A nuclear Iran is not in India’s interest

IRAN continues to relentlessly pursue its goal to enrich uranium despite the entreaties as well as threats of the international community. For India this has led to diplomatic arm-twisting that is undermining the country’s emerging strategic partnership with the United States (US). 
In the event of a US showdown with Iran, the recently negotiated 123 Agreement with India may not pass muster with the US Congress unless India comes out strongly in support of whatever steps the US-led international community proposes to take. 
There are enough indicators to this effect. Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, had said a few months ago: “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 David C. 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. Congressman Tom Lantos and some other members of the US Congress have been extremely vocal in expressing their misgivings about India’s support for Iran at the IAEA and its energy ties with that country. 
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. 
It was also viewed as being 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. 
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. 
It could in due course develop nuclear weapons and may even 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. It already has an advanced ballistic missile development programme. The Shahab-3 IRBM is capable of striking targets in western India. 
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 neighbourhood. Saudi Arabia may then follow suit and acquire its own nuclear weapons and other neighbors may seek nuclear guarantees. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has highlighted India’s security concerns arising from proliferation activities in India’s extended neighbourhood. On account of national security considerations alone India’s opposition to Iran’s uranium enrichment programme is completely justified. 
No international agreement with Iran 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 – the antics of its current President notwithstanding. 
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’s interests also lie in the same direction and India must fully endorse and support any measures that the United Nations Security Council might take to convince or cajole Iran into honouring its safeguards commitments and other treaty obligations – even if it comes to imposing UN sanctions if all other means fail to achieve the desired results. 
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 with its growing energy requirements. 
India must call 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. In order to obtain India’s support, they must also ensure that India’s energy needs are met through alternative means, particularly when a showdown becomes inevitable. 
The writer is a Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.