the fact that it was Iran that was carrying out uranium enrichment in the first place. They exaggerated the clandestine nature of Iran's atomic activities and attributed it to its intention to acquire nuclear weapons. They generally adopted a confrontationist posture.

The change of climate has come about partly because there is little support in the U.S. or its principal allies for military action against Iran; President Obama does not want oil prices to shoot up further in an election year; U.S. intelligence agencies are convinced that Iran is not building nuclear weapons; the U.S. knows it cannot get Russia and China to endorse a harsh line on Iran; there is a shift in Israel's calculations of the efficacy of a military option, and above all, Iran has shown flexibility and adopted a cooperative stance in recent weeks.

It is open to doubt if Iran's flexible posture is primarily the result of recently tightened sanctions, as many U.S. analysts tend to argue. It is wholly plausible that Iran is yet to make a strategic decision to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Recent reports have reached the unwarranted conclusion, discussed in this Column ( Frontline, March 9), that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device, and that it may still be continuing.

Iran may be guilty of procedural infractions of the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the past. But there is no evidence that it is building a weapons-capable enrichment programme. Even the hawkish Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) believes that it is true and important that there are no indications that Iran has made a decision to actually construct a nuclear weapon.

The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate reached the following conclusion in 2007, which it would not have made public unless it was fully convinced of its assessment that Iran halted its nuclear weapons development activities in 2003: We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. We assess with moderate confidence [that] Teheran had not restarted its nuclear weapons programme as of mid-2007. We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weaponTeheran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons programme suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. This assessment was reiterated recently.

That apart, Iran seems to have run into some difficulties with its enrichment centrifuges ( Frontline, March 9). Most of its centrifuges are of the crude, first-generation IR-1 type, which are prone to breakdown. Their performance has declined recently, according to ISIS. Iran has also deployed a small number of somewhat more advanced IR-2m and IR-4 machines. But it has not been able to procure or make sophisticated materials with which to run and stabilise them.

Iran knows that any clandestine plans to convert low-enriched uranium (LEU) to high-enriched uranium (HEU) risk detection and hence punitive action. Iran has since 2007 enriched about 5,000 kg of uranium to 3.5 per cent. It has also enriched a little less than 80 kg to 19.75 per cent. It is theoretically estimated that 1,290 kg of 3.5 per cent LEU is needed for one Hiroshima-type bomb. So the first stockpile can produce fuel for almost four bombs if it can be converted into HEU, and assuming that there is no wastage whatever.

Therein lies the rub. Usually, about double the theoretically estimated 1,290 kg is needed for the first bomb because some wastage is inevitable. More important, Iran is highly unlikely to be able to put the LEU through the long iterations necessary to convert it to weapons-grade HEU without being caught in the act during one of the IAEA's surprise inspections, usually once every month.

There are two ways of converting LEU to HEU: either reconfigure the piping of the centrifuges extensively and use a multistage iterative process; or use one-stage batch recycling where the LEU would be rerun through the existing cascade without any re-piping. But the first possibility is fraught with extreme risk: the re-piping would almost certainly be detected. And the second method is untested. All existing nuclear states are believed to have used a multistage process.

DIVIDE IN ISRAEL

More important, beyond Iran's capabilities and intentions, there is a growing divide within the Israeli establishment over the wisdom of launching a military attack. Israel's domestic debate has seen a shift in favour of those opposing a military attack. They argue that Israel lacks the military capacity to carry out the large-scale attack needed to cripple Iran's nuclear programme effectively. A military strike could provoke a wider regional conflagration, with consequences that could hurt Israel.

Besides, even a massive military strike will not permanently disable Iran's nuclear programme or destroy its knowhow. On the contrary, it will generate a domestic consensus in favour of acquiring nuclear weapons, which is seemingly absent today.

Israel's military commander Lieutenant General Benny Gantz recently went public to say he believed Iran would choose not to build a nuclear bomb. Gantz described Iran's leaders as very rational people, who would not make such an enormous mistake. His comment counters the Israeli effort to get the U.S. to endorse the view of Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak that sanctions and diplomacy will not dissuade Iran from abandoning its nuclear pursuits.

Yuval Diskin, a recently retired chief on Israel's domestic security agency Shin Bet, has sharply attacked the Netanyahu-Barak duo and said he had no faith in their ability to handle the Iran crisis: I don't believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings. This echoes the views of Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, the external intelligence agency of Israel. Not to be ignored, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, no dove himself, fired a broadside against Netanyahu and argued against a military option to deal with Iran. He was backed by two former security officials.

Further, Shaul Mofaz, the recently elected leader of the Kadima Party, has just joined Netanyahu's government and is likely to be made in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians. He has been critical of Netanyahu's hawkish line towards Iran. He recently said: The greatest threat to the state of Israel is not nuclear Iran, but that Israel might one day cease to be a Jewish state, because it would have as many Palestinians as Jews. So it is in Israel's interest that a Palestinian state be created. It is not certain that Mofaz will stick to this stand, but the stand is definitely positive.

All these are welcome developments preceding the Baghdad talks. They offer an excellent opportunity to work out a negotiated solution to the crisis over Iran's uranium enrichment recently. Such a solution would ensure that the enrichment continues, in keeping with Iran's sovereign rights, but that it remains peaceful, under IAEA inspections, and limited to the legitimate needs of Iran's civilian reactors, with no weapons-grade uranium production.

Iran craves acceptance and respect as a normal and responsible state, which is proud of its culture and civilisation. The U.S. has been loath to give it that status right since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. India could usefully play a role in altering this. India has a significant stake in working for Iran's normalisation and acceptance within the international community.

India has much to gain from Iran's emergence as one of Asia's powers and from Indo-Iranian economic cooperation. Not least, India could revive the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, which was aborted under pressure and as a trade-off for the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal.

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