January 16, 2006Foreign Affairs

Declaring the hand on Iran

The onus is on the permanent members of the UN Security Council. India must not stand in the way

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Last November, The Acorn had argued that India must leave it to the permanent members of the UN Security Council to decide to defend or punish Iran on the nuclear issue. Indeed, the permanent members — including the United States, Russia and China — have attempted to keep this tricky business off their common table so as to avoid having to take tough decisions that affects their interests. The United States is reluctant to call Iran’s bluff, or have its own called. Russia and China have substantial commercial interests at stake.

Compared to what they will be forced to bear for punishing Iran, India’s costs are much smaller. And indeed, should the UN Security Council succeed in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, India will stand to benefit too, for it is hardly reasonable to argue that yet another neighbour — with Pakistan-assisted warheads and North Korea-designed delivery mechanisms — is somehow in India’s interests.

It is fashionable to cite energy security: India has concluded natural supply agreements and a pipeline project with Iran. Also, India is Iran’s largest supplier of refined petrol. These interests, some argue, will be at risk should India vote to refer Iran to the Security Council. But cutting off supply hurts the supplier too, more so if the supplier’s economy is under international economic sanctions. After first threatening to call the LNG deal off after last November’s vote, the Iranian regime hastily reaffirmed that the deal would still go through. But those who argue (in the name of an independent foreign policy, of course) that India should allow itself to be held to ransom due concerns over energy supplies fail to consider the eventuality of a regime change in Iran. It is not unreasonable to assume that a new regime in Tehran will tear up the contracts that helped prop its predecessor up.

Apologists for the first IAEA vote against Iran last September say that if the Americans are insisting on an `either-or’, it is in India’s interest to choose nuclear cooperation with Washington over hydrocarbons from Iran. What they do not realise is that a country of India’s strength has the political and diplomatic ability to get both. What they also do not realise is that the slightest indication of Indian willingness to allow the U.S. to dictate its strategic choices will only lead to Washington trying to extract even more.

India’s vote against Iran, for example, led the U.S. to try and impose new conditions that ran counter to the letter and spirit of the July 18 nuclear agreement. Among these were the demand that India accept in-perpetuity safeguards and give up its claims — as recognised in that agreement — to exactly the same rights and obligations in the nuclear field as the U.S. With the negotiations on civilian-military nuclear separation keenly poised, the Manmohan Singh Government should resist the temptation to blink for the second time. [Siddharth Varadarajan/The Hindu]Siddharth Varadarajan argues that India has the strength to challenge the United States if it were to frame it as an either-or’ decision. Yet, in the very next sentence, he argues that India will lack the strength to hold out against Washington after yielding on Iran. Unless of course it is Iran that is the source of India’s political and diplomatic strength (which Indians have perhaps mistakenly attributed to their growing economy and democracy). In K Subrahmanyam’s words, India is an elephant that no American can treat as a pet. Indeed, even the either-or’ framing is bogus. India needs to both deepen its engagement with the United States on one hand, and invest more in nuclear power generation on the other. Other than working out a compromise that allows India to develop its nuclear industry and maintain a credible nuclear arsenal, the only options it has available are to wait until the nuclear powers either decide to admit it as a full nuclear power or decide to practice universal disarmament. Like souvenirs that tourists pack into their suitcases, these options are aesthetically pleasing, but practically useless.

American negotiators are certain to drive a hard bargain, especially on a deal that goes against decades of foreign policy dogma. But voting in favour of Iran will not, as Varadarajan argues, necessarily strengthen India’s negotiating position. On the contrary, it may only strengthen America’s non-proliferation ayatollahs (the irony of the term ) and end up wrecking the deal. So it is voting in favour of Iran that risks giving truth to the either-or’ scenario.

In fact, now more than ever, it is clear that the Iranian regime has decided on a course of confrontation on the nuclear issue. It is also clear that it is unwilling to accept any compromise that does not leave it with a capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium at short notice, perhaps within months. Iran’s centrifuges are of Pakistani vintage. But how deep and how recent is their nuclear nexus? No one knows. Voting to shield Iran, however, means that no one will ever know (thanks, Harsh Pant). The time to read and interpret terms of the NPT to see whether all this is allowed is over. What the UN Security Council intends to do about it is a problem, but for other people. India should let them solve it.

Related Link: Secular-Right examines Iran’s nuclear motives in the al-Aqsa constraint

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