The Indian vote at the IAEA in Vienna last week has attracted considerable domestic attention and the fact that New Delhi went along with the US-EU position is being interpreted as a case of being anti-Iranian and furthermore, as a betrayal of the non-aligned block and Third World solidarity. This is invalid and the facts as they have emerged need to be carefully analyzed.
Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which it has voluntarily signed as a non-nuclear weapon state. As per this treaty Iran has certain rights and obligations as regards its domestic nuclear activities and the regulation and monitoring of the latter is the responsibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Over the years Iran has embarked upon some nuclear programmes and has been adhering to the safeguards mandated by the IAEA. However in 2002, a group of Iranian dissidents revealed that Tehran was pursuing a covert nuclear weapon programme and this matter caused predictable concern in the global community – particularly the USA – which had prioritized the WMD issue after the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
While India is not a signatory to the NPT, it is a member of the IAEA board and thus the point of relevance for India vis-à-vis Iran is the boardroom in Vienna. Commencing March 2003, the IAEA has been in consultation with Iran over its nuclear programmes and sought clarification regarding its compliance with the various technical provisions that Tehran was required to conform to. These discussions continued for months and in November 2003, the IAEA issued a detailed report in which it noted that Iran had concealed many aspects of its nuclear programme for 18 years. The IAEA concluded that as of end 2003, the Iranian nuclear programme "consists of a practically complete front end of a nuclear fuel cycle" and the various technical features were listed. More importantly the Agency opined that based on the information made available by Teheran, "it is clear that Iran has failed in a number of instances over an extended period of time to meet its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement with respect to the reporting of nuclear material and its processing and use; as well as the declaration of facilities where such material has been processed and stored."
This is the basis on which the Iran issue has been deliberated upon in the IAEA and from November 2003 to the present time, the circumstantial evidence appears to suggest that Iran has been engaging in nuclear activities that it has not declared such as enrichment of fissile material and re-processing of fuel. These are complex technical matters and the IAEA has sought both time and co-operation from Iran to come to an informed assessment about whether or not Iran is pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapon programme – which is the US perception. One cannot deny that while there is a technical angle to the whole Iran issue, there is also embedded a clear political and strategic dimension to the entire debate and the current Bush administration has already identified Iran as a supporter of terrorism and part of the 'axis of evil' nations that are seeking nuclear weapons.
Iran however, has steadfastly maintained that it is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and that it is only seeking to exercise its rights as a non-nuclear weapon state to whom the peaceful use of nuclear energy cannot be denied. Furthermore Iran avers that it needs nuclear energy since its current reserves of hydrocarbons will seen be exhausted, and that in any case, merely since it has oil reserves, it cannot be denied the right to acquire the expertise in the production of civilian nuclear energy. This is a valid position but the exercise of these rights will logically have to be within the framework of the existing regulatory mechanisms – such as the NPT and the IAEA – that Iran has accepted.
From the Indian perspective, the strategic and security logic will indicate that a nuclear weapon Iran would not be in the interests of regional stability and peace. India has also been steadfastly opposed to any nuclear proliferation even though it is not part of the NPT in a formal sense. Critics point out that this is a hypocritical position for India since New Delhi, citing security compulsions, has become a nuclear weapon state after May 1998. It is true that India acquired the nuclear capability and every nation has the inalienable right to defend its core security interests as it deems fit – and Iran is no exception. But in such a case, Iran would have to cite security reasons for its change of position and exercise the right to withdraw from the NPT – as North Korea had done a few years ago – and then the ball-game changes. But for its own reasons, Iran has hidden some aspects of its nuclear activities from the IAEA for 18 years and even now maintains that it is NOT seeking nuclear weapons. If this be the case, the onus lies on Iran to prove its own credibility and profile as a responsible state that abides by its treaty obligations – and the demand the rights that are due to it. India has never questioned Teheran's track record and does not subscribe to the US view that Iran currently constitutes a threat to regional and global security due to its nuclear activities.
But in terms of the prevailing perception about proliferation, doubts linger. The current evidence about Iran suggests that the AQ Khan network was instrumental in providing certain centrifuges and other nuclear know-how to Iran and that this covert traffic had begun as far back as 1987. This was also confirmed by General Musharraf in New York in early September though he denies any state complicity in the matter. Be that as it may, the fact of the matter is that today, after 9-11 and the revelation about the AQ Khan network, the primary global challenge is the degree to which the clandestine nuclear network has encouraged nuclear proliferation. This determination is of crucial importance to countries like India and it is the duty of the IAEA – as the global nuclear watchdog to get to the bottom of the issue. And this is precisely what the IAEA as a collective ought to objectively pursue before taking the matter to the UN Security Council where punitive action may be recommended by some of the permanent members such as the USA. India's current intervention in the IAEA was effective in shaping the draft in such a manner so that the Iran issue was not immediately referred to the UNSC and more time has been made available to all parties. Hence a breakdown was averted – which would have been the more likely exigency if the US-EU position had been adopted. And having worked towards a compromise – which was accepted by the EU – India could not have abstained, for such an action would have negatively impacted New Delhi's credibility in the global community.
Thus it merits repetition that the Indian vote in Vienna was not a vote against Iran but one that was consistent with the principles that India has supported – namely against nuclear proliferation – and about the need to maintain the sanctity of international treaties and regimes. Simultaneously India has managed to avert any escalation of the Iran issue and has encouraged both Iran and the IAEA to arrive at a modus-vivendi in the current impasse. This initiative has ensured that the Iran issue has remained at the diplomatic level with no adverse impact on the oil market and regional stability. All these elements are consistent with India's abiding values and interests and the vote on Iran needs to be viewed in this context and not in a simplistic emotional manner that interprets the vote as an Iran versus India issue. Hopefully if the matter is resolved satisfactorily before the IAEA meets again in November, even Iran may acknowledge that the contribution made by India was in Teheran's long term interests.