Debating India


Nuclear pressures

Thursday 2 February 2006, by CHERIAN *John

Iran’s decision to resume nuclear research prompts another referral to the IAEA, and India again faces the dilemma whether to support its longstanding diplomatic partner or capitulate to U.S. pressure.

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (foreground) with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in Teheran.

AS expected, the United States and the European Union have reacted strongly to Iran’s decision to resume nuclear research.

After informing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran removed the United Nations inspectors’ seals at the pilot uranium enrichment plant in Natanz on January 10. Iran said it took the decision so that research could be resumed on its small-scale uranium enrichment programme to test centrifuges. Full-scale uranium enrichment continues to remain frozen, it explained.

The Iranian leadership has been consistent in its stand that the country has the right to engage in nuclear research. It points out that as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is committed to non-proliferation. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a press conference in Teheran on January 14, once again denied that Iran was interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. He said that Iran was a "civilised nation" that did not need nuclear weapons.

Ahmadinejad reiterated that his country would go ahead with its nuclear programme despite the threats by the West. "All member-countries have the right to use peaceful nuclear technology based on IAEA regulations and the NPT. No amount of effort can limit these rights or prevent member-countries from realising them," said Ahmadinejad. The IAEA has onsite inspectors and cameras monitoring Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme. It is also well-known that the fuel being produced by Iranian enrichment reactors does not produce weapons-grade material. To prepare weapons-grade material, Iran will need thousands of centrifuges, which experts say the country does not possess.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned that if Iran was referred to the U.N. Security Council, it would end all cooperation with the IAEA. Mottaki referred to the resolution by the Iranian Majlis (parliament) passed last year. The resolution stated that "in case Iran is referred to the U.N. Security Council" the government "will be obliged to end all its voluntary cooperation". Iran has been voluntarily allowing inspections at short notice since 2003. Mottaki insisted that Iran would never give up its right under the NPT to possess the whole nuclear fuel cycle, from extracting uranium ore to enriching it. "Nobody can take away this right from the Iranian nation. Regaining this right does not require permission from any country," he said.

The veteran left-winger activist and former Member of Parliament Tony Benn, in an article published in November 2005, recalled that when he was the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Energy in the mid-1970s, Britain offered to share nuclear technology on a large scale with Iran. According to Benn, German, French and U.S. firms were vying with one another to sell nuclear technology to Iran at the time. "Most astonishing of all, in the light of the present discussions, is that the problem of Iran developing such a huge nuclear capacity caused no problems for the Americans because at the time the Shah was seen as a strong ally and had indeed been put on the throne with American help," wrote Benn.

Gordon Prather, a nuclear weapons physicist, said that after almost three years of "go-anywhere, see-anything, interview-anyone inspections, IAEA inspectors have yet to find any indication that Iran has - or ever had - a nuclear weapons programme". The Western media have conveniently glossed over the fact that the Iranians had included "additional protocols" not demanded by the NPT or the IAEA to accommodate Washington’s demands. All experts agree that by breaking the seals Iran has not violated its NPT obligations. Washington and Brussels have said that they are keeping all options open, including economic sanctions and use of force.

THE U.S. and the E.U. decided in the third week of January to refer Iran once again to the IAEA and have called for an emergency meeting in the first week of February. They want Iran to be referred to the Security Council. The controversial IAEA vote last October in which India surprisingly sided with the U.S. and the E.U. against Iran triggered a domestic political crisis in India. Relations with Teheran were also put under temporary strain.

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Iran removed U.N. seals on equipment at its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz (above) and resumed nuclear research on January 10, sparking an outcry from Europe and the United States.

If the issue is put to vote in Vienna next month, New Delhi will once again be caught in a dilemma. New Delhi’s strong reaction to a statement by a top Iranian official indicates a tilt towards Washington. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, in an obvious effort to highlight the dual standards being adopted by the West, had said in the course of an interview with CNN in the third week of January: "In comparing American behaviour to Iran with countries that recently developed nuclear weapons, they [the Americans]... think that in ten years time we will develop nuclear weapons. But compare that to India. It does have nuclear weapons but they [the West] have extensive relations in the nuclear field. This dual standard is detrimental to international security."

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reacted to Larijani’s statement after three days. The MEA spokesman criticised the Iranian official’s reference to India, saying, "India is a responsible nuclear weapons state and has always been in compliance with its obligations under international treaties and agreements." The statement infers that Iran has not been playing by the rules and is resorting to subterfuge in its nuclear programme. This statement could be a precursor to New Delhi once again casting its vote with the U.S. and the E.U.

The MEA’s reaction comes at a time when Iran-India energy talks have reached a crucial stage. However, an influential section within the Indian government seems to prefer siding with the U.S. and the E.U. as the only way in which they can safeguard the "nuclear deal" signed last year with the U.S. American officials have told their Indian counterparts that Iran is on top of their priority list and that they expect India to play ball with them. The Indian establishment is also eagerly awaiting the visit of President George W. Bush in the early part of this year. If the U.S. Congress agrees to the nuclear deal, it will lift a 30-year ban on commerce between the U.S. and India. Washington has asked the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to relax its rules in favour of India.

Indications are that the West will not get the support of Russia and China in the IAEA Board meeting, scheduled to be held in early February. The Europeans have prepared a draft resolution that will call for IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council. The last vote showed that the West could rustle up a simple majority with the help of fence-sitters like India. Russian President Vladimir Putin has cautioned "abrupt, erroneous" steps being taken against Iran and suggested that the entire issue could easily be solved without reference to the Security Council. He pointed out that the Iranians have not rejected Moscow’s offer to conduct uranium enrichment on behalf of Teheran in Russia instead of Iran. The Iranian Ambassador to Russia recently said that it was an "interesting" proposal. China has also cautioned against taking Iran to the Security Council, saying that such a move might lead the Iranian government to cut off all cooperation with the IAEA.

The international community has reasons to fear that a referral to the Security Council could set in motion a chain of events that could trigger a global crisis. If the U.N. puts Iran under a sanctions regime, the latter would snap links with the IAEA. The West could then retaliate with air strikes. Such an outcome would leave Iran with no other option but to disrupt energy supplies. The Iranian President has warned the West that it would face serious consequences. "You need us more than we need you. All of you today need the Iranian nation. Why are you putting on airs? You don’t have that might," the Iranian President said at his press conference. The U.S. Energy Information Administration chief, Guy Caruso, has warned that the world cannot afford a disruption of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. He said international oil prices would immediately shoot up if the West’s dispute with Iran gets out of hand.

Meanwhile, there are orchestrated reports appearing in the Western media that Israel is preparing to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. There was a report in December that said that Israel had acquired dozens of warplanes with long-range fuel tanks to allow them to reach Iran. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, had marked six Iranian nuclear facilities as targets. According to the report, Prime Minster Ariel Sharon had ordered the Mossad chief to devote "utmost efforts" to gather information about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. A report in the Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted Sharon as telling his close associates that "Iran is the greatest danger to Israel" and that he was coordinating intelligence-gathering efforts with the U.S. "down to the last detail".

Recently Israel signed a deal with Germany for the purchase of two submarines that have the nuclear missile capability. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, Israel already possesses between 75 and 130 nuclear weapons. Israeli officials, however, concede privately that taking out Iranian nuclear sites would be an extremely complicated task. Besides, it is unlikely that Washington will give the go-ahead to its ally for a mission of this kind at this juncture. The Bush administration is aware that the Iranian government has the wherewithal to hasten the departure of the U.S. from Iraq as pro-Iranian parties control the levers of power in Baghdad.

See online : Frontline


Volume 23 - Issue 02, Jan. 28 - Feb. 10, 2006

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