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Nuclear Terror Threat and the Iran Conundrum

April 11, 2010

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is off to Washington for a conclave of more than 40 countries on the Nuclear Security Summit. For India such an initiative from the American President Barack Obama could not have come a day too soon. India is seriously worried about a possible nuclear attack from rogue elements that abound South Asia. Proliferation as it were is not and should not be assumed to be inter-state. The possibility of a small nuclear device falling into the hands of a terrorist organization is a very real possibility. It has been reported for long that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has been trying to lay its hands on a miniature nuclear device that could be used against its enemies in ways that one can only imagine.

The recent treaty between the US and Russia where the two countries agreed on a reduction in nuclear weapons and missiles is a step in the direction for a possible nuclear weapons free world. President Obama called this a small step in a long road ahead. He had also said some time ago that a world free of nuclear weapons may not happen in our life time but that should not discourage us from trying for this ultimate aim. Yes, a world free of nuclear weapons will be a load off the shoulders of mankind. Deep at the back of our minds we are always thinking of the worst case scenario where there is a conflict that escalates into a nuclear war. That is the doomsday scenario and one that is not impossible. The saving grace is that the Cold War is over and the US and Russia have better bilateral ties than ever before. So a full blown nuclear conflict that threatens the existence of mankind is a remote possibility. But the threat of nuclear proliferation is very real. It is the rogue extremist organizations that are a threat now and such pariah’s as North Korea and Iran.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a recent speech remarked that Pakistan and India have made it difficult to have a nuclear equilibrium and that both should cut their nuclear arsenal. While this remark has seen New Delhi react with a bit of indifference and a wee bit of scorn, the fact remains that in the field of nuclear weapons India and Pakistan do have parity. While it will be difficult to ascertain the exact number of nuclear bombs with both India and Pakistan it is true that if Russia and the US can scale down their nuclear arsenal, Pakistan and India can and should have an inventory check too and try and reduce their nuclear stockpile to the bare minimum. Both India and Pakistan claim that their nuclear arsenal is meant for the purpose of deterrence only. If so, they must come out with their wares and start with a clean slate. Israel, wary of the Islamic lobby trying to arm twist them has sent an emissary and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has skipped the Washington meet.

Indian concerns are different from those of Pakistan. While Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions are India centric, India cannot say that our nuclear needs are centered against any one country. We have a regional and strategic environment where nuclear deterrence is not a luxury but a necessity. India would be badly exposed were we to voluntarily abjure nuclear option. India has no expansionist agenda but our internal and external security threats demand that we have a credible nuclear deterrence. Any laxity on this score will amount to hara-kiri. Besides equating Pakistan with India will be a fallacy as while India has an impeccable non-proliferation record the same cannot be said about other nuclear powers in the region including Pakistan. Remember the A.Q. Khan episode.

The new kid in the block is the one that is a conundrum not only for the west but also for India. Iran’s open defiance of the international community and its obdurate insistence on going nuclear is a cause for concern around the globe. Tehran has been saying that they will not enrich to fission levels. They say that their nuclear ambitions are only for peaceful purposes. And yet Ahmedinijad openly defied the west and declared that no one can stop Iran. Tehran has been playing for time. The Middle East and the west are at their wits end as to how to stop Tehran from going nuclear. The US has called for more sanctions against Iran. While Russia and the west have decided that sanctions are the way, China has been reluctant. Even Brazil and India have not been too enthusiastic about sanctions against Tehran. They believe that this will not work and isolation of the regime in Tehran may only increase their resolve to go a step further and detonate a nuclear device. For the US these are steps towards a possible conflagration in the Middle East that many believe is inevitable. The US would love to see a hostile regime go and have a pliable democratic option instead. The Mullahs have been a thorn on the side of the west for long and any change in leadership that is more friendly to Washington will be a relief.

The other fact is that Iran being a largely Shiite  nation, the other Sunnite nations of the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan and others are wary of the rising might of Iran. They see this as a very real threat and would be happy if Tehran were defanged before it acquires the dreaded nuclear bomb. The biggest advocate of ensuring that Tehran does not acquire nuclear weapons however is Tel Aviv. Israel is very clear that the Middle East must remain nuclear weapons free zone. The security of this tiny nation is vital and Washington and the west will do everything in their power to make sure that Israel is not threatened in any way.

With India, things are a bit more complicated. We have had very close ties with Tehran for long. Iran is the gateway to Central Asia for India and with a chaotic, landlocked Afghanistan, the importance of Iran only increases for India. If India turns its back on Tehran it will be New Delhi’s loss. It may be true that nuclear capability that Tehran is acquiring may have come from Pakistan, North Korea and China, but it is also true that India-Iran ties are very close and we cannot turn away from our traditional Persian friends. For one, a Shiite Iran offsets and checks any unholy ambitions that a Sunnite Pakistan harbors against India. Iran also gives India access to Central Asia. Were it not for the dubious credentials that Pakistan possesses India would have gladly gone for the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. It would have been hugely beneficial for India and would have solved our energy needs in the medium and long term. The extent of cooperation between India and Iran can be gauged from the fact that Iran has encouraged India to develop the strategically important Chahbahar port adjoining the Gwadar naval base of Pakistan. India cannot afford to let down her traditional Persian friends.

Yet India would hate to see a nuclear Iran. With missiles that have a range of 2,500 kilometers having been tested by Tehran, Indian cities will be well within the radius of Iranian missiles. And if these missiles have nuclear tipped warheads – that could be a real threat. India is waiting and watching as to how far the west is ready to go. With Obama at the helm, New Delhi is not sure whether the US is ready for another war in the region. New Delhi is therefore hedging its bets. India will resist any further sanctions but will not try and dissuade the west if they decide on any punitive actions against the regime in Tehran. India’s loyalty is with the people of Iran and not with any one leadership. Were there to be a regime change India would not hesitate to build relations with those that will come in power – were such a development to take place. A pro-west leadership would make things easier for India as there will be no conflict of interest, now that India is firmly in the western sphere of influence.

The Washington summit will throw up interesting possibilities. India will be keen to see that there is some real progress in ensuring that nuclear proliferation of any kind is checked decisively. The question of Iran will be a tricky one for Manmohan and his team but one that the west is not unaware about.

Update 18.05.2010: There has been a deal brokered by the irrepressible Lula de Silva and Turkey about shipment of uranium from Iran to Turkey while France and Russia will give Tehran nuclear fuel for their power plants. The effort is commendable and looks like a solution to the problem.

Pravda has reported the arrangement as follows:

An “information bomb” has exploded in Tehran. The heads of foreign policy departments of Iran, Turkey, and Brazil signed an agreement that have been long awaited by the world in light of the situation around the Iranian nuclear program. According to the document, Iran will transfer approximately 1,200 kilos (2,646 lb) of low enriched uranium (up to 3.5%) to Turkey from the reactor located in the city of Natanz.

Meanwhile, Russia and France will process the same amount of their own uranium into 120 kilos of highly enriched fuel (up to 20%) to give it to Turkey later. Turkey, in its turn, will send the fuel to Iran.

The US is non-committal as Obama and de Silva have a very good rapport. Tel Aviv has called the Brazilian president ‘gullible’. The US has declared that both China and Russia are on board for further sanctions against Iran. It is the same old story being repeated. George W. Bush was criticized for going to war against Iraq on flimsy grounds that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s). Looks like Obama is going the Bush way. The question is – does he have a choice? Bush did not, Obama won’t either. So war it will be in the Gulf. Bush was pilloried for doing something he had little control over. Both he and Blair were castigated for the war in Iraq. Can Obama make a media coup by selling the Persian war any better than Bush and Blair could the Iraq war?


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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 26, 2010 3:56 pm

    There is obviously a lot to learn about this. There were some pretty good points.

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