How can Iran be made to stop enriching uranium? How soon, if not already, before Iran starts using this uranium for a weapons program? Will Obama suport an Israeli strike on Iran? Or, perhaps the US will initiate military action itself? What are the effects of the current American and EU sanctions, will they cripple the regime? Will Russia, China, and India finally cooperate with the EU and US on sanctions? Will Iran block the Strait of Hormuz?
These are some of the questions that foreign policy makers, commentators, and journalists have been obsessing about the past fortnight.
India’s second largest supplier of oil is Iran; Iran is also a vital part of the western asian regional security architecture, especially with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. India thus has plenty at stake. However, characteristic of our foreign policy thinking, India has failed to articulate a clear position on the Iranian situation. Rather, Pranab Mukherjee stated that India will not cooperate with the sanctions as it has pressing energy needs which it can not ignore. India will make 45 percent of payment for Iranian oil in rupees, and thereby remain outside the realm of sanctions; part of the rupee payments will also be deposited in two private Iranian banks, escaping also the sanctions imposed on state-owned Iranian banks.
While India seems to have found a way around the sanctions at the moment, this mostly amounts to buying time. If the sanctions extend to even private Iranian banks in June, as Obama promises, the rupee option will look increasingly bleak.
India will do well to take an actual position on the stand-off between Iran and the West, else it will be relegated to being a mere spectator in an area vital its strategic interests. Moreover, membership of the great-power club requires taking a policy stand on issues, not employing merely a series of reactive tactics, from one situation to the next.
If india wants to be taken seriously and guard its vital interests, it might consider the following.
first, iran is not actually in violation of international law. The IAEA has stated in no unclear terms that there is no evidence of a weapons program, and that Iran has not violated international law. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), member states are permitted to have nuclear weapons capability, and the legal red line according to the NPT’s ‘Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement’ is the diversion of nuclear material to a weapons program. However, multiple experts and official reports have confirmed over the years that no such program exists.
second, as R.Scott Kemp, a Princeton research scholar highlights, under international treaties aimed at preventing nuclear proliferation, if a state begins uranium enrichment, this comes with the obligation to be open to international inspections. iran currently has inspectors monitoring the Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilitates, and has been generally cooperative with IAEA inspections. If Iran ends uranium enrichment, it is no longer under obligation to be open to international inspection; this means that it could in fact have greater freedom in constituting a nuclear enrichment and weapons program in secret. accordingly, continuing to allow Iran to enrich uranium might be the best way to prevent iran from developing nuclear capability.
third, consider iran’s security environment, and it seems unlikely that iran will ever completely give up its nuclear program. the US has orchestrated regime change in iran once before ( the United States overthrew Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, supporting the Shah afterward) and US military bases surrond Iran ( see this map from informed content); Obama, at the recent State of the Union address stated: “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.” Israel has numerous nuclear heads and some speculate, and with good reason, that Israel was behind the recent murder of iranian scientists. The difference in the international community’s response to North Korea and Libya has also reminded the Iranian leadership about the importance of a nuclear deterrence; the American occupation of Iraq an Afghanistan, while simultaneously wooing Pakistan, drives home a similar point. The nuclear capability option provides Iran with an essential insurance policy; moreover, in the event that fuel supply is disrupted by future military strikes, it makes sense for Iran to stockpile more enriched uranium than they need right now for their research reactor. Even critics of the regime are aware of the threats Iran faces; a 2010 University of Maryland survey noted that 55 per cent of Iranians support the pursuit of a nuclear program, and 38 per cent support the building of a nuclear bomb, that even the worst critics of the regime support Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear programme, especially in light of the bellicose regional environment.
fourth, the sanctions are not really aimed at the nuclear program, but regime change. to get the sanctions lifted, iran would have to release political prisoners, cease violent repression of protestors, take steps towards establishing an effective judiciary etc. While these might be laudable goals,they are clearly far beyond the ambit of the NPT. the threat of iran developing nuclear weapons capability is simply being used to re-order the Iranian state, with the false claim that it is violating international law. it is worth noting that conflict is fundamentally built into the logic that any foreign regime that is not similar to us in values and mind-set, should be replaced by a regime more friendly and capable of advancing our interests in the region.Given these provisions, the Iranian leadership could justifiably thinking that regardless of what action it takes with regard to its nuclear programs, the sanctions will remain – so why cooperate with the IAEA?
fifth, all this being said, there is a case to be made for re-defining national interests. national interests are not fixed; nor is the hierarchy of interests necessarily ordered in a particular manner. US-Iran relations thus do not have to be dictated by a zero sum logic. The US and Iran in fact share common interests in Central Asia, in increasing regional trade and stability; stability in Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of terrorism from Al Qaeda and the Taliban; the reincorporation of Iran into the international community; and no war.
One option is that the IAEA and UNSC could accept an Iranian civil nuclear program, on the condition that Iran grants inspectors full access. Or, as suggested by the 2010 deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil, but rejected by the US, Iran coud stop its enrichment in exchange for foreign supplies uranium fuel plates for its research reactor.
What is clear is that Iran is within its rights, and is unlikely to give up its enrichment program. Military strikes will be de-stabilizing, catastrophic, an unjustified act of war that will attract retaliation. The conversation thus needs to shift from eliminating nuclear capability to improved monitoring. India must play a more active role in shifting this conversation, else it risks becoming a spectator in its own back-yard.