Iran’s Nuclear Crisis has Serious Implications for India

Diplomatic arm-twisting on the Iranian nuclear crisis is continuing to undermine the emerging strategic partnership between India and the United States (US). Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, said recently: “We are unhappy with the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India $7 billion gas pipeline project… There could be consequences for countries investing in Iran.” Earlier, Ambassador Mulford had voiced his reservations about the Indo-US Nuclear Deal being approved by the US Congress if India did not vote to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. And, Congressman Tom Lantos has been very vocal in expressing his misgivings about India’s support for Iran at the IAEA.
No single issue has posed as much of a foreign policy challenge for the Congress-led UPA government in India as the ongoing Iranian nuclear imbroglio. Both in September 2005 and in February 2006, India was apparently coerced into voting to hold Iran in “non-compliance” of its safeguards obligations to the IAEA, while China, Russia and Pakistan abstained. This was seen domestically as a meek surrender of India’s strategic autonomy for uncertain future gains and as a move that undermined, even jettisoned, India’s half-century old policy of non-alignment. 
While the Iranian government has categorically ruled out any intentions of acquiring nuclear weapons, India is concerned that the acquisition of uranium enrichment capability may create a propensity to develop nuclear warheads some time in the future. Iran has obtained uranium enrichment technology by clandestine means from Pakistan through Dr. 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. Iran also has an advanced ballistic missile development program with the Shahab-3 IRBM capable of striking targets in western India. Together these two programs are capable of giving Iran a robust nuclear weapons delivery capability. 
As Iran is likely to continue to be governed by a hard-line nationalist regime, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran will add to regional instability in an already unstable neighborhood, particularly when viewed in the light of the ongoing conflict in Iraq that faces the prospects of a civil war and Afghanistan that has seen the resurgence of the Taliban. Saudi Arabia may follow suit and acquire its own nuclear weapons and other neighbors may seek nuclear guarantees. The Prime Minister has highlighted India’s security concerns arising from proliferation activities in India’s extended neighbourhood and favours a solution based on compromises acceptable to Iran and the international community through diplomatic efforts aimed at seeking a consensus in the IAEA. On account of national security considerations alone India’s opposition to Iran’s uranium enrichment program is absolutely justified.
However, India’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions is detrimental to India’s long-standing friendship with Iran and, as a corollary, harmful for India’s energy security, as India is heavily dependent on Iran for its oil and natural gas imports. India's energy relations with Iran extend far beyond the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline. In 2004, Iran offered India a road link to Afghanistan through the Chabahar port, a North-South corridor for access to Central Asia and Russia and long-term cooperation in the field of hydrocarbon energy. In June 2005, the two countries signed a 25-year deal, potentially worth up to US$ 22 billion, under which India would obtain five million tons a year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Iran. Iran granted development rights to India in two Iranian oil fields that are 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. Both countries have also pledged to explore joint investment projects in petrochemicals. All of these deals are now beset by uncertainty. Iran has already reneged on the previously contracted price for natual gas and is now demanding commercial rates. Even though Iran is apparently dragging its feet at present, it is unlikley to use oil as a weapon and withold supplies to India in case India continues to vote against it as that would be detrimental to Iran’s own commercial interests.
No international agreement with Iran will work in the long-term if it does not recognise its 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. 
President Ahmadinejad’s recent overtures have led to prospects of direct talks with the US and Iran may yet prefer to integrate itself with the globalising world to gain in economic and technological terms even though it may lose the capacity to develop its own nuclear weapons, rather than opt to be isolated from the international community. The international community is clear that a civil nuclear energy programme that bestows enrichment capability on a state ruled by a hard-line nationalist regime and one that has been an active state sponsor of terrorism, is a threat to peace and stability and must be curtailed or at least subjected to an intrusive safeguards regime. India must go along with the international community in seeking such an arrangement. 
However, India cannot wish away the crippling impact that economic sanctions and, even worse, military strikes on Iran will have on its energy security and its trade in the region. India must balance the concerns of the international community about Iran’s nuclear ambitions by calling on Iran to respect its treaty obligations under the NPT and IAEA safeguards and give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons. On their part, the Western powers must realise that India can play a positive role in the early resolution of this knotty crisis.
Gurmeet Kanwal is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.