Efforts at the United Nations Security Council towards resolving the Iran nuclear issue do not appear to be getting anywhere. The five nuclear weapon powers who hold veto power in the Council are divided over their approach, with Russia and China refusing to agree to any strong censure of Iran at the Council level, and wanting to leave the issue with the International Atomic Energy Agency for further negotiations.
'What we want to focus on is this message: to reinforce the IAEA, not to replace the IAEA,' said Wang Guangya, Chinese ambassador to the UN. Russia's ambassador Andrei Denisov said his purpose was to decide 'how to better support the IAEA.' The overall expectation, under the circumstances, is that the initial Security Council response will only be a mild one.
India has to refrain from the meaningless rhetoric which has symbolisd Indian involvement in this matter during the past six months, delivered mainly to please the US and its allies. Considering the positions we took in recent months at the IAEA, there is the urgent need for India to make some concerted diplomatic efforts with Iran to repair the strains caused in our relations and to regain its confidence.
In objectively searching for an acceptable solution to this complex issue, we will find more commonality of views with Russia and China, while our improved relations with the US and the European Union should also be used in trying to dissuade them from hard-line approaches. Let us hope that the Government of India seizes this opportunity to productively re-engage itself with the international community on this issue.
It is clear that threats of economic sanctions or military action are not going to deter Iran. Iran is asserting its right, as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to develop indigenous nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, while staying committed to the IAEA safeguards and the associated Additional Protocol applicable to a non-nuclear weapon State.
There cannot be any dispute about this clear right of Iran, and India must vehemently support their right. Let us not forget that the shoe could be on the other foot tomorrow, and India could also be similarly denied what is rightfully ours under the treaties we are party to, for unjust reasons we totally disagree with.
However, India too has acknowledged that Iran has clearly violated its obligations under the NPT. The deep animosity of the US towards Iran dating back to the late 1970s, the support extended to Iraq by the Western powers in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, the US assertion that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons in the 1990s, and the US imposition of decades of sanctions under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act have all pushed Iran to a corner in isolation.
Given these circumstances, Iranians could have come to the logical conclusion that they too should attempt to arm themselves with nuclear weapons if they have to counter potential attacks on them by any of their adversaries. In accepting the clandestine offer of centrifuge technology from Pakistan, and proceeding with its weapon-related activities, there is no doubt that Iran violated its treaty obligations under the NPT. While Iran cannot be condoned of this serious transgression merely because of the circumstances, the international community cannot also overlook this background if it has to arrive at a peaceful solution to the current dilemma.
But, the US continues to insist on their hardline policy against Iran. Their latest position is clearly evident in the testimony given by Nicholas Burns, US Under Secretary for Political Affairs on March 8, 2006 before the House International Relations Committee. He cited several reasons why Iran poses a threat to America's vital interests, including the nuclear issue and Iran's alleged support to international terrorism.
While the US has its long-standing grievances against Iran, a country like India cannot absolve its responsibility to critically and independently examine whether any direct vital interest of ours is indeed threatened by Iran.
The UN action next week may start with a resolution calling on Iran to stop forthwith all uranium enrichment, tentatively re-estabish the Additional Protocol, and return to the multilateral talks with the European Union. Iran is unlikely to heed this call. After the fiasco in Iraq, the US is weary of any unilateral action, and it is grudgingly making all-out efforts to put together a large coalition against Iran. Decades of US economic sanctions have had no significant impact on Iran, and it is unlikely that Russia and China will now agree to any major economic or trade sanctions.
While sanctions may be tried in due course, with very little success, the world runs the risk that Iran may walk out of the NPT and ask all IAEA inspectors to leave the country. Then, what little visibility we have today of the Iranian nuclear activities will also be lost.
It is also unlikely that there will be a consensus in the Security Council for any military action against Iran at any stage. Nor could the US administration and the Congress afford the US entering into one more war or conducting surgical air strikes against Iran, when they are pinned down in Afghanistan and Iraq due to the past military misadventures.
A multifaceted solution in the present circumstances must recognise Iran's fierce sense of pride in wanting to exercise its legitimate right to indigenous R&D work in nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, the need for the world powers to take steps to alleviate Iran's security concerns, and the absolute necessity for the US to offer direct talks with Iran and the withdrawal of all existing sanctions under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act.
The best that the international community can expect to achieve will be to have Iran accept to limit their own enrichment activities to the low-enrichment, small-cascade level without taking it to the commercial or weapon-grade levels, for a mutually agreed initial period of several years.
While agreeing to this, the earlier Russian offer of Iranian participation in a joint commercial-scale uranium enrichment activity on Russian soil must be vigorously pursued. In return, Iran should agree to stay permanently within the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state, agree to full-scope IAEA safeguards in perpetuity on all its activities, and sign and ratify the Additional Protocol.
The above suggestion will not be acceptable at all initially to the Western powers. But India should muster the courage to fall out-of-step with the Western world, if necessary, and join with Russia and China to develop a reasonable solution through a collective dialogue with Iran.
Statements to the effect that India would not like to see another nuclear weapon State in our part of the world are hypocritical, to say the least, and it smacks of American camp-following.
Instead, why is India not taking up the plea for a more rapid decrease in the nuclear arsenals of major weapon States and a move towards universal disarmament along the general lines of the Rajiv Gandhi Plan of 1980? If the world is not willing to respond to this dire need, whether India and its close allies would like it or not, Iran and three or four other countries will certainly become nuclear weapon powers within the next ten to fifteen years.
Dr A Gopalakrishnan is a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of the Government of India. He can be reached at email@example.com