05 February 2007

India must have a proactive agenda in Iran

Energy, trade, and transit issues are important but the key task for India is to assert itself as a factor for peace in Washington's looming confrontation with Tehran.

5 February 2007
The Hindu

India must have a proactive agenda in Iran

Siddharth Varadarajan

PRANAB MUKHERJEE'S first official visit to Tehran as External Affairs Minister on Tuesday comes at a time when tension between Iran and the United States is slowly edging towards breaking point. Frustrated by its inability to staunch the steady homeward flow of bodybags, the Bush administration has begun blaming Iran for the surge in Iraqi insurgent attacks on U.S. soldiers there. The latest accusations cap Washington's attempts to put the squeeze on Iran over the nuclear issue. Last December, the U.S. succeeded in getting the United Nations Security Council to impose limited sanctions on Iran for not agreeing to suspend its programme of enriching uranium. Predictably, those sanctions have had no effect on Iranian government policy. So the Bush administration is also threatening European and Asian banks that do business in Iran. The State Bank of India, which is the only Indian bank to operate in both the U.S. and Iran, is coming under pressure to wind up its office in Tehran or face the prospect of being frozen out of the American banking system.

Against the backdrop of all these developments, the U.S. military build-up in Iraq and the Persian Gulf is beginning to look increasingly ominous.

As a neighbour and economic partner of Iran, India has an enormous stake in the way in which the crisis that is shaping up eventually plays out. But despite our proximity, size and interests, India has allowed itself to become a marginal player. By allowing itself to be pushed into voting against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors in 2005, India effectively voted itself off the slate of countries with clout enough to remain engaged with the issue. Iran felt it had lost a valuable friend and potential interlocutor, while the U.S. — which saw how easily India buckled — began to take New Delhi's support for granted.

Mr. Mukherjee should use his visit to Tehran to put India back into the equation. And he can do so by asserting India's fundamental interest in averting war and helping Iran convince the international community that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

Over the past two years, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often declared that it is not in India's interest to have another nuclear weapon state in the region. He is right. But what Mr. Mukherjee needs to assert explicitly is that it is also not in India's interest to have another country in the region invaded or attacked. While in Tehran, therefore, the Minister should state that India opposes the very suggestion that there could be a "military option" as far as resolving the Iranian nuclear issue is concerned. Such a statement coming from a "strategic partner" of the U.S. will help calm the region and send an important message to Washington.

Secondly, Mr. Mukherjee needs to counsel his Iranian interlocutors not to make the mistake of ending their cooperation with the IAEA inspectors. Nor should Iran consider renouncing its adherence to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), since such a step would be treated as a casus belli by the war party in Washington.

Thirdly, in order to help resolve the nuclear issue, Mr. Mukherjee should sound out Iran's willingness to cooperate with a new five-power initiative involving India, Russia, China, Brazil, and South Africa. The initiative should seek to accelerate the process of inspections and scrutiny of documentation related to the P-2 centrifuge programme so that the IAEA can verify — in an efficient and time-bound manner — the fact that there are no undeclared nuclear activities inside Iran. The five powers would also seek to come up with a multinational fuel cycle proposal that would both satisfy the international community's apprehensions about a potential weapons programme as well as Iran's energy needs. Clearly, Iran would have to be willing to resume its adherence to the Additional Protocol. It is possible that the launching of such a new initiative might also induce Tehran to agree to temporarily suspend its fuel cycle activities, in line with UNSC resolutions.

Apart from helping to catalyse a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, Mr. Mukherjee's visit will provide India another opportunity to push its energy and trade ties with Iran. After bruising negotiations over gas prices, there does appear to be light at the end of trilateral pipeline project as well as the reopened LNG deal. As for the proposed Indian involvement in the development of Iranian oil and gas fields, it is important that the External Affairs Minister emphasise that India is opposed to the extra-territorial application of domestic U.S. laws on Indian entities.

As for transit-related issues, India needs to give a push to the trade corridor being constructed from Chabahar, on Iran's Makran coast, to Afghanistan via the new Zaranj-Dalaram highway. When opened, this route would enable Indian goods to flow to Afghanistan despite Pakistan's refusal to grant transit rights for Indian exports.

In the final anaysis, however, it is the preservation of peace that India has to pay first-rate attention to. And Mr. Mukherjee's visit must serve as the first step in a new and proactive Indian initiative to help find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.


Anonymous said...

Mr Siddharth Varadarajan suggests:
.... The five powers (that is, India, Russia, China, Brazil, and South Africa) should seek to come up with a multinational fuel cycle proposal that would both satisfy the international community's apprehensions about a potential weapons programme as well as Iran's energy needs.

The "multinational fuel cycle" as I have understood envisages that only the Nuclear Weapons States have the "right" to supply enriched fuel as well as reprocess spent fuel; all others can only be buyers. India, rightly, has been insisting on its soverign preogative to have full control over the nuclear fuel cycle including reprocessing. Thus India would not [indeed, should not] accede to an imposition of a "multinational fuel cycle", which is an infringement on its sovereignty.

When this is the case, it would be improper for India to harangue Iran to accept any curbs on its rights to pursue nuclear energy technology in a manner that it sees fit and economical. This would apply even if, at some future time, India were to be placed in the position of being a "supplier nation" for enrichment / reprocessing in respect of Iran's nuclear fuel requirements. India should not emulate the US in following one policy for itself and another for the rest of the world.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, anonymous, for your comment. Multinational fuel cycle approaches cover a broad range of initiatives ranging from GNEP (which is the US proposal of dividing the world into suppliers and recipients)to four separate approaches outlined by Bruno Pellaud in a report for the IAEA in 2005 to the proposal the Iranian president himself made at the UN in 2005. The last initiative would involve Iran developing enrichment facilities as a joint venture on its own soil with foreign companies from friendly countries. The involvement of outside countries, on top of the IAEA inspection layer, would provide strengthened assurances to the outside world of nondiversion and nonmilitary applications.

I hope this answers your query -- the MNF approach I think is most suitable would be a variant of the ahmadinejad proposal, with India, Russia, China, Brazil and Safrica all participating at one lever or another.

Anonymous said...

How can anybody with an ounce of reason buy the Iranian story of 'peaceful use of nuclear energy'? Iran,in pursuing a clandestine nuclear program has violated the terms of the NPT, which it had signed as a non-nuclear weapon state. The very fact that for years, the Iranians had clandestinely used the cover afforded to it under the NPT to procure materials and technologies that it would have been denied- as had happened to India, which had shown the moral courage and rectitude to stay outside the ambit of the treaty and pursue it's own interests-calls into question the logic behind trusting the Iranians to keep to their part of the bargain, were they allowed to continue with their nuclear program.

Furthermore, the statements emanating from various countries in the Arabian peninsula on how to counter the "Shia Bomb"-as the Egyptians are calling the Iranian program-would suggest that any further leeway given to Iran would result in countries in the middle-east, with far more financial muscle than Iran would ever have, showing an active interest in their own 'peaceful nuclear programs'. That combined with the statements coming from Ahmedinejad, with regards to Israel's existence, would only push the entire middle-east region that much more closer to a full-blown nuclear war.

Given that India has been unable even to get the slightest concessions from Iran so as to make the gas pipeline project a reality, India's prospects of influencing Iran on the nuclear issue is-at best-suspect.Add to this the Iranian preference for protracted negotiations leading to nowhere, the real danger is of the Iranians using the cover of negotiating with countries like India to buy more time on the nuclear front. The last thing that India needs at present is to play the broker and end up being the jester!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your clarification regarding Multinational Fuel Cycle, Siddharth.

The US said Iraq had WMDs, attacked it and has destroyed the country. What "clandestine" motives did it have? Now it says Iran has a clandestine WMD programme. The country that, with the full knowledge of its destructive potential, clandestinely developed WMDs and actually used them on an unsuspecting live population, without a shred of evidence of sincere remorse, is now playing nuclear bully!

Anonymous said...

The country that, with the full knowledge of its destructive potential, clandestinely developed WMDs and actually used them on an unsuspecting live population, without a shred of evidence of sincere remorse, is now playing nuclear bully!
These anonymous commentators need a crash course in history.