India’s tough choices over Iran imbroglio

No issue has posed as much of a foreign policy challenge for the UPA govt as the Iranian nuclear imbroglio.
The Iranian scientists’ spectacular declaration of Iran’s enhanced nuclear enrichment capabilities by way of a new generation of centrifuges, in the presence of president Ahmedinejad, has sent shockwaves around the world. 

Israel appears to be ready to launch air strikes to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities and the United States, which has imposed tough new economic sanctions unilaterally, may follow suit.

India and China have stayed away from the new economic sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States on Iran and have come in for some sharp criticism, particularly from US congressmen. Diplomatic arm-twisting on the Iranian nuclear crisis is continuing to undermine the strategic partnership between India and the US. No single issue has posed as much of a foreign policy challenge for the Congress-led UPA government as the ongoing Iranian nuclear imbroglio.

Nuclear warheads

While the Iranian government continues to rule out any intentions of acquiring nuclear weapons, India is concerned that the acquisition of advanced uranium enrichment capability may eventually lead to the development of nuclear warheads.

Indian policy makers and analysts are apprehensive that nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of Islamist fundamentalists who may use these as weapons of terrorism. Iran has obtained uranium enrichment technology by clandestine means from Pakistan through  A Q Khan and may, in turn, pass on this technology to terrorist groups either as a state policy or through lax procedures that may be exploited by scientists with fundamentalist leanings. Also, an Iran-Pakistan nexus cannot be ruled out in future even though their present relations are lukewarm. Iran also has an advanced ballistic missile development programme with the Shahab-3 IRBM having been adequately tested. On account of national security considerations alone, India’s opposition to Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, which violates Iran’s treaty and safeguards obligations, is absolutely justified.

India has a rapidly growing appetite for hydrocarbons to sustain its eight per cent per annum growth rate and Iran is one of India’s leading suppliers. Currently India imports over 70 percent of its requirement of oil and natural gas. Of this, 12 per cent comes from Iran. India’s energy relations with Iran extend well beyond the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline, which the US opposes. 

In June 2005, the two countries signed a 25-year agreement potentially worth up to US$ 22 billion, under which India would obtain five million tons a year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Iran. In connection with this deal, Iran granted development rights to India in two Iranian oil fields that are potentially capable of generating 60,000 barrels per day in production. In another deal, Iran awarded India development rights to a block in the North Pars gas field, but this has not yet fructified. 

While the ongoing stand-off will not result in a major breakdown in Indo-US ties, it will dampen India’s enthusiasm for greater depth and sustained cooperation in the nascent strategic partnership. It will also have a debilitating impact on India’s civil nuclear energy programme, which cannot flourish without advanced western nuclear reactor technology and safeguarded nuclear fuel. 

In a suo motu statement in Parliament on February 17, 2006, prime minister Manmohan Singh had highlighted India’s security concerns arising from proliferation activities in India’s extended neighbourhood and favoured a solution based on compromises acceptable to Iran and the international community through diplomatic efforts aimed at seeking a consensus in the IAEA. 

No agreement will work in the long term if it does not recognise Iran’s right to produce or process its own nuclear fuel under mutually agreed IAEA safeguards. This is not only a key clause of the NPT but was conceded in the Paris agreement signed in November 2004 by the EU-3 and Iran. The best way to ensure that Iran is never tempted to make nuclear weapons will be to address its security concerns and accommodate it as a major regional actor that is now showing increasing willingness to play a more responsible role in international affairs. 

However, India has made it abundantly clear that it stands for Iran respecting its treaty obligations under the NPT and IAEA safeguards and giving up the pursuit of nuclear weapons. 

Continuing economic sanctions and, even worse, military strikes on Iran, will have serious repercussions for India’s strategic environment and its energy security. India must balance the concerns of the international community about Iran’s nuclear ambitions with the advantages of close ties that are in India’s interests.