The one country to greet North Korea’s nuclear test with silence was Iran. Part of the “axis of evil”, Tehran has been under scrutiny for its uranium enrichment programme. Even India voted twice — in September 2005 and February 2006 — to send the Iranian nuclear programme to the United Nations Security Council from the purview of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But before it gets to Tehran, the UN has to deal with Pyongyang, giving the former time to pursue its nuclear ambitions.
“Iran needs time to weaponise,” says Arundhati Ghosh, former envoy to the Conference on Disarmament. “Though it is too sophisticated to go the North Korea way, why else has it been shopping for nuclear weapons technology?” she asks, pointing out that Tehran chose to shop at Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan’s nuclear Wal-mart, which supplied North Korea and Libya as well.
Iran, as a member of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), “has a legitimate right to civil nuclear power technology, but no one is buying their explanations about the highly enriched uranium found in some of their centrifuges,” Ghosh says.
India has not raised much of a fuss over the A.Q. Khan network because it would seem like propaganda, Ghosh says. K. Santhanam, former head of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), agrees that now is not the time for an “unnecessary swipe at Pakistan”.
But, senior officials say, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during a meeting in Havana last month, urged Iranian President M. Ahemdinejad to abide by NPT obligations not to proliferate. And after the Pyongyang test, India’s official spokesman, Navtej Sarna said “the test highlights the dangers of clandestine proliferation”.
“We are threatened directly by proliferation,” Ghosh says. “Unlike North Korea, the threat from proliferation is an existential one for us,” which is why India takes every opportunity to raise the threat. IDSA’s Commodore Uday Bhaskar adds, “The world needs to focus again on the whole pattern of assistance to North Korea from Pakistan.”
“The test just goes to show that you cannot sweep (proliferation) under the carpet,” a senior MEA official says.
With China and Russia joining hands with the US to agree on imposing some form of sanctions on Iran, Tehran’s bluff appears to have been called. Tehran has threatened to retaliate with dire consequences, including walking out of the NPT. But, officials say, Iran would be hurt by sanctions; though a major oil producer, it has limited refining capabilities, and depends on other countries, including India, to refine its crude petroleum.
In principle India does not favour coercion, but it is unlikely to oppose economic sanctions against Iran, even though it imports seven per cent of its crude from Tehran.
“As a government, we speak in nuances, not raising uncomfortable issues like sponsorship of terrorism with ‘friendly’ countries like Iran,” a senior official says, “but repeated use of terms like clandestine proliferation, even by the Prime Minister, lays emphasis on the reality of the threat to us. After all, the irresponsibility of proliferators can lead to sales of dangerous technology and equipment to non-state actors posing a direct threat to us.”