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India and Iran's Nuclear Issue 2002-2010: Strategic Autonomy, Regional Stability, National Security

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  • February 25, 2011
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Ambassador Arundhati Ghose
    Discussants: Ambassador K C Singh & Professor P R Kumaraswamy

    Rajiv began his presentation by delineating the theme of his paper. In the introduction, he noted that given the fact that Iran is part of India’s extended strategic neighbourhood, the Iranian nuclear issue has generated a lot of ‘heat and dust’. He pointed out that the aim of his paper is to distil the Indian government’s policy as well as the nature of the debates in India regarding the Iranian nuclear issue. In this regard, three broad themes can be discerned in the Indian reactions to the Iranian nuclear issue: ‘Strategic autonomy’ as it relates to India’s foreign policy decision making;’ Regional stability’ as it relates to events in its “proximate neighbourhood”, the term used by India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao; and ‘National security’ implications on account of operative clandestine proliferation networks.

    Rajiv noted that strategic autonomy has been and continues to be a cardinal ordering principle of India’s foreign policy practise, as Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Sign has called it an ‘article of faith” for India. On the Iran nuclear issue, India had to take positions at multi-lateral forums like the IAEA and UNSC since the issue was becoming internationalised. While explaining the Government of India’s position on Iran issue, Rajiv noted that India is walking a tightrope. India voted against Iran at IAEA. However, India also supported diplomacy and consultations at multilateral forums where initiatives were undertaken to find solutions to the Iranian nuclear impasse. Apart from these efforts, India did profess its intention to act as a conduit to help in the resolution of the issue. He noted that in August 2005, for instance, in reply to a Lok Sabha debate on his visit to the United States, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed out that India could act as a “bridge reconciling differences between Iran and the other country”.

    Rajiv noted that on the domestic front, the left parties were against India’s decision to vote against Iran at the IAEA. While BJP was not against the Indian decision per se, but it was critical of the government for its manner of dealing with the Iranian issue. He noted that the US factor has been crucial in India’s Iran policy. Ahead of the second IAEA vote, then US Ambassador to India David Mulford had warned that the Indo-US nuclear deal could “die” and US congress would “simply stop considering the matter” if India did not vote against Iran at the IAEA.

    Discussing regional strategic stability, he pointed out that implications on the regional stability of the possible presence of another additional nuclear weapon power in India’s ‘proximate’ neighbourhood have figured prominently in Indian considerations. Citing several statements by Indian officials, he noted that Indian policy makers were wary or pessimistic about the possibility of another nuclear weapon power in their ‘proximate’ neighbourhood. Mentioning about India’s proliferation pessimism, Rajiv noted that India’s pessimism does not seem to be embedded in fears about weak Iranian nuclear organisations but due to the impact on regional security of the spread of sensitive technologies and capabilities.

    While discussing about national security imperatives, Rajiv noted that Iran-Pakistan linkages on nuclear linkages have been revealed by IAEA reports. It stretches as far as back 1987, with Iran informing the IAEA in October 2003 that it received “drawings of the centrifuge through a foreign intermediary”. These linkages were highlighted again when in Mach 2010, the Washington Post revealed Pakistani government complicity in giving Iran “bomb-related drawings, parts for centrifuges to purify uranium and a secret worldwide list of suppliers.” This information has been reportedly found in a 11-page document written by A. Q. Khan.

    In conclusion, Rajiv noted that in the Indian responses to the Iranian nuclear issue, the most important factor has been the issue of independence in Indian foreign policy decisions making, specifically as it related to interactions with the United States. He, however, noted that despite hiccups on account of the nuclear question, there has been a steady stream of interactions at the highest levels between India and Iran, including the conduct of strategic dialogues. He pointed out that the next one or two years could be crucial with regard to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, and suggested that India’s diplomatic efforts should be focussed on reducing the range of ‘unsatisfactory strategies’ (NSA Shivshankar Menon’s term describing US options vis-a-vis Iran in a Wikileaks cable) and expand the space for the application of ‘satisfactory strategies”. He noted that Indian diplomacy has its task cut out, especially as these two years coincide with its non-permanent membership in the UNSC.

    Points raised during discussion

    • It is a very well researched paper. However, author needs to explore the Indian dilemma while analysing India’s Iran policy.
    • India came close to Iran when Taliban captured Afghanistan but now situation has changed. Iran has been involved in creeping nuclear proliferation activities. The United States has gone after Iran. Iranians wanted to buy time aimed at tiring out the United States. Since India wants closer cooperation with the United States, it would be worth looking at whether India could have handled Iran policy differently. Was there any alternate way available?
    • Earlier Iran was preachy to India with regard to nuclear non-proliferation since it is a NPT signatory and India is not. But Iran was not satisfied as India got several benefits without being a member of the non-proliferation regime which Iran could not get despite being a signatory. On nuclear issue, India has never agreed with Iran.
    • India’s Iran policy during UPA-I was different from that being followed by the UPA-II government.
    • Every nation calls itself strategically autonomous. In fact strategic autonomy is a very relative concept. No nation is fully autonomous, not even the United States.
    • India cannot be a bridge. To be a bridging power, a nation needs to be between the two sides. Dealing with the Iranians is very difficult. India should not attempt to be a bridge as it could be knocked out by either side while attempting to play that role. To be a bridge, we must understand the fundamental problems of both sides. There is a need to look whether there is convergence of interest.
    • Author needs to explore whether there is any strategic autonomy in India with regards to Iran. He needs to take a step further. He needs to critically examine the statements given by Prime minister and other documents and take his own stand.
    • The LNG deal went through problems after New Delhi signed the energy deal with Tehran. Where did India go wrong?
    • China supported the UN sanctions against Iran. While analysing the domestic debate, there is need to look at whether this reflected on the positions taken by the left parties in India.
    • South Asia is a strategic liability for India whereas West Asia is an opportunity. Iran is very important for India because of its energy resources.
    • There are non-parallel interests involved in India-Iran ties. On energy issue, India wants cooperation with Iran while on nuclear issue India is opposed to Iran’s nuclear programme.
    • Author has structured the paper very well. However, paper needs to be more focused with regard to its objectives.
    • Author needs to look at whether there is any divide between government and influential groups such as media, think tanks, etc. Is there any government stand on regional stability?
    • In the paper, strategic autonomy has been dealt at significant length but regional stability and regional security have been given less coverage. The paper may need some restructuring in order to make it appear even.
    • There is a need to examine what a nuclear Iran would mean for India’s national security interests.
    • It is also necessary to look at the role of minority politics in India while understanding the domestic political debate in India vis-à-vis Iran.
    • Thanking the speakers for their useful comments and suggestions, Rajiv noted that the Iran issue is over shadowed by the US factor. Iran could be a major worrying point in the future of India-United States relations. He noted that keeping in mind the prescribed word limit, he would incorporate these suggestions as much as possible.

    Report is prepared by Sanjeev Kumar Shrivastava, Researcher at IDSA.