The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) latest report on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme is unsettling but not all that surprising. Iran has made progress on developing the sort of warhead that would allow it to lob a nuclear missile well outside the Persian Gulf. The report also indicates that Iran received technical assistance from a number of foreign experts including Pakistanis. This is not all that remarkable: every covert nuclear programme in the world seems to end up having a Pakistani hand.
India has no interest in Iran getting nuclear weapons. Iran’s actions have been that of a rogue — violating international obligations, playing footsie with black marketeers and seeming to act without care about the consequences of its nuclearisation. The exact opposite of the rules-driven, responsible nuclear power that India has sought to project itself as. India is also concerned about the stability of the Persian Gulf. It is relatively clear that if Iran does nuclearise, Saudi Arabia will seek a nuclear counter by buying into Pakistan’s existing atomic arsenal. And most experts believe that Egypt and Turkey will be quick to follow. A nuclear domino game in the West Asian world would be a security disaster for India, and especially for Gulf stability.
The question is whether India can do much to affect Iran’s calculations. The truth is that it can’t. But Iran is at least not averse to lending India an ear. Both have a potential common interest in shaping the aftermath of a United States withdrawal from Afghanistan. Perhaps they need to be holding a dialogue on the shape of the Persian Gulf in the aftermath of the recent popular Arab revolts. One of the arguments India can make to Iran is that triggering a nuclear domino will undermine Tehran’s rise to be the Gulf’s predominant power. Nuclear weapons are great equalisers.
If Iran stops short of weaponisation and works to reassure its neighbours so they don’t arm themselves accordingly, its status in the Gulf is assured. This would require it to temper its seeming desire to be leader of the Muslim world — something the Arab revolts have made unlikely anyway. It is likely Tehran, consumed by its own internal battles and fears of US power, will not listen. However, India’s stakes in the Gulf are great enough to make it worth an effort. The Agency’s report underlines the fact that a point of no return is approaching.