India's nuclear albatross

Published : Oct 07, 2005 00:00 IST

External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh and Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. The Iranian envoy was in New Delhi on August 31 seeking India's support in his country's dispute with the West over its nuclear programme. - AJIT KUMAR/AP

External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh and Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. The Iranian envoy was in New Delhi on August 31 seeking India's support in his country's dispute with the West over its nuclear programme. - AJIT KUMAR/AP

New Delhi deluded itself that it scored a coup by signing the July nuclear deal with Washington. It must now confront the bitter truth: `normalising' its nuclear weapons status will entail erosion of its policy independence in different fields. The crisis over Iran's nuclear programme is the starkest example.

WHEN Prime Minister Manmohan Singh embarked on his mid-September visit to the United States, he must have desperately hoped that he would not be confronted with an "either you are with us or your are against us" choice from Washington over joining the U.S.' escalating effort to isolate Iran and have its nuclear programme referred to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. He must have also hoped that President George W. Bush would somehow delink the Iran issue from the commitments he made in the July 18 nuclear deal to make an exception for India in the matter of loosening the nuclear control regime.

The hope can only be called desperate because the signals emanating from Washington in recent weeks were loud and clear. The U.S. would be insistent that India join it in its confrontation over Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the point explicitly on September 9 when she said: "Now we need leadership on this. The European Union-3 [the United Kingdom, France and Germany] led on this issue. The United States supported the E.U.-3... But Iran needs to get a message from the international community that it is a unified message. And by this I mean not just the E.U. and the U.S., but also Russia, China and India."

Recent reports in the U.S. media unmistakably pointed to the connection Washington would make between the nuclear accord with India, and the "responsible" role that India must play on such global issues as the U.S. considers important. The debate in a U.S. Congressional Committee over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, in which Representative Tom Lantos targeted India's "pro-Iran" stance, highlighted this.

Just a few days earlier, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran had "reiterated" India's stand on Iran with "no ambiguity": Iran, he said, should adhere to its international obligations. Any questions about Teheran's nuclear programme should be resolved through discussion, not confrontation. (The Hindu, September 10). This was a subtle shift from India's oft-stated position that the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence that the Iranian uranium enrichment programme has a weapons component; and that Iran has every right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes subject to its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In New York, Manmohan Singh faced a choice, or what has been called the "litmus test", to demonstrate the independence and principled basis of India's foreign policy. If and when pressed by Bush, would he defend Iran's right to enrich uranium, in keeping with the stand of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) group in the IAEA's Board of Governors, or cave in to the U.S. in some measure?

Manmohan Singh's response was equivocal. He reiterated India's "consistent" and "principled opposition" to any kind of nuclear proliferation and said Iran must fulfil all its international obligations and commitments. According to Saran, he indicated India's preference - to let "diplomacy" produce a "consensus" in the IAEA. India would "constructively" contribute towards finding a "consensus".

This obviously did not satisfy the U.S. administration, which takes a dim view of what it regards as India's "demurring". According to senior officials quoted in The New York Times ("India Balks At Confronting Iran, Straining Its Friendship With U.S.", September 15), the U.S. does not want the IAEA Board to take its decisions by "consensus". It is keen to change the IAEA's decision-making procedure, by pressing for a majority vote. "With India's help, they can obtain a majority vote... to refer Iran to the Security Council," the officials said.

The message given to Manmohan Singh was that India has "to make a basic choice". An official said: "Indians are emerging from their non-aligned status and becoming a global power, and they have to begin to think about their responsibilities." Washington believes India "is in the middle between the West and Iran, with which it has tried to foster a close relationship". "In effect," reports The Times, "Bush administration officials say India must now choose who is the best partner to meet its surging energy needs - Iran with its natural gas resources, or the West with its ability to help in developing Indian civilian nuclear power."

India's position on the Iran issue is shot through with anomalies, four of which are noteworthy. First, the U.S. is prejudiced against Iran. It has demonised Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, regardless of its changing domestic realities; just as Iran emerged from the shadow of Ayatollah-style extremism, Washington declared it a "rogue state". The U.S. has now unilaterally decided that Iran is - like Iraq under Saddam Hussein - acquiring nuclear weapons. It wants to act unilaterally and is threatening multilateral agencies with irrelevance if they do not fall in line. It would be tragic if India were to legitimise U.S. unilateralism.

Second, not even a remotely plausible case has been made that Iran has nuclear weapons or, that its nuclear programme is military. True, Iran hid a part of its programme from international eyes for many years. But it has opened it to the IAEA since 2003, when it "temporarily" suspended enrichment preparations and activities as part of a negotiated deal with the E.U.-3.

The IAEA has repeatedly given Iran a clean chit. Its recent reports conclude that the traces of enriched uranium detected two years ago at Iranian facilities are attributable to equipment imported from Pakistan. Inspections have found no evidence of Iran running a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. But the U.S. dismisses these conclusions and ignores Iran's cooperation with the IAEA.

Independent assessments suggest that Iran may be five to 10 years away from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. A recent report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that Iran would need more than 10 years to build an industrial-scale centrifuge plant at Natanz. At the moment, Natanz is basically a "pilot plant", with a relatively small number of centrifuges. India is being pressed to disregard these facts.

Third, India has failed to differentiate itself adequately from the inconsistent position of the E.U.-3. The E.U.-3-Iran talks started off well. Both sides made, and improved on, offers. The E.U.-3 offered political, economic and nuclear cooperation with Iran, as well as security guarantees. Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear programme and place it under the IAEA's inspections.

Things changed when Iran's presidential election was announced and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a supposed "hardliner", emerged as a contender. While waiting for his installation, the E.U.-3 missed the agreed deadline (July 31) to propose a promised improved deal with Iran. The E.U.-3 had prepared a package on the assumption that the "moderate" Ali Akbar Rafsanjani would win the election. When he lost, the E.U.-3 hardened the deal's terms, ignoring Iran's broad domestic nuclear policy consensus, which cuts across "moderate-extremist" lines. The E.U.-3 demanded that Iran permanently renounce uranium enrichment.

Iran refused, arguing that no self-respecting state could permanently surrender a right available to it under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and international law. Iran suspected that the E.U.-3 were "playing into the hands of the U.S.", and decided to resume conversion of uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride gas at Isfahan. (The gas is meant to feed enrichment centrifuges at another facility, in Natanz. Iran has not started enrichment yet.) The Iran-E.U.-3 talks collapsed.

In early September, the IAEA reported that Iran had produced seven tonnes of uranium hexafluoride. This gave the U.S. an opportunity to raise its anti-Iran campaign to a high pitch. The E.U.-3 caved in to U.S. pressure to have Iran referred to the Security Council. The IAEA alone can make that reference. (Its Board of Governors is scheduled to meet on September 19, three days before this column is being written.) The E.U.-3's record casts doubts on the quality of the "consensus" that might emerge. Yet, India is putting all its eggs in the "consensus" basket.

Fourth, the IAEA is divided on the Iran issue. About two-thirds of its 35-member Board - including Brazil, South Africa, Pakistan and India, besides 11 other non-aligned countries - are reluctant to refer Iran to the Security Council. Russia and China are even more reluctant. The NAM group, currently headed by Malaysia, forms a solid bloc in the Board and acts unanimously. Its stated position is that Iran has a `right' to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Malaysia declares this right as "basic and inalienable".

It is hard to fault the NAM position - irrespective of one's stand on the desirability and sustainability of nuclear power. So long as the NPT exists as an international treaty, legal rights and obligations under it cannot be revoked. Legally, it is equally futile to argue that Iran has plenty of oil/gas and will not need nuclear power. Russia and the U.S. too have plenty of oil or gas, but no one questions their substantial nuclear power programmes on similar grounds.

India thus risks splitting the NAM group in the IAEA by pleading for a bogus "consensus". Matters will worsen if India toes the U.S. line. This will have serious consequences. The Iran issue has become a symbol of Third World defiance of unreasonable Western pressure. India will be on the wrong side of the divide.

India may not face a critical test over its stand on Iran just yet. On available indicators, the U.S. has not managed to gather enough support in the IAEA Board to win a vote on Iran. It is likely to delay discussion beyond September 19. Rice admits as much: "The world is not perfect in international politics. You cannot always get a 100 - per cent solution." But this test could come very soon. Washington seems determined to force the issue. It is even examining the possibility of an armed attack on Iran.

The respected U.S. magazine, The Nation, has reported: "Bush has given the Defence Department approval to develop scenarios" for an attack "if Teheran proceeds with uranium-enrichment activities viewed in Washington as a precursor to the manufacture of nuclear munitions." According to The American Conservative, U.S. contingency plans may use conventional and even nuclear weapons against over 40 targets in Iran.

The present situation is similar to what happened in 2002-03 over Iraq. The international community did not favour invading Iraq. The U.S. mounted an energetic campaign to mobilise opinion in the Security Council for a "second resolution" authorising military intervention. Despite its efforts at bribery and coercion, it could not get the required support of two-thirds of the Council's 15 members. It was not just France, Germany, Russia and China, but even small states like Cameroon, Angola, Chile and Pakistan that did not yield. Yet the U.S. went ahead and invaded Iraq.

The real issue is this. What will India do if confronted with a division in the IAEA? Will it behave like the refuseniks of 2003 and chart out an independent, dignified course? Or will it abandon all principle and abjectly capitulate to U.S. pressure, as many "realists" (read, defeatists) in our strategic community are urging it to do in the name of "strategic partnership" and a "historic" nuclear deal with the U.S.?

Besides principle, does India set any store by relations with a friendly country like Iran, with which it has important economic, especially energy, transactions, which are likely to grow with the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project to the collective benefit of all three nations? Does it take regional economic integration seriously, or merely pay lip-service to it? Does India see itself a part of the developing world and the non-aligned concept, or does it delude itself that it has graduated - despite its appalling poverty, and its rank of 127 in the Human Development Index - to the Big League led by a hegemonistic America in search of a global Empire?

Another question arises. Indian supporters of the nuclear bomb claimed that nuclear weapons would help India expand its room for independent manoeuvre in global politics. The opposite has happened. India's effort to get its nuclear status accepted and "normalised" has drawn it into awkward compromises with the Great Powers, especially the U.S. India has had to offer a bargain to Washington in which it would become a "partner" or friendly power - within a deeply asymmetrical relationship. Partnership is no free lunch. The dominant power will lay down the terms of "partnership" and "responsibility"; the subordinate power must contortedly strive to adjust to the terms, sometimes at enormous harm to its interests in some field or other.

Besides, the U.S. is not the kind of power that practises parity or even equitable consultation with its allies. It treats them with disdain, contempt, even hostility - remember Donald Rumsfeld's dismissive remarks about "the old Europe" after France and Germany deferred to the democratic urges of their peoples and refused to join Iraq's invasion?

India's search to maintain and extend its nuclear weapons status will make it extremely vulnerable to all kinds of pressure from the U.S. Right now, the pressure is centred on Iran: choose between Iran with its natural gas, or the West with its nuclear power. As The New York Times reported: "Administration officials have warned India that if it fails to cooperate on Iran, the civilian nuclear energy agreement ... could be rejected by Congress."

However, Washington can, at any time, threaten to block or suspend the implementation of the nuclear deal, or cite resistance from Congress, to drive unequal bargains on trade, agriculture, intellectual property, services, foreign investment. There is not even a remotely reasonable or credible assurance that India can successfully resist such pressure, or indeed that it wants to do so.

As this column has argued right since the Pokhran-II tests, nuclear weaponisation was a historic blunder and a remarkably bad bargain. It has eroded India's security, lowered its global stature, damaged its credibility and turned its image from a pro-disarmament force to a cynical, hypocritical power. It has distorted internal social priorities, and promoted militaristic and macho ideologies. It will also impose huge economic burdens as the nuclear weapons programme proceeds apace. To this must now be added the burden of the July 18 "historic" nuclear bargain, which has further raised India's vulnerability. The need for undoing and reversing Pokhran-II has never been more urgent.

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