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Fair share of nuclear power

Though at the centre of a controversy, Iran isn't the one stirring up the global pot, writes MK Bhadrakumar.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2006 09:16 IST

The Iran nuclear issue is touching yet another point of criticality. The build-up was evident to the naked eye, the crescendo almost predictable. It was six weeks ago that Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, expressed Teheran's frustration that EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) was stonewalling in the negotiations, meandering into blind alleys, lost in thoughts.

The UN’s chief weapons inspector in Iraq and a former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Hans Blix corroborated on December 9: “I am not convinced that the EU has offered sufficiently interesting things to the Iranians. Iran had been told that it could expect WTO membership, access to spare parts for its Boeing aircraft, and a fuel supply guarantee. But when you compare these things that have been offered to Iran with what has been offered to North Korea, I am not sure that one is at the negotiations' end”.

Blix suggested EU could do more, “but I think they are also restrained by the backseat driver whom they have in the car, the Americans”.

In the event, at the meeting held in Vienna on December 21, EU-3 had nothing to offer. Europeans merely suggested that Iran should agree to discussions based on a Russian ‘proposal’ that Iran's nuclear stockpile be enriched in Russia and the nuclear fuel sent back to Iran. This was a clever ploy in so far as if Iran entered into protracted discussions (given the sheer abstractness of Russian ‘proposal’), the moratorium on its nuclear activities would stay put, and the real purpose served. On the other hand, if Iran refused to discuss the Russian ‘proposal’, that would of course be ‘intransigence’, which, in turn, could be used to nudge Russia (and China) to drop their objections to Security Council sanctions against Iran!

The Americans felt thrilled over Western ingenuity. A virulent campaign began denigrating President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, hoping to create disarray within the Iranian leadership, and triggering an implosion or ‘regime change’. But, Iranians (who after all invented the chess game) had other ideas.

They opened discussions with the Russians directly and alongside ended their moratorium on nuclear research activities, after duly notifying IAEA under the NPT provisions that the activities would be under IAEA inspection.

What were the Iranian calculations? First, Teheran concluded that it was futile to talk to EU-3 within prevailing equations. Secondly, Iranians seized the moment for getting out of the entrapment of its moratorium without probably having to face UN Security Council sanctions or American military strikes. Thirdly, the nuclear programme has become a national issue in Iran. Teheran concluded that national solidarity deterred outside intervention.

Finally, Iran had no choice but to call the European bluff, and, in turn, expose the U.S.’s double standards. It is nobody's case that Iran has a dedicated nuclear weapons programme. The CIA’s best guess is that even if Iran decides to have a weapons programme, it will take 10 years to develop a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, Iran does not have to seek anyone’s permission to restart its nuclear research activities. To quote Iran’s top negotiator, Javad Vaeedi, “The fact that we informed the IAEA in writing regarding our intention to resume research activities (from January 9) shows we don't want to keep anything clandestine but we want to work under full IAEA supervision”. The 2-year moratorium was voluntary and temporary. Moreover, research activities became necessary since U.S. deliberately denied Iran access to technology despite its rights under NPT.

Teheran’s decision opens a can of worms by highlighting the inequities of the nuclear order. This has prompted the five nuclear weapon states to come together to make a common demarche that parties concerned “exercise restraint, keep patience, and make more efforts to enhance mutual trust” and to actively strive for a resumption of negotiations.

The scope for compromise is still open. Devolving upon Russia's offer to enrich uranium for Iran (second round of negotiations is to take place in Moscow on February 16), a solution could emerge reconciling Iran's search for nuclear energy and concerns of nuclear non-proliferation. For Iran, this involves a policy issue as well as a public relations issue. Certainly, from the ‘international community’, a measure of honesty and fairness would help in addressing Iran’s legitimate security concerns and its need of technology and capital for development.

But this may not be the preferred route for the U.S. Washington would like to isolate Iran. It has a broader agenda concerning Iran's influence as a regional power, preservation of Israel’s regional dominance, and Teheran's lengthening shadows on the Arab street over issues of democratisation of the Middle East. And, overarching all this lies the unspoken core issue of Iran's fabulous oil wealth increasingly getting “locked in” by the great energy guzzlers of the 21st century — while the U.S. stood by watching.

Meanwhile, western media disinformation has begun about where exactly Russia and China (or India) will stand if the push comes to a shove. Russia has come under renewed American pressure. Moscow needs to balance its huge economic stakes in relations with Iran against the imperative of avoiding confrontation with the U.S., its self-interest in perpetuating the “nuclear club’s” exclusivity as well as impulses emanating out of its status while presiding over G8.

China on its part is adhering to its principled position that “Iran nuclear issue should be resolved within the framework of the IAEA. In the current context (as of January 10), the most feasible approach is still the negotiation between the three EU countries and Iran…the EU expects a further positive role by China. We have taken note of this wish, and have stayed in close touch with all parties concerned, so as to translate our joint effort into a real outcome, that is to say, to re-launch the negotiation between the EU and Iran and to strive for progress”.

As things stood at the moment, if the nuclear issue were to be put to vote at the IAEA for UN Security Council referral, Russia and China would stick to their previous stance — and abstain.

Herein lies the rub. Even if the issue were to be hauled to the UN Security Council, would the EU countries want sanctions to be imposed on Iran? The EU's trade turnover with Iran exceeds 21 billion dollars. Besides, in these troubled times when the Middle East is on the boil with Hamas, Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood inexorably on the march, when Ariel Sharon is leaving behind an empty stage in Jerusalem, when oil sells at 60 dollars a barrel, when an ‘exit strategy’ eludes the ‘coalition of the willing’ marooned in the Iraqi quicksand and when Afghanistan stands poised on the razor's edge, who wants confrontation with Iran?

Vladimir Lenin's famous words come to mind, when he wrote in his column in ‘Pravda’ on 11 April 1913: “When it is not immediately apparent which political or social groups, forces, and figures advocate particular proposals and measures, one should always ask, ‘Who stands to gain?’”

The UPA government would do well to ask that question if called upon by Washington to vote yet again like a sleepwalker over an issue of profound consequences to India's long-term interests.

(The writer is a former ambassador of India to Islamabad, Tashkent, Kabul and Moscow)